College basketball fans will get their chance to watch Murray St.’s Ja Morant perform under the NCAA Tournament microscope after the sophomore point guard led the Racers to the Ohio Valley Conference tournament championship last weekend, securing an automatic bid.
If you’re a regular reader of our draft big board feature, you know I’m super high on Morant’s pro potential. His speed in the open court reminds me of De’Aaron Fox, who’s enjoying a breakout 2nd NBA season in Sacramento. If Morant is able to take advantage of NBA weight training to add strength to his 6’2”, 180 pound frame, his ceiling could be in the Russell Westbrook/pre-knee injury Derrick Rose range, given his uncanny ability to finish at the rim over taller defenders and consistently get to the free throw line.
My good friend and colleague at NBC Sports Chicago, Will Perdue, had a chance to watch Morant up close and personal while serving as an expert analyst for the national radio broadcast of the OVC tourney championship game. So, I asked him to watch Morant as closely as possible to pick up his strengths and weaknesses.
Will came away very impressed with Morant’s court vision, saying the 20 year old point guard has a unique ability to spot open teammates and deliver the ball in a manner that allows them to get a shot off easily. Morant currently leads the nation in assists, and you have to think he could average double figure helpers in the NBA since he’ll be surrounded by more talented players.
Like all of us who’ve watched Morant’s highlights, Will appreciated his ability to blow by an initial defender and get to the basket with ease. But he told me most of his spectacular finishes are against players in the 6’7” to 6’9” range, and he wonders whether he’ll be as successful against taller, stronger NBA big men.
Will also is concerned with Morant’s release on his 3 point shot, which he says starts around the waist instead of shoulder level. That could lead to numerous blocked shots by NBA defenders. Will told me he believes Morant’s explosive first step and leaping ability should allow him to continue to rack up high free throw totals in the pros, but he might not be a big time scorer initially.
When I asked Will which player he would take with the 2nd overall pick, he said he’d prefer Duke teammates R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish over Morant. And, the Bulls might also consider Vanderbilt point guard Darius Garland, who’s a better shooter than Morant.
Still, when looking at the Bulls’ biggest positional need heading into the off-season, it’s clearly at point guard, where Kris Dunn has yet to establish himself as the long term answer. After 2 years of their rebuilding program, the Bulls have identified starters at 4 of the 5 positions, so my guess is they’ll go point guard unless they absolutely love Barrett and wind up with the 2nd overall pick.
Phoenix would likely take Morant if they get the 2nd, 3rd or 4th pick, while the Knicks and Cavs will probably pass since they both acquired young point guards in the past year in Dennis Smith Jr. and Collin Sexton, respectively.
So, the Bulls will probably get a chance to draft Morant or Garland if point guard is the direction they want to go, but you can count on a lot of posturing and best player available talk leading up to draft night, unless the lottery combinations work in the Bulls’ favor and they get the chance to draft Zion Williamson number one.