College basketball monster Zion Williamson has been lapping up accolades and appears a lock on the number one pick for the 2019 NBA Draft.
But a man Sports Illustrated called “college hoops’s best kept secret” could spoil that party.
Meet Murray State College star Ja Morant who has been compared to the NBA triple-double king from the Oklahoma City Thunder Russell Westbrook and moved up to second on several NBA mock drafts.
The 19-year-old sophomore point guard has burst out of the shadows and is set for his own huge NBA career but, right now, he’s just looking to complete a normal college experience.
With all the hype around him, this might not be possible.
Born Temetrius Jamel Morant, the youngster is projected to go high in the first round of the NBA Draft, potentially even number one. It’d be a colossal upset if he could pull it off with Duke superstar Zion Williamson largely unchallenged for the first pick.
While Williamson is a forward and Morant is a guard, their numbers paint a fascinating picture.
Williamson, a freshman star, is ranked 19th in the nation in points with 22.0 while also pulling down an average of 9.4 rebounds.
Morant, a sophomore, averages 24.1 points per game, 5.4 rebounds and a nation-leading 10.4 assists.
Williamson weighs in at 129kg and 201cm, Morant is 79kg and 190cm.
But the South Carolina-born star really he just wants a normal student. Well, as normal as you can be when you could be one of the biggest names in the basketball world in a few short months.
One thing both Williamson and Morant bring is hellacious dunks.
The pair are ESPN SportsCentre darlings, regularly making the daily top 10 with their incredible exploits.
— Murray State Sports (@MSURacers)
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness)
When asked who was the better dunker, Morant gave it to the Duke star.
“I have to give it to Zion — his explosiveness is just crazy,” Morant told ESPN.
The pair actually played basketball together for a team called the South Carolina Hornets in high school.
While Williamson was collecting all the eyes, Morant was learning his trade to burst onto the scene from relative obscurity.
“It was just crazy watching him just blow up and everything but when we played together we had this connection where I could put the ball anywhere around the rim and he’d go and finish it. It was easier for me,” he said.
But Morant admits he’s going to trust his instinct.
“I’ve got this mindset now that I’m going to finish the play no matter where the defender’s at,” Morant said.
Murray State Basketball was the college of NBA point guards Isaiah Canaan and Cameron Payne but coach Matt McMahon told Bleacher Report in a feature last week that Morant will go a long way.
“He’s a basketball genius,” he said. “A once-in-a-lifetime player.”
Despite this, Morant doesn’t want the hype to change him.
“It’s hard, but at the same time I try not to pay attention to it,” he said. “I’m just trying to be the best leader I can be to help this team.
“My personality, the person I am, I don’t like saying no to anything. With our fans, I still interact with them and everything just to show that I’m not big-time. I’m not Hollywood. I’m still the same Ja I was before this happened.”
It’s bound to get tougher and tough for Morant.
As one of the most exciting college basketballers in the US right now, his school has needed to step up protection for its most famous star.
There are reports of eBay auctions with signed basketballs going for $160 and pictures going for $70 with Murray State hiring security to stop enterprising individuals from fleecing the rising star.
“We have to do our part to make sure Ja is protected from the vultures who are trying to make money off of his name,” Murray State Basketball Coach Matt McMahon said.
“It’s not right that someone would come in here and pretend to be a fan and try to get him to sign a bag of basketballs so they can make money. That’s not right. That’s not how things should work.”
“All of us, his teammates, coaches, security, we have to make sure he’s not taken advantage of in the situation.”
Morant is somewhat an overnight success, having doubled his stats from last season in points (12.7 to 24.1) and assists (6.3 to 10.4).
But originally, he was an unranked player from Dalzell, South Carolina, overlooked by Division I recruiters.
When looking for colleges, he only had offers from a handful of colleges but chose Murray State.
Speaking with ESPN’s Seth Greenberg, Morant said the rapid rise has been crazy.
“I really can’t describe it, coming from under the radar and now being one of the most talked about players in college basketball is great, it’s a good feeling,” he said.
“I feel like I’m more comfortable passing with one hand, I feel like I get the ball out quicker. I’ve worked on it a lot. It’s an honour to have so much trust from my coach to allow me to play with so much freedom.”
Morant isn’t just a dunking machine with the superstar able to shoot from distance and set others up too.
He is also building a strong social media following with 183,000 Instagram followers, although still lagging behind Williamson who has 2.3m followers.
He has been blowing up on social media now that scouts, fans and the basketball world have taken notice.
While Morant is up to two or three on many mock drafts, the youngster has come from the clouds and could definitely be the man to put pressure on Zion Williamson’s dominance.
This kid could bring a lot of excitement to the United Center next season. Ja Morant has a lot of Russell Westbrook in his game. https://t.co/nBO28JXdgE
— Mark Schanowski (@MarkSchanowski)