Cavaliers

Cavs Tank Watch: Murray State’s Ja Morant is a small-school kid with big-time talent

Murray State Athletics

Throughout the rest of the NBA season, WFNY will do a column every other week or so featuring some of the best talents in college basketball. It’s not that the Cleveland Cavaliers are tanking (at least not yet), but at this point, it’s clear that they will have one of the top picks in the 2019 NBA Draft unless something drastic changes. Throughout each Tank Watch, we will focus on either a specific draft prospect or multiple prospects if they so happen to be on the same college team.

Unlike the previous players we have focused on throughout all of the Cavs Tank Watches prior to this one, Murray State point guard Ja Morant isn’t a freshman, but that shouldn’t take away from just how special of a player he is.

Unless it’s a highlight-reel dunk or an assist few others could make or him posterizing an opposing player, it’s possible that the average basketball fan has never heard of Morant given that he is a guard at Murray State. With that said, outside of the Duke trio, he deserves just as much attention as any other 2019 NBA Draft prospect, even if he is at a small, mid-major school. You could argue that he deserves just as much attention as anyone not named Zion Williamson this season, honestly. It’s a well-deserved compliment, too.

In case you haven’t seen his highlight-reel of his season so far, it’s a must watch:

He’s gotten national attention for his mesmerizing dunks and passes, but it’s his stats that, along with those other highlights, have caught the eye of NBA teams. Through 17 games, Morant is averaging 27 points (seventh in Division I), 10.7 assists (first), and 2.0 steals while shooting 54.5 percent from the field and 34.2 percent from beyond the arc in 35.9 minutes per game. He also is shooting 80.6 percent from the free-throw line, the same exact percentage as he did in 2017-18. Morant’s 13 double-doubles are the second most in Division I as well, and he’s not only the leader in assists but has the lead by 2.8 assists per game over the player averaging the second most.

Morant’s development from his freshman season to his sophomore year shouldn’t (and won’t) go unnoticed. During his first year at Murray State, the 6-foot-3, 170-pound guard 12.7 points, and 6.3 assists while shooting 45.9 percent from the field and 30.7 percent from long distance in 34 minutes a night. He scored more than 17 points in just one game.1 Now he’s averaging 27 (!) points per game and has scored more than 23 points 12 different times. Almost playing as much as he did last season, he has basically doubled his points and assists averages, which shows just how much better he has become in just one year. Morant may not be much of an elite outside shooter quite yet, but the kid isn’t afraid to knock one down from wherever he is on the court. Add in the fact that he has improved his three-point shooting by nearly four percent in just one season and that proves that he will likely continue to improve from that area of the floor as time goes on as well. The three-point shooting potential is there, for sure.

In the Racers’ last game against SIU-Edwards on January 19, Morant posted a career-high 40 points to go along with 11 assists, three rebounds, and five assists. While that was impressive, it was the way he did it that was most impressive.

Considered a dynamic playmaker with plenty of athleticism, Morant has already been compared to Russell Westbrook as a prospect, including by ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas. Whether it’s creating his own shot or a good look for a teammate, the point guard has the anticipation and vision to truly be a special playmaker at the next level. In case you couldn’t already tell from his posterizing dunks, the kid has explosive leaping ability and can jump out of the gym given his size. Add that to his speed and quickness along with his fearless style and he’s tough to contain offensively. Oh, and his ability to get past any and all defenders along with an ability to beat his opponent whether it be with a simple crossover or in a pick-and-roll and Morant is tough to stop.

Defensively, Morant is really solid as well. There’s a reason the point guard is so high on draft boards and it’s not just because of what he can do with the ball in his hands. At 6-foot-3, he has the ideal height of a point guard. When you throw in his long arms and ability to move with plenty of quickness laterally, he is (and can be) a very solid player on defense as well.

Not only is he very good on both ends of the floor but Morant’s leadership has caught the attention of analysts and scouts as well. That, along with his determination to continually improve and it’s a perfect combination.

While he leads the NCAA in assists per game, one of the guard’s biggest flaws may be the fact that he averages 5.6 turnovers per game. Then again, given how often he’s forced to make plays and be the go-to guy, those are somewhat expected at times as well. With that said, it’s absolutely something that he must work on prior to becoming an NBA player. With more time to develop in addition to having much better talent around him at the next level, all while not being counted on to do it all for his team, that number will likely go down quite a bit in the NBA. That, along with adding some weight and muscle to his frame are seemingly the most glaring things he must work on before he begins his NBA career.

In case Morant coming out of a mid-major like Murray State may scare you in terms of his game not transitioning to the NBA level, I’ll just remind you that Trail Blazers guards Damian Lillard (Weber State) and CJ McCollum (Lehigh) are both small-school kids that played at mid-majors. The pair now lead Portland in scoring. While there are plenty of examples of small-school kids that didn’t turn out at the next level, Morant seems to have all the qualities, size, athleticism, and play-making ability to succeed at any level.

NCAA.com’s Joe Boozell did a great job of comparing Morant and Duke’s RJ Barrett, who is considered by many to be the second-best prospect in the 2019 NBA Draft behind Williamson.

Here are some more highlight videos from Morant’s season so far, in case you want to see just how good this kid truly is.

Previous Tank Watches:

  1. Morant scored 23 points against Southeast Missouri State on February 1, 2018. []