Ja Morant, Murray State's High-Flying Star, Is No Longer College Hoops's Best Kept Secret
This story appears in the Jan. 28–Feb. 4, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
The most talked-about man in Kentucky’s sleepy Calloway County hasn’t grown accustomed to the attention he’s getting—from the droves of fans that increase in number after each preposterous stat line or from the scores of NBA scouts who make the two-hour drive northwest from the Nashville airport. Murray State’s turbo-charged sophomore string bean has nearly doubled his scoring average, and with each no-look pass and mind-bending slam, he makes a stronger case for being the best point guard in the country. Ja Morant, from Dalzell, S.C., never thought it would be like this. “It’s a crazy story,” he admits. “It’s not done though.”
Certainly Morant is the toast of Murray, a city of 17,741 tucked into the state’s southwest corner, where on any given day you might find a horse pulling a passenger cart down 12th Street. It’s the only place in the county where you can legally purchase alcohol, but the primary distractions are a bowling alley, a roller rink and boating on Kentucky Lake. “Li’l old Murray,” Morant drawls. “Can’t get in no trouble here. Keeps you focused.”
Morant lives in a dorm a short walk from the 8,600-seat CFSB Center, and he has access to the practice gym 24/7. Between classes he’ll put up some shots, cue up game film or saunter into the office of assistant coach Shane Nichols, just because. Morant’s parents will tell you that Ja (pronounced Jah) was drawn to the program’s tight-knit culture and the city’s love of hoops. Coach Matt McMahon runs an up-tempo program, for which his 6' 3", 175-pound star is a perfect fit. “This town,” McMahon says, “they take a lot of pride in it.”
Morant arrived on campus in fall 2017 to little fanfare. He was unranked as a recruit and didn’t appear on any watch lists or draft boards. Then he started all 32 games and averaged 12.7 points, 6.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists for a team that went 26–6 and reached its first NCAA tournament in six seasons. Focused on distributing, rather than scoring, Morant happily fed seniors Jonathan Stark and Terrell Miller and was one of three D-I freshmen to have a triple double (11 points, 10 boards, 14 assists against Eastern Illinois). “He plays with great joy,” McMahon says. Adds Stark, who moved to shooting guard to accommodate Morant, “He looked like he was about 120 pounds, but some of the plays he was making—normal freshmen don’t make those.”
After the season Murray State’s staff successfully lobbied for Morant to get an invitation to the Chris Paul Elite Guard Camp in August. He soared for lobs and putbacks, demonstrated his skill at reading defenses, showed off his dynamic handle and set himself apart from a deep group of college standouts, including Virginia’s Ty Jerome and Marquette’s Markus Howard. Morant left Winston-Salem, N.C., as a likely first-round pick in the eyes of most NBA scouts. (Another Murray State point guard, Cameron Payne, went 14th in the 2015 draft.)
His work this winter has drawn the attention—finally—of the broader hoops world. “I was told this was going to be a whirlwind,” says his father, Tee, “but I didn’t know it was going to be like this. This is a Category 6.” In leading the Racers to a 15–2 start (6–0 in the Ohio Valley), Ja has scored 24.3 points per game on 54.4% shooting and handed out a nation-high 10.7 assists, putting him on track to become the first player in the three-point era to average more than 20 points and 10 dimes. On Jan. 19 at SIU-Edwardsville, Morant scored a career-high 40 points (including all 21 foul shots) to go along with 11 assists and five steals.
Morant is having a blast: He reposts his highlights on social media and enjoys interacting with his burgeoning following. And he still organizes Christmas-break pickup runs and gets an earful from his parents if he forgets to Facetime them. “My main focus is really just being where my feet are at,” he says. “It’s been good, but at the same time, I’m not really used to it.”
Whenever her only son would hang his head, Jamie Morant would offer the same advice, words that now snake their way in black ink along Ja’s left biceps: beneath no one. At Crestwood High in Sumter he grew from a 5' 9" freshman to a 6-foot junior, but college-scholarship offers came from only Maryland Eastern-Shore and South Carolina State. “I knew it would be a matter of time,” says Tee, “because I knew his skill set was up there.”
Tee had played with Ray Allen on a state championship team at nearby Hillcrest High in 1992–93 and collected double doubles at NAIA Claflin College in Orangeburg. He set aside his pro aspirations to raise his son, working as a barber and training Temetrius Jamel—Ja, for short—on their cracked backyard quarter-court from age three. “If there was a ball bouncing,” says Tee, “he wanted to be around it.” Late-night dribble weaves through caution cones and jumpers hoisted over chair screens gave way to footwork ladders and defensive slides with resistance bands around his ankles. Tractor tires served as trampolines, on which Morant would jump 25, then 50 times after every drill, helping to develop his 44-inch vertical. Ja’s younger sister, Teniya, also a promising player, would eventually join them in the yard to train, along with a host of other kids from the area.
As the modest concrete patch evolved into a full-sized court with two baskets, Ja began to tackle bigger challenges. In the summer after his sophomore year he played for the SC Hornets alongside nationally ranked Devontae Shuler (now a sophomore at Ole Miss) and a rising sophomore brick house from Spartanburg named Zion Williamson (now a star freshman at Duke). Morant didn’t dunk much, his jump shot was streaky and he weighed a buck fifty, but he could work the ball like a yo-yo, and his natural flair for passing was evident. The bigger schools still weren’t calling. “I’d get down on myself,” Morant says. “I felt like I wasn’t good enough to be in a category with those guys.”
“What do I gotta do?” Ja would ask his parents. Beneath no one, Jamie would remind him, but the Morants struggled for answers. Dalzell (pop. 3,059) lay off the beaten path, 45 miles east of Columbia, so Tee filmed games from the bench, a GoPro camera strapped to his forehead in case anyone requested highlight footage. “We always felt like we were handcuffed, pretty much cheating our son,” he says. “Everybody else was getting accolades, but Ja was always the one left out.”
Ja used his frustration as fuel, training even harder. “I love basketball, and I really can’t play basketball and be mad or anything,” Ja explains. “You gotta enjoy it.” He patterned his tenacious style after Rajon Rondo’s and Russell Westbrook’s, in whom he saw a bit of himself. “He’s got that dog mentality, like a killer—I really like that,” Morant says. “That’s how I grew, playing with that chip on my shoulder.”
As it happened, chips—the crunchy, salty sort—helped create the opportunity Morant hungered for. In the summer of 2017, James Kane, then a Murray State assistant, went to Spartanburg Day School to check in with Tevin Brown, a 6' 5" smooth-shooting wing from Alabama who had already committed to play for the Racers. In search of a snack, Kane wandered into an auxiliary gym and spied a slippery guard playing three-on-three. The camp, put on by NBA forward Chandler Parsons’s AAU program, brought together top players for drills and scrimmages ahead of a larger tournament. Now a rising senior, Ja had been a late invitee and wasn’t listed in Kane’s book.
Impressed by Morant’s smooth dribbling and startlingly accurate passes, Kane, who now coaches at Iowa State, flagged down the camp directors for more information on this mystery playmaker. After learning that Morant and Brown would face each other the following day, Kane called his boss with an urgent message: This kid is a pro. Get here tomorrow. McMahon made the three-hour drive from Atlanta to Spartanburg and extended a scholarship offer to Morant before leaving town. “After Ja gave me 30,” Brown recalls, “I told Kane I wanted him as my point guard.”
News of Murray’s offer trickled out. “At that point, you’re just hoping nobody else is seeing what you’re seeing,” McMahon says. After Morant averaged 40.5 points at a tournament in Greensboro at the end of July, South Carolina also made an offer. “Every parent wants their child to play at a big time program,” Tee says, “but what I realized is, don’t go where you want to be, go to where they want you.” By the time the Morants visited Murray State in September, Ja knew what he wanted to do. During dinner at McMahon’s house that night he told the coach he was overheating and ducked into the bathroom. Before anyone could toggle a thermostat, he reemerged, wiped his brow and lifted his shirt, revealing a Murray State tee underneath. “We were fortunate Ja wasn’t necessarily looking for the biggest name,” McMahon says.
"Sometimes I see things that most people don’t see,” Morant says. That extraordinary court vision has turned his team into one of college basketball’s must-see shows. McMahon favors layups, three-pointers and practicing with a 15-second shot clock. The Racers race. Playing in the one-bid Ohio Valley means they will likely need to win their conference tournament to return to the NCAAs, and to do that, they know they need to keep running. Their ball pressure is designed to spur transition offense, where Morant is at his most creative.
Now 41–8 as a starting point guard, Morant leads the country in assist rate (56.0) by a substantial margin. He’s shooting a modest 34.2% from beyond the arc, a number his coaches believe will increase with repetition and strength training. While Morant also averages 5.0 turnovers (tied for second most in Division I), he has had to use a whopping 35.4% of his team’s possessions while hardly ever coming out of the game. “We don’t want to rein that in. I want him to play with all the freedom and creativity that he can,” McMahon says. “Part of coaching him, I think, is staying out of the way and just letting him orchestrate the flow of the game.”
Morant prefers to pass with one hand, rather than two, because twisting his upper body to deliver the ball slows the rest of him down. “I got comfortable dribbling into passes so I could throw it quicker, from different angles,” he says. He deals pinballs to cutting teammates and floats lobs with a little extra hover. McMahon estimates the Racers have seen 16 or 17 defensive schemes this season, most of them designed to stop Morant. After every game he requests footage to screen in his room, picking apart his performance, a habit he cultivated in high school. Later, he’ll sit and watch the game again with Nichols, calling out his mistakes before they happen.
On the road against UT Martin on Jan. 10, Morant was busy setting up his teammates, on his way to a season-high 18 assists in what would be a 98–77 win, when he saw something new—his defender was overplaying the passing lane. After a quick-hitting play resulted in a three for Brown (who would score 31 points), Morant told his teammate to run the same play again. This time he called his own number, taking two steps to his right before slashing backdoor. Brown delivered a bounce pass as UT Martin 6' 8" forward Quintin Dove stepped up to try to take a charge. From beyond the right block, Morant skied clear over him and spiked the ball through the net.
He was beneath no one.