When I say that Ja Morant has been dunking on the Ohio Valley Conference this season, I am not being metaphorical. I don’t mean that he’s dominating the competition (which he is), or that he’s tweeting out sick burns about his rivals. I mean that he is dunking on every team he plays against, with his thighs flying past overmatched opponents’ foreheads. Here he is dunking on the Tennessee-Martin Skyhawks:
Here he is dunking on the Eastern Illinois Panthers:
And here he is dunking against Eastern Illinois again, although this time the Panthers players were wise enough to get out of the frame:
Morant’s 2018-19 season is a college basketball miracle. Over the past few months, the 6-foot-3 guard has emerged as a projected top-five pick in June’s NBA draft, with many mocks slotting him at second overall behind Zion Williamson, Duke’s basketball Megatron. This is despite Morant playing at Murray State, the best team in college basketball’s 25th-best conference. He’s putting up historically great stats—he may be the first Division I college basketball player ever to average 20 points and 10 assists per game for a whole season—but his dunks tell the story. The NBA slam dunk contest will take place Saturday in Charlotte, but Morant has been holding his own personal dunk contest over the past two months in 4,000-seat gyms across the Midwest and Appalachia.
Most media coverage of Morant in the coming months will focus on his pro prospects. This makes sense: The NBA is one of the most popular leagues on the planet, and Morant is the type of player who could alter the fortunes of a franchise. But I’m more interested in his next three weeks, when he will spend Thursdays and Saturdays playing against schools like SIU-Edwardsville and Eastern Kentucky, which isn’t even the best of the three directional Kentuckys.
It’s always thrilling to spot a future pro excelling on the college level. But the experience of watching Ja Morant is different. He’s a potential superstar being unleashed against randos. In his low-major kingdom, Ja rules.
The story of a future NBA superstar playing for a college in small Murray, Kentucky—“can’t get in no trouble here,” Morant said of the town so far west in Kentucky that it’s two hours west of Western Kentucky—is so improbable that it has spawned two pieces of almost-true lore.
The first is that Morant somehow went unnoticed by major college recruiters despite playing AAU basketball with Zion Williamson, the consensus top-ranked prospect in the high school class of 2018 and the presumptive no. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA draft. The South Carolina duo did share the court, but it was way back when Morant was a stringy kid without a jumper and Williamson was a 6-foot-3 pre-freshman. CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander told the story of their lone, relatively uneventful summer playing together. Williamson went on to bigger and better teams; Morant did not. It’s not that major colleges were so laser-focused on Williamson that they missed the guy he ruled the AAU circuit alongside; it’s that Williamson and Morant played together only briefly, before anybody could glimpse either player’s full potential.
The second is that Morant had no scholarship offers besides the one from Murray State. That’s not true, either—Morant had an offer from Duquesne, and a pair of offers from historically black universities South Carolina State and Maryland-Eastern Shore—but he was a zero-star recruit who was miles off the national radar. Murray State assistant James Kane saw Morant only because he attended a 2016 camp to watch a player, Tevin Brown, who would soon commit to the Racers and wandered into a back room searching for a concession stand to buy chips. In an auxiliary gym, Kane noticed Morant playing three-on-three ball with other anonymous players. The next day, Murray State offered Morant. The school’s interest prompted other offers (South Carolina eventually got in the mix), but he stuck with the Racers.
Morant’s story is so improbable that it’s already 90 percent of the way to being basketball mythology. When Disney makes a movie about his rise and the opening scene shows everybody mobbing Zion as Ja goes home to find yet another rejection letter from a college to which he sent his highlight tape, it will be stretching the truth. But it won’t be stretching it that much.
And it’s not stretching the truth to say that we may not see a situation like Morant’s again. He’s turned an entire college basketball season into the viral Noel Devine highlight reels. And we get to watch it all in real time.
Morant is not the first elite prospect to play non-major college ball. In fact, he won’t even be the first NBA lottery pick to come out of Murray State. Just four years ago, fellow Racer Cam Payne was drafted 14th overall by the Thunder. Still, it’s exceedingly rare for a player of Morant’s caliber to be competing on this level. I can’t think of anything like it since at least 2000.
Adam Morrison (no. 3 overall in 2006) played at Gonzaga. But I feel like that doesn’t compare with this situation, because Gonzaga is a basketball factory that just so happens to play in a mid-major conference. There was a rash of picks who came out of Conference USA in the 2000s—Kenyon Martin from Cincinnati (no. 1 in 2000), Dwyane Wade from Marquette (no. 5 in 2003), and Derrick Rose from Memphis (no. 1 in 2008). I feel like those don’t compare, either, because the composition of C-USA has changed so radically since then that none of those schools remain in the league. Anthony Bennett was drafted no. 1 out of UNLV in 2013. I feel like that doesn’t compare, because UNLV has a history of reaching Final Fours and producing top draft picks, and hardly anybody considered Bennett to be worth a top-five pick besides the team that took him. It might be most apt to go all the way back to Michael Olowokandi, who went first overall in 1998 despite coming out of University of the Pacific—a school he found while perusing a guide to U.S. colleges.
The most recent NBA star in a Morant-type situation was probably Damian Lillard, who was drafted no. 6 overall in 2012 out of Weber State from the Big Sky Conference. You’ve seen Lillard on the Trail Blazers, a dynamic whir who seems capable of scoring whenever the hell he feels like it. He’s captivating and barely stoppable when going up against other NBA players. Don’t you wish you could go back in time and watch him ball against people set to go pro in something other than sports?
For the next month, you sort of can. Not to imply that Morant will turn out to be as good as Lillard—although it’s possible—but what Morant is doing certainly looks like an NBA superstar going off against nobodies. It’s exhilarating.
Like Weber State, Murray State isn’t even really in a mid-major conference. Ken Pomeroy has an algorithm that ranks college basketball teams and conferences, and since 2002 the Big Sky has checked in between 17th and 29th out of college basketball’s 30ish conferences. When Lillard exploded in 2011-12, averaging 24.5 points per game, he did so against schools like Idaho State (ranked 302nd of college basketball’s 345 Division I teams) and Sacramento State (320th).
The OVC is arguably even worse. Unlike the Big Sky, it has never cracked the top 20 in Pomeroy’s conference rankings. Lillard played only two bottom-50 teams; Morant will play four (Southeast Missouri State is ranked 317th, Jackson State is ranked 323rd, Tennessee Tech is ranked 325th, and SIU-Edwardsville is ranked 326th). Murray State has been a respectable program over the years: The Racers have won two NCAA tournament games in the last decade; the school’s last three head coaches currently have power-conference jobs; and Payne and Isaiah Canaan both made the NBA. But that hasn’t changed anything about the bottom of the league, full of RPI-wrecking bottom-dwellers. (The NCAA doesn’t use RPI anymore. Please inform all of your friends about the new NET rankings so I can make more accurate references.) While this utter paucity of quality in the OVC destroys Murray State’s hopes of getting an at-large bid to the tournament, it highlights what I care most about—the massive talent discrepancy between Morant and his opponents.
Murray State’s offensive strategy seems to be “give Ja the ball.” Sure, the Racers run plays, but every one depends on Ja doing something. At this point, every opponent Murray State faces has the defensive strategy of “stop Ja.” He gets doubled, and it sometimes looks like defenders are playing a box-and-one. You’d think five defensive players solely focused on stopping one offensive player would be effective, but it’s not with Ja. He ranks 10th in the nation in scoring (23.9 points per game) and first in assists (10.2 per game). In the Sports-Reference database, which dates back to 1992, only five players have ever averaged 10 assists per game over a whole season. Morant is doing that … while also averaging 20 points, a mark that only a handful of players hit each year.
Against SIU-Edwardsville, Morant had 40 points and 11 assists, accounting for 63 of Murray State’s 82 points. (One of his assists came on a 3-pointer.) He also had five steals:
Against Eastern Kentucky, he dropped 34 points and 10 assists, and his most impressive play might have been a chase-down block on a fast break:
His leapfrog dunk against UT-Martin drew all the attention, but Morant also dished out a school-record 18 assists, accounting for 73 of Murray State’s 98 points—11 of his dimes came on 3s.
And Morant needs to do this, because Murray State won’t make March Madness if he doesn’t. The OVC has sent only two teams to the NCAA tournament once, way back in 1987. It won’t happen this season, because Murray State blew its shots. The Racers almost beat Alabama (Morant scored 38 points in a 78-72 loss, including this jackhammer dunk) and almost knocked off Auburn (Morant had only 25 in a 93-88 result), but fell short both times. They probably would have needed to go undefeated in conference play to land an at-large bid, but have since dropped two games. Murray State needs to keep winning games to secure a top-two seed (since the OVC gives its two best teams a double bye to the semifinals) and to win the conference tournament. And it needs Morant for that. Morant ranks in the top 10 nationally in percentage of minutes played and percentage of possessions used, and he leads the country in assist rate. The Racers will keep asking him to do everything all game long, because he is their only hope.
Some might see Morant’s gaudy stats and dismiss them because of the low level of competition. I get that. It’s true that Morant’s statistics will have no impact on whether he’ll become a quality NBA player. He’s a step above everyone else he’s sharing the court with, which makes it tough to gauge his true upside.
But that low level of competition is also what will make Morant’s next month so intriguing. Eventually, we get a chance to see every elite prospect go up against NBA talent. But only in the next few weeks we’ll get to see a player like Morant going 100 percent against a team like Southeast Missouri State.
Morant has one last nationally televised game in the regular season—this Thursday night, against Austin Peay on ESPN2—and then he’ll be relegated to the pay-per-view service ESPN+ until the OVC tournament semifinals. Hopefully Morant and the Racers will make the Big Dance, but if they do he’ll play against reasonable competition—and will continue playing against reasonable competition for the remainder of his career. So I suggest tuning in now. Who knows how long it will be until another diamond as brilliant as Morant is found in a conference as rough as the OVC?