CHICAGO – With his value assured as a top three pick in next month’s NBA Draft, Ja Morant couldn’t have done anything more to improve his stock at the Lottery and Combine.
He showed up, went to work and handled his business anyway.
If you expected Morant to alter his approach now, with the bright lights, massive media swarm and intense spotlight of the entire league descending on the top draft prospects in Chicago this week, then you really don’t know Ja.
And, for now, that’s still OK with him. Relative anonymity has had its privileges for Morant, who was the only of the consensus top three draft prospects to address the national media at the Combine.
His meteoric rise from obscurity as a high schooler in South Carolina through an explosive sophomore college season at tiny Murray State and onto the NBA radar has come so fast, even the draft’s top point guard prospect is scrambling to keep up with the rapid pace of prosperity.
“I got the (exposure) once my name got out there a little bit, going places where people know you and stuff,” Morant said of adjusting on the fly to these life-changing moments of the past year. “So that will be the biggest change for me. From being under the radar, where I could go places without people knowing you. Like going to the grocery store or going out to eat, I’d hear somebody say, ‘Hey, Ja.’ Before, I could go and sit in there for 30 minutes or an hour and nobody would know me.”
He’s hardly a stranger to many who follow basketball these days.
What’s known about Morant is that alongside Duke products Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett, there’s not a more highly-regarded player among the set of young stars currently on the runway to the NBA.
“I really don’t speak too much of myself,” Morant said when asked if he’s the best player in the draft. “There are a lot of talented guys here, but obviously to be talked about as one of the top is an unbelievable feeling. Most people want to be in the position I’m in right now.”
What’s also known about Morant is that after Williamson is taken by New Orleans with the No. 1 pick at the June 20 NBA Draft, the 6-foot-3 productive playmaker will be sitting right there on the board as a fantastic haul for the Grizzlies, who hold the second overall pick.
“I haven’t heard it at this point myself from Memphis, but obviously, I’ve seen it on the Internet,” Morant said of reports suggesting the Grizzlies have locked in on him as their No. 2 pick. “I’ll really be happy with any team that drafts me. That means they see something in me. It’s just an honor to play this game at the highest level and to be in the position that I’m in right now.”
Perhaps what’s most known about Morant is that he was the only player in NCAA history to average at least 20 points and 10 assists in a season, which made him a consensus All-American at Murray State.
“I’m really just a pass-first point guard who loves to get his teammates involved,” Morant explained of the skillset and mentality he’ll bring to his NBA team. “I feel like my IQ is the strongest part of my game, being able to make plays for me and my teammates. I really don’t try to focus on scoring. I’d rather take an assist over a bucket any day, but I really feel like I can score the basketball.”
And here’s what you probably discovered about Morant only after googling it: his full first name is Temetrius, the ‘Ja’ is derived from his middle name Jamel, he was born in tiny Dalzell, South Carolina and his father was a prep teammate of Hall of Famer Ray Allen.
There’s also a compelling, personal story Morant shared about the bond with his father, Tee Morant, who played small college basketball and briefly tried to catch on at pro free-agent camps and in leagues overseas.
“I really didn’t have any players inspire me,” Morant said when asked which NBA players he’s emulated along the way. “It’s the situation with my dad. He had the opportunity to play professional basketball and he gave it up when my mom called and said she was pregnant with me. Instead of going to play, he stayed to raise me. So that’s my motivation. I’m living my dream and his dream through me right now.”
Spend any time around Morant, and it doesn’t take long to see there’s humility and sensitivity and pride to go with a dash of Russell Westbrook-like leaping ability, an Allen Iverson-ish scoring knack and hint of Chris Paul-style court vision. Lofty and, perhaps, premature comparisons? Sure.
But the bar has been set high for Morant. He’s also raised it for himself, having recently referred to his position on the court as ‘Point God.’
And if you don’t believe he’s got the ups to clear that bar, just check his YouTube highlights and holler back. In a day when social media overhypes just about everything, it’s easy to get carried away with the seemingly overnight sensation that Morant has become. But those who do the most detailed homework on these prospects rave about Morant, too.
He’s been blessed by Jerry West, who called Morant the most NBA-ready talent entering the draft.
“It makes me feel great, honestly, coming from him,” Morant said. “It means he thinks a lot of me.”
At a time when Williamson and Barrett bypassed the national media availability sessions at the Combine, Morant accepted it as an opportunity in Chicago to unveil much more about himself. Mainly, his presence proved that he takes absolutely nothing for granted.
No sense in changing anything now.
Morant spoke of the prowess that propelled him into one of the best players in the nation. He detailed the passion that has league executives certain of his potential as a franchise icon on and off the court. And he shared a sense of purpose that has the 19-year-old determined to be a role model for kids from small towns who may face big obstacles. Much like the ones he’s conquering now.
“I think I’m ready,” Morant insisted of his ambition to have an instant NBA impact on multiple fronts. “It’s something I’ve been training for all my life. It’s one of my goals, and now I’m in position to accomplish that goal. If I could take the fame away, I would. I just want to play basketball at the highest level.”
Morant will soon get that chance.
And the spotlight he’s earned, too.