By LARRY VAUGHT
If all goes as expected tonight, Murray State University point guard Ja Morant could be the second pick in the NBA Draft after Zion Williamson goes No. 1 to New Orleans.
On a national teleconference this week, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas talked about the Murray star and what he expected going into the draft.
Q. How much of a splash do you expect him to make in his first year in the NBA and where does he need to improve?
BILAS: I think he’s going to make a significant splash because he can really play. I think he needs to improve. He needs to continue to get stronger and improve his body because I wouldn’t say he is slight of build, but not where he’s going to be as he continues to mature. I think he can improve his shooting. He can shoot it, but he needs to become a more consistent shooter both pulling up and range. But he’s a great creator and an excellent passer. I think everybody knows he led the NCAA in assists last year at 10 per game. I think it was 14 games, if I remember right, he had over 20 points and 10 assists. That led the nation. Again, if I remember right, the next highest was three, and that was Cassius Winston. Cassius Winston is a great guard. It shows you just how productive and consistent at the highest level Ja Morant was.
He can score, he can create for other people. I think, though, as he keeps getting better as a player, becoming more efficient, he had a ton of turnovers last year, but he had so much on his plate, he had to create so much offense for his team. 60% of his team’s field goals were either off of his pass or him scoring himself. That’s a lot of responsibility. So that probably increased his turnover rate. If he can become more efficient with turnovers, his production, his productivity, is excellent.
I liken him, he reminded me just sort of athletically of Russell Westbrook. Not the same body type. Some people say he’s more like De’Aaron Fox. I don’t differ with it at all. Holy cow, it’s like watching Westbrook when he was at UCLA as a freshman. Morant is really good. A really good young man, too. I thought really handled the spotlight extraordinarily well, especially considering that spotlight was really bright and it came on in a hurry. Wasn’t like he had a lot of time to prepare himself for it.
Q. About Ja Morant, you don’t do player comps, but from all the time you spent with college basketball, watching these guys develop, have you ever seen or heard of a story similar where you have that stellar freshman year, then you build on that in the sophomore year, catapult into the NBA? Is that something you’ve seen or can liken to in this experience?
BILAS: Yeah, it happens. Steph Curry was probably the one I would point to. It wasn’t like Ja Morant wasn’t seen in high school. He was seen. Same thing with Steph Curry. They were all seen. It’s almost impossible now if you’re going to play AAU ball, all that stuff. If you get out and play in high school, the circuit a little bit, people are going to see you. People just didn’t see him being all this. Nobody thought Steph Curry would be all this. I’m not even sure Steph Curry’s dad thought he’d be all this.
I may not remember this exactly correctly, but the word got out on him late, really late in high school. He had other offers really late, which a lot of times players take. He grew up in South Carolina, so South Carolina comes in late and offers him. A lot of times the player that had been recruited by the smaller school often times takes the offer of the last suit tore that comes in. Morant didn’t do that. He decided to stick with Murray State and had a terrific freshman year. He averaged 12 or 13 points as a freshman. That’s terrific. I watched him a couple times thinking that, Murray State can make the tournament, all that stuff.
When I watched, it didn’t jump off at me that here is the next Russell Westbrook or De’Aaron Fox. It didn’t register with me. Over the summer, you heard that that dude at Murray State is really good. I looked at their schedule. They’re playing Alabama, Auburn. We’ll find out then. We found out. He put 38 on Alabama, was an Instagram sensation, all that stuff, then lit up Auburn.
When he got to the tournament, he lit up Marquette and played well. If you look at his numbers against all these big-time schools or big-time teams, he delivered just about every time. He’s legit. He’s proven it.