Ja Morant was ‘discovered’ by a Murray State assistant named James Kane who stumbled upon him by accident. Kane was recruiting a different player when he felt some hunger pangs and went to procure “some Doritos and a soda” when he glanced into another gym and saw a game of three-on-three happening and after just a few minutes came to believe he was watching a special player. In those few minutes, Kane somehow saw what many other college coaches had missed, or perhaps he just looked in a place where others weren’t. It’s a classic combination of insight on the coach’s side, talent on Morant’s, and luck on both.
Yet as much as we like to believe that talent inevitably wins out, the implicit question here is what happens if Kane doesn’t develop a well-timed hankering for some chips? Does Morant stand out more at an even smaller college? If so, is he still taken seriously enough to be a top five-pick after two years?
Morant had a solid freshman season and was named to the Ohio Valley Conference first team after averaging 12 points, six rebounds, and six assists, but his sophomore season was a leap that was as unexpected as it was breathtaking. He opened the season with 26 points and 11 assists in a win against Wright State, numbers which would become his nightly standard as he became the first player to average 20 points and 10 assists per game since the NCAA began tracking assists 35 years ago.
Morant became the first top-five pick from a mid-major in over 20 years, which raises the question not of why he was selected so high -- the answer to that question is apparent to anyone who watched him play last year -- but why he was at Murray State in the first place. With so many NBA teams hoping they would have the opportunity to select him in the 2019 Draft, how is it that just two years before, so few schools were trying to persuade him to sign with them? With more ways to scout and track young players than ever before, how does a player such as Morant seemingly fall through the proverbial cracks?
In a piece for the Undefeated, Morant’s father, Tee, is quoted as saying that social media and the proliferation of content about young players, instead of helping highlight his son’s play, actually played a role in making him less visible. He seems to be saying there’s a bit of confirmation bias at play here, giving scouts “tunnel vision.” Morant being from a small town in South Carolina likely did not help either. He says, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a coach, a scout come to Sumter, Dalzell area to watch Ja play. It was more like, ‘All right, let me see who’s trending right now and that’s who I’m going to look at.’”
While no mid-major players have been taken as high as him in many years, Morant is far from alone in being a high draft pick passed over by major colleges; he’s actually in quite good company. Two perennial All-NBA team members, Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard, were also lightly recruited out of high school, ending up at Davidson and Weber State respectively. Obviously, not being heavily recruited is not inherently a sign of future greatness -- in most cases, it simply signifies that a player isn’t that special -- though in the cases of Curry, Lillard, and potentially Morant, there seems to be some other factors at work.
College coaches aren’t really interested in how great a player may someday become. All they care about is what a player can achieve as a teenager, and perhaps into their early twenties if they don’t leave early for the NBA. They don’t have the luxury, or the burden I guess, of being able to care about potential; the only thing that matters is what’s directly in front of them. And of course some skills, or attributes, are easier to notice than others. It’s often said that you can’t teach size, or speed, or athleticism, though you can spot it quite readily. A seven footer who can dunk on everyone, or a 6’7” inch kid with great speed and leaping ability is going to stand out immediately, but smaller players who can dribble and shoot are everywhere and it quickly gets hard to tell if one’s handle or one’s shot is really that exceptional compared to their peers. This is especially true in a camp setting where coaches and scouts are watching dozens of games in a day. It’s easy to second guess and wonder, “was that player who so dominated the competition just hot or are they actually great?” It’s much more rare for a coach to ask themselves, “was that player actually as tall and as fast as he looked?”
Another element at play here may be that the things that often separate guards from their peers are not something seemingly inherent like size or athleticism -- though those things often help, of course -- but skills like ball-handling and shooting that, far from being fully crystallized in one’s teen years, take years of practice to truly hone and develop. Also, there’s the factor of what catches the eye of an overwhelmed scout more -- a powerful dunk or a well-tuned jumper?
If you’re a college coach, there’s no surefire way to fix this. You can only scout what’s in front of you and choices have to be made about where to go and what to prioritize. Even with more information about teenage players available than ever before -- perhaps to a disconcerting extent honestly, but that’s a different discussion for another time -- it’s only natural for both those who collect the information, and those who are tasked with sifting through it, to adopt the tunnel vision that Tee Morant bemoaned. When faced with such a glut of data, what option is there besides taking shortcuts?
With NBA teams, there’s at least a bit less concern regarding how good a player is as a teenager than with college teams. NBA franchises are often drafting teenagers, but they are hoping to find a player who will be a cornerstone for them for several years to come -- drafting a player who peaks as a 20-year-old rookie is not what any general manager is hoping for. Yet all GMs can possibly know is who the player is as a prospect and not who they will become, which is why the draft is such a crapshoot and why, apart from the highest tier of prospects, players are evaluated so differently. When projecting into the future is all you can do, what one envisions will often say as much as about the evaluator as it does the player whose film is being broken down. Even as we try to quantify everything, certitude remains elusive.
Ja Morant may not blossom into one of the best guards in the league like the mid-major stars who preceded him, but the tools to do so are there. He can score voluminously, is tremendously athletic, and has great passing skills. And on the Grizzlies, who have torn everything down following nearly a decade of Grittin’ and Gridin’, he will have the greenest of green lights, allowing the team to quickly see just what they have in this potential-laden point guard. At least if he succeeds on this level, no opposing teams can beat themselves up for not seeing the greatness that was in front of them all along, as I’m sure every college coach did as Morant made their defenses look foolish game after game. Even if he is not the next college star from a small school to become a transcendent NBA player, considering the problems seemingly inherent to scouting, it may not be long before another appears.