James Kane was supposed to be there for someone else.
The Murray State assistant coach found himself at a small AAU combine in a Kentucky town he drove seven hours to get to. He was there to scout Tevin Brown, who Murray State had their eyes on. But when Kane got hungry, he made his way over to a concession stand outside of the main gym.
As he was munching on a bag of chips, he peaked into the auxiliary gym nearby to watch a three-on-three game in there. Kane lingered. His interest was piqued. Temetrius Jamel “Ja” Morant had caught his eye. Morant was explosive off the dribble, a dynamic passer, and a high-flying dunker. Immediately, he knew he couldn’t let this kid get away. After the three-on-three game had ended, Kane talked to the man filming the game—Tee Morant, Ja’s father.
And so the legend began. Not heavily recruited out of high school, Ja Morant found his way to Murray State. ESPN and major recruiting sites didn’t even have him ranked coming out of high school. But after seeing him play, Kane and company locked in on Morant, and didn’t let any of the other scholarship offers he received, albeit none from big-name schools, get in their way.
Through it all, Tee made sure that his son, Ja, always stayed humble. “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.” That drive pushed Ja to keep getting better.
At Murray State, he enjoyed a solid freshman season as a starter. He averaged 12.7 points, 6.3 assists, and 6.5 rebounds per game. It was enough to garner an invite to Chris Paul’s exclusive CP3 Elite Guard Camp. Attention for Morant started to mount, and his breakout sophomore year was heavily monitored by NBA scouts.
In his second year at Murray State, Morant averaged 24.5 points, 10 assists, and 5.7 rebounds per game. He became the first player in NCAA history to average at least 20 points and 10 assists over an entire season, and was consequently named the Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year.
Along the way, Morant grew into a viral star. His electric dunks and dizzying passes had NBA lottery teams drooling and fans in awe. This particular thunderous dunk was in front of a contingency of NBA scouts to see Morant take on Alabama:
#3 – In his first big challenge of his sophomore season, Ja Morant torched the Alabama Crimson Tide for 38 points.
He also threw down this dunk at the end of the game that jump started his status a MUST SEE TV. pic.twitter.com/TTApOXE1tu
— Adam Wells (@TheAdamBWells) June 20, 2019
Then there was this dunk, where Morant impressively leapfrogged over a defender to throw it down with authority:
JA Morant's earth-shattering poster dunk…
… as called by Gus Johnson. pic.twitter.com/YKYxULkLs5
— FOX College Hoops (@CBBonFOX) January 11, 2019
Morant’s stellar play drew national attention and propelled Murray State into the NCAA Tournament as a 12-seed. In the first round, they drew Marquette, a five-seed. Behind Morant’s 17 points, 16 assists, and 11 rebounds, the Murray State Racers pulled the upset. It was eighth time in history a player had recorded a triple-double in an NCAA Tournament game, and the first time since Draymond Green did it in 2012.
Even though Murray State fell in the next round, the legend of Ja Morant had spread like wildfire. He was widely considered a top-five NBA prospect.
If it wasn’t for freshman phenom Zion Williamson, Morant very likely could’ve been the number one overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. Instead, Morant went second overall to the Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies, who had just traded away franchise cornerstone Mike Conley, were putting all of their chips on Ja. He was to be the foundation for their rebuild and to usher in a new era of Grizzlies basketball–away from the grit and grind of the past decade.
A quarter into the season, Morant hasn’t disappointed. He’s averaging 18.6 points and 6.4 assists per game, with both numbers leading all rookies. And while the Grizzlies may not be winning a lot of games right now, it’s an encouraging sign for the future to see Morant adapt quickly to the pace and style of the NBA game.
Now, he’s set up to be their franchise player for years to come. He’ll dazzle NBA fans with his court vision and stunning passes. He’ll throw down thunderous dunks that echo throughout NBA arenas. His athleticism, elite court vision, and playmaking abilities has Memphis abuzz once again.
Three years ago, it was just a bag of chips that lured James Kane into that back gym. It was almost by accident that Ja Morant was discovered.
It’s no accident where he is now.