MURRAY, Ky. — James Kane was hungry. That’s an important element of the biggest diamond-in-the-rough discovery in college basketball in many years.
Then a Murray State assistant coach, Kane had driven seven-plus hours from this bucolic town in the southwestern corner of Kentucky to Spartanburg Day School in upstate South Carolina. It was July 2016, peak recruiting season. The coaches at power programs were taking private jets to the high-profile camps and tournaments to watch prospects. Kane was slogging across several southern interstates to see a humble AAU combine, primarily to babysit a prospect who had been at the top of Murray’s recruiting board for months, guard Tevin Brown of Alabama.
When Kane arrived at the school, he needed something to eat. He was directed to a concession stand outside the main gym, where he purchased some chips. Then he heard basketballs bouncing in the auxiliary gym and poked his head in.
“The rest,” said combine director Anthony Ricks, “kind of became history.”
Kane’s curiosity led him to serendipitously lay eyes upon Temetrius “Ja” Morant, a skinny, 6-foot-3 guard from Dalzell, South Carolina, who was heading into his senior season. Nobody knew the kid then. Everyone, at every level of basketball, knows him now. Ja’s near-impossible ascent from unranked prospect to viral college sensation to potential top-five NBA draft pick began then and there, in an auxiliary gym off the beaten recruiting path.
Morant was playing three-on-three, and Kane was intrigued by his smooth handle. After the game, Morant grabbed a ball and threw down a windmill dunk, and Kane’s fascination grew.
He approached Ricks and asked who the kid was. Ricks told him he was a late entry to the combine, one of a handful of local guys brought in to fill out rosters. Ricks pointed Kane to the man wearing a GoPro camera on his head who had been filming the three-on-three game.
That was Tee Morant, Ja’s father, equal parts muse and martinet, a former college player whose own stalled career led him to pour his hoop dreams into his oldest child. Tee used the GoPro to record Ja’s games in hopes that someone would finally pay attention, someone would at last see the talent bursting forth from his son. To that point, Ja’s only scholarship offers were from low-major schools South Carolina State and Maryland-Eastern Shore, and in recruiting terms it was getting late in the game.
Kane introduced himself to Tee, took down his number and said he would be back the next day to watch Ja play five-on-five. Kane was in the stands when Ja and Brown guarded each other, each scoring in the neighborhood of 30 points. In disbelief that more schools weren’t in on Ja, Kane’s intrigue morphed into urgency.
He called his boss, Murray head coach Matt McMahon, and called his shot: “This kid’s going to be a pro. Whatever you’re doing, drop it and come up here.”
McMahon had been recruiting in Atlanta. He jumped in the car and drove three hours to Spartanburg, saw, and believed.
“Right away you saw the athleticism, the creativity, the playmaking skills, and then the edge he plays with,” McMahon said. “The flair. You saw that right away. Went back the next weekend in Greensboro, and he averaged 40 points over the four games. And at that point you’re just hoping you can find a way to get him.”
Murray found a way. McMahon offered a scholarship in the parking lot outside the gym in Greensboro, and stayed locked in on Morant as the recruiting buzz started to build.
The coaches did an in-home visit in Dalzell, raving about the spaghetti casserole made by Ja’s mother, Jamie Morant, and marveling at the dozens of neighborhood kids who gathered to play ball and get instruction from Tee on the family’s homemade full court in the backyard. They sold Murray’s point guard history, noting that Isaiah Canaan and Cameron Payne had been top 35 NBA draft picks since 2013. They sold Murray’s small-town, small-school atmosphere, which appealed to the close-knit Morant family.
Mostly, they sold love and interest. To a player who had been overlooked and under-valued for so many years, finally finding a school that truly wanted him was like a warm embrace.
“Murray State made me a priority,” Ja said. “I wanted to go where they wanted me.”
On Labor Day weekend, the Morants made their official visit to Murray State. There was never going to be a nationally televised, pick-a-hat production for Ja, but that didn’t mean the family couldn’t have some fun with the final decision.
When they arrived at McMahon’s house for dinner during the visit, Tee quickly informed the coach that his son wasn’t feeling well — that he was prone to hot flashes and might be coming down with something. Ja fanned himself and went to the bathroom. Tee said they might have to leave.
“The guy you’re dying to coach is on your campus and the kid’s father is telling you he’s feeling sick and may need to go back to the hotel,” McMahon said, recalling his distress. “This goes on for about five minutes.”
While McMahon was furiously manipulating the thermostat to cool down the house, Ja was slipping into a Murray State T-shirt. When he came out of the bathroom, the shirt told the story. Tee whipped out a Murray hat and put it on his head. Jamie Morant pulled a Murray cup out of her purse.
“I’m ready,” Ja told McMahon. “I’m coming to Murray State.”
Ja shut down his recruitment, just as it was about to take off. He canceled an official visit the next weekend to South Carolina and declined interest from others. In a span of less than two months, a courtship that began with a bag of chips was consummated with a prank in the head coach’s home.
“They didn’t waste any time,” Ricks said. “Those guys at Murray dug their fangs into him and never let go.”
After just two seasons, it appears it will be time for Murray to let go.
Almost everyone might have missed on Ja coming out of high school. But nobody will miss on him coming out of college.
Since the calendar turned to 2019, Morant has shot up NBA mock drafts. The sophomore is almost unanimously projected as a top-five pick, by many in the top three, and No. 1 in at least one. He seems almost certain to be the first top ten pick from a mid-major school in five years (Elfrid Payton, Louisiana-Lafayette), and could be the first true mid-major pick in the top five since Michael Olowokandi of Pacific went No. 1 in 1998.
(Lamar Odom, the No. 4 pick in 1999 out of Rhode Island, really doesn’t fit the mid-major profile. He was a hugely celebrated recruit who took a rather scandalous route to a second-tier program. Neither does Adam Morrison, the No. 3 pick in 2006 out of decided non-mid-major Gonzaga.)
His season numbers for the 16-3 Racers are almost comical: 24.1 points, a nation-leading 10.5 assists and 5.6 rebounds. Last year, Oklahoma’s Trae Young was a first-team All-American and a top-five draft pick while averaging slightly more points (27.4) but fewer assists (8.7) and rebounds (3.9).
And there are no numbers that do justice to the dunks. Simply put, he’s had some Ja droppers.
There was a monster against Alabama in November.
A week later he crushed one over Eastern Illinois.
Those highlights spread like wildfire, putting Ja in the company of his former AAU teammate and the current leading man of college basketball, Zion Williamson. The two played together early in their high school years for the South Carolina Hornets — and only one of them was noticed by college recruiters.
“I used to question myself, whether I was good enough to be in the category with some of the top players,” Ja said. “But I’m also amazed that my hard work has paid off.”
Work ethic and basketball IQ came from long sessions with Tee, who continually told his son he was “overrated” in order to keep him hungry. Then he started to add weight to his skinny frame, and the elite athleticism blossomed alongside elite court vision.
It’s an intoxicating combination. He’s among the nation’s best scorers and absolutely the nation’s best distributor. Struggling for a comparison to other do-it-all guards, McMahon invokes NBA All-Stars Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo.
“I know it’s big words,” McMahon said. “But he’s a once in a generation, once in a lifetime player.”
Said one NBA scout who has watched Morant in person: “He’s a freak of nature. He’s stupid. He can’t shoot it really yet. So what? If you were coaching him and he was taking shots and missing, you’d say, ‘Why aren’t you going to the basket?’ Who cares? We’ll figure that out later. I saw him get 40 against Alabama (actually 38) and he didn’t make a shot past two feet. He had 16 baskets. Look at guys like Derrick Rose, John Wall, none of those guys could make a shot. They’re All-Pros now. That’s easily fixed.”
Morant’s spectacular arrival is a shock to the nation at large, but to no one in the basketball program at Murray. The coaches saw it coming in recruiting, and the rest of the Racers saw it once Ja arrived on campus in the summer of 2017.
Jonathan Stark, the senior star of the 2017-18 team, went into McMahon’s office after the first day of summer pickup games and said, “He’s going to start for us.” And so he did, McMahon going with a two point-guard attack on a team that won 26 games and advanced to the NCAA tournament after winning the Ohio Valley Conference tourney.
Ja was excellent as a freshman, averaging 12.7 points, 6.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists. That put him on NBA radar as an eventual prospect. Everything that’s happened since then accelerated the process.
Morant drew an invitation to Chris Paul’s CP3 Elite Guard Camp in August, an event that generates interest from plenty of NBA scouts. That prompted those same scouts to start attending Murray games — dozens were at the Alabama contest on the road, and 20 more attended the home game against Evansville on Dec. 18.
The journey from struggling for attention to hyper-exposed has been breathtakingly fast. Jamie Morant now finds herself watching ESPN news shows and being startled by what’s on the screen.
“I turn on the TV and it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s my son,’” she said. “I can continuously watch his highlights.”
Even Tee, a barber by trade and a conversationalist by nature, struggles to articulate the transformation of his son’s basketball career.
“It’s surreal,” Tee Morant said. “That’s the only word I can come up with. I knew he would be special, because I could see it in him. But I didn’t know he would be this special.”
The Ja Morant glow up reached its height — and its first real hurdle — last week. Belmont, the team with the second-best resume in the OVC, came to Murray. So did 42 NBA scouts and execs. So did the ESPNU cameras, plus high-profile analyst Seth Greenberg.
The town of about 19,000 was appropriately atwitter. Word spread that the Charlotte Hornets’ executive jet had landed at Murray-Calloway County airport, and gossip sizzled through town that Michael Jordan himself was coming to see Ja. (He didn’t. The plane carried team president Mitch Kupchak and assistant general manager Buzz Peterson.) Long before tipoff against the Bruins, nearly every seat in the 8,600-seat CFSB Center was full.
In such a setting, a 19-year-old mid-major player might be more than a little tense. Ja was not. He simply doesn’t get nervous playing basketball on any stage. The reason why is a funny one: at a young age, maybe 4, his parents started making him dance in front of people.
“I would do Michael Jackson,” Ja recalled with a laugh. “Yeah, I can moonwalk. I got some rhythm.”
Truth is, people were always around when Ja was a kid. The Morant home was the place to be — friends and family filtered through on a routine basis. Tee turned his garage into a man cave and had his buddies over to watch sports. Then he built the backyard court, and the neighborhood children flocked there. The grill was often smoking or Jamie was in the kitchen cooking, feeding the masses.
After the basketball games were over, the kids would stampede inside and play games. It was common for Tee and Jamie to wake up for work in the morning and find up to a dozen teenage bodies asleep on the floor.
“We loved it,” Jamie said. “We would rather have them here than out in the streets.”
Said Tee: “We only have two children of our own, but maybe 50 or 60 who call us mom and dad.”
About 50 people in the Morant circle made the trip when Murray played at Auburn in December. Maybe half that many drove the nine hours to Murray for the big show against Belmont.
Amid all that anticipation and excitement, Ja began the game the way he’s played all season — a swished 3-pointer on the first possession, then an assist on a made three on Murray’s next possession. The score was 6-2 and the gym was rocking.
Then Ja went for an offensive rebound, landed on a Belmont player’s foot and rolled his ankle. He crumpled to the floor, and the energy was sucked out of the place. Even lying there in pain, the silence was noticeable.
“I think you could have heard a pin drop,” Ja said.
You could hear a lot of hearts sink, if you listened hard enough. Murray is a hard place to get to — two hours from Nashville, three from Memphis, 3 1/2 from Louisville — and the NBA people wondered whether they’d just wasted a day’s travel. But Morant regrouped, got his right ankle taped and finished the game — limping and grimacing his way to 20 points, nine assists and four rebounds in an upset loss. He made just 5 of 19 shots, his worst shooting performance of the year, missing a lot of drives he customarily finishes.
Maybe that was enough for some to start doubting the skinny guard all over again. Maybe the rocket ride up from underrated sped on to overrated, in record time. Maybe he still has some proving to do, after taking the sport by storm.
But this much is sure: he’s never going back to auxiliary gym status. Ja Morant has arrived in basketball’s big gym, and now everyone knows his name and his game.
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