Ja Morant is basketball’s latest household name. The Murray State sophomore introduced himself to a national audience in historic fashion on Thursday, showing out in his underdog team’s win over Marquette by scoring 17 points, grabbing 11 rebounds, and dishing 16 assists – just the eighth triple-double in NCAA Tournament history.
Zion Williamson has the No. 1 pick in June’s NBA Draft locked up. The Duke sensation is one of the best NBA prospects in recent memory, pairing an unparalleled combination of size, strength, and overall athleticism with elite finishing ability, an underrated floor game, the ability to play and defend multiple positions, and a motor that never stops running. The 2019 draft class will always be remembered most for Williamson’s place at the top of it, a reflection of how truly unique he really is, and his stardom showed yet again with a rim-rocking 25-point effort in Duke’s first-round victory over North Dakota State.
But until Thursday, there was also a sense that a massive gap existed between Williamson and the rest of this year’s draft prospects. Morant’s father playfully pushed back on that assessment after his son lit up the Golden Eagles, saying Morant deserves to be drafted “before [number] one.”
In the same afterglow, NBA followers began pondering the best comparison for Morant, with many of them settling on Russell Westbrook. The surefire top-five pick didn’t deflect from that lofty praise before the tournament began, either, telling the the New York Post he “loves” being linked to the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar.
The notion that this is a one-man draft class always deserved scrutiny, and pretty much became obsolete after Morant’s signature performance on Thursday. But he has been drawing Westbrook comparisons throughout the regular season, which, if ultimately proven accurate, would certainly mean Morant is a worthy high-lottery pick in a vacuum – even one potentially more valuable than Williamson. Morant seems to have separated himself from other top prospects in this class like R.J. Barrett and Cameron Reddish.
Whether or not his best pro analog is Westbrook, though, warrants further examination. His rare package of athletic tools – speed, quickness, burst, body control, and jaw-dropping leaping ability – reminds of the league’s most explosive point guards, like Westbrook, healthy John Wall, and prime Derrick Rose.
Morant’s jumper is his biggest question mark, another trait that aligns him with that esteemed group. The Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year is also plenty capable of scoring in bunches; he averaged 24.4 points per game this season, netting at least 34 points on four separate occasions while also serving as the Racers’ primary playmaker.
But beyond this is where comparisons to Westbrook mostly fall flat. Morant is painfully thin, weighing just 175 pounds, while the 2017 MVP is one of the strongest point guards in league history. Morant sees every part of the floor at all times, routinely setting up teammates for buckets with fakes, extra dribbles, starts and stops, and other high-level passing nuance it took Westbrook years to master.
And as much as Morant needs to continue honing his jumper, he shot 34.4 percent from deep this season on a difficult array of attempts, profiling as an adequate shooter at the least. Westbrook, on the other hand, has never hit more than 34.3 percent from beyond the arc in his career, and this season has put together one of the least efficient 3-point shooting seasons of all time.
There are indeed similarities between Morant and Westbrook. Who might be a more apt comparison for the NCAA Tournament darling, though? De’Aaron Fox, the sophomore floor general who has led the upstart Sacramento Kings to perhaps the most surprising season of any team in the NBA.
Like Morant, Fox is a blur with the ball in his hands who faced questions about his jumper coming out of college and also needed to gain a significant amount of weight and strength. He began putting those concerns to bed this season, and further developed the passing trade craft and overall command of the floor normally reserved for elite playmakers – the type of attributes Morant has shown with Murray State far more often than Fox did at Kentucky.
Is Morant-Fox a perfect comparison? Not quite, and it remains to be seen whether Fox and the Kings can live up to the immense promise they showed in the first half of the season before tapering off down the stretch. But considering the objectively promising trajectory of both Fox and his team, add this comparison to the growing list of reasons why Ja Morant should be considered the best non-Zion prospect in the 2019 draft.