The Murray State News

Story by Blake Sandlin, Assistant Sports Editor

If you were to examine the high school averages of freshman guard Ja Morant last season – 27 points per game, eight assists per game and eight rebounds per game – you’d assume he’d be spending his college playing career for a power-five team.

Thankfully for Murray State’s basketball team, you’d be wrong. Despite his impressive senior stat line, captivating performances on the AAU circuit and jaw-dropping YouTube highlight videos, Morant flew relatively under the radars of most recruiters.

The Dalzell, South Carolina native doesn’t know why he didn’t garner the notoriety and collegiate attention that others in his state did, but with recent talent like Duke-commit Zion Williamson, South Carolina’s PJ Dozier and North Carolina’s Jalek Felton, it’s understandable how Morant’s name might have gotten lost in the shuffle.

“There’s a lot of talent in South Carolina,” Morant said. “There’s too many to name. South Carolina I feel like is underrated when it comes to talent, so you’ve just got to find a way to make yourself known.”

That’s just what Morant did. He began playing varsity basketball his sophomore year, then he got involved with an AAU team, Team South Carolina. His involvement in AAU helped him gain some minor attention his junior year, with offers from South Carolina State and Maryland Eastern-Shore coming his junior year.

Morant’s father, Tee Morant, never allowed him to become satisfied with mediocrity. Tee knew what it took to make it to the next level. He played basketball at Claflin University and narrowly missed making an NBA roster. After participating in free agency camps and playing internationally, Tee’s professional aspirations were cut short when he found out his wife was pregnant with Ja.

What Tee couldn’t accomplish himself, he passed down to his son. He made it his mission to instill his competitive pedigree in Ja, without the negative qualities that cut his career short.

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“The negative things I had in me, I wanted to keep out of him, as far as the going out and all that,” Tee said. “I wanted him to focus on his dream. I didn’t put 100 percent in mine.”

Tee’s legacy isn’t lost on Ja. He said Tee’s coaching and instruction has helped to develop him into the player he is today.

“He just knows what it takes,” Ja said. “Everything is really just a credit to him. The main thing out of my game that he had was his athleticism. He could jump and had the drive to play defense.”

Tee, who said he’s only missed one of Ja’s basketball games since he was six-years-old, always strived to keep his son hungry for more. During his junior year, Morant outplayed top talent. In a matchup against Jalek Felton, the 29th-ranked player nationally and South Carolina’s No. 1 player, who now plays for the University of North Carolina, Morant dropped 36 points and held Felton to 23 points to help his team clinch an overtime win.

However, Tee didn’t allow storied performances like that go to his son’s head.

“I was always telling him he didn’t do nothing,” Tee said. “He will tell you I always called him overrated. Why? Because I wanted to keep that drive in him.”

Despite Morant’s dominance on the court, he still lacked significant recognition in his state and from scouts his senior year. Tee said players with significantly lower numbers than Ja were attracting more attention, but that adversity kept Ja humble and eager to prove himself.

“I was loving it for the simple fact that it kept him hungry,” Tee said. “I was hating it because he was like ‘What do I gotta do?’.”

The answer to that question came when Ja participated in an AAU camp his senior year. At the camp, Morant’s team faced off against his now teammate, Tevin Brown. Then Murray State assistant James Kane, now an assistant at Dayton, was in attendance to scout Brown, but it was Ja that caught his eye.

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Ja received his big break after that camp, receiving offers from schools like Wofford, UNC-Asheville and Duquesne. The biggest, though, came on Aug. 4, 2016, when South Carolina Head Coach Frank Martin offered Ja a scholarship.

While most players would be eager to commit to a school of South Carolina’s stature and wear their state across their chest, Ja welcomed the chance to court his suitors. On Sept. 1, 2016, he made his official visit to Murray State.

Instantly, he was hooked.

“Once I came to Murray, I just fell in love with Murray and just felt like it was the best fit for me as a player and a person, really,” Ja said. “I started talking to my parents while I was here, and I just told them I was ready to commit because I thought it was the best place.”

His father said the Racers pulled out all of the stops to make Ja and his family feel welcome.

“The thing that made it special for [Ja] was because they showed genuine love for him and said he’s the number one priority, coach Kane and coach McMahon,” Tee said. “Then when we came down there and met the president and the head of academics, they pretty much rolled out the red carpet. Ja was pretty much at home because he felt like everything they were saying and doing down there was genuine.”

Ja committed to Murray State on the spot before even making his official visit to South Carolina. Tee said Ja has always valued family and togetherness, so the tight-knit bond that Murray State offers made the commitment a no-brainer.

“I love the fact that he chose Murray because I love the community,” Tee said. “I love that it’s like a home. Ja is a people person and he loves unity, so that’s why he’s so great with being at Murray State.”

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Since his commitment in 2016, Ja has flourished in his inaugural campaign. Averaging 12.4 PPG, 6.6 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game, Morant is the only player in the OVC ranked in the top-20 in points, assists and rebounds. He’s ranked second in assists per game, next only to Belmont senior guard Austin Luke.

In his first conference game of the season against Eastern Illinois, Ja became the second player in Murray State history to record a triple-double. His addition has functioned seamlessly in Murray State’s three-guard lineup and has the Racers in a position at 23-5 to win the conference and potentially clinch an NCAA tournament berth for the first time since 2012.

While Tee’s dream of becoming an NBA player never materialized, Ja is determined to carry on the legacy his dad started and forge a path to the pros.

“That’s really my drive: to live his dream and to give him back the opportunities that he had, but gave up to teach me how to play the game,” Ja said.

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