Strong NCAA Tourney Could Catapult Ja Morant to No. 2 Overall Pick Behind Zion

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterMarch 18, 2019

RICHMOND, KY - FEBRUARY 16: Ja Morant #12 of the Murray State Racers shoots a free throw during the game against the Eastern Kentucky Colonels at CFSB Center on February 16, 2019 in Murray, Kentucky. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Since only one NBA team can take Duke's Zion Williamson in June's upcoming draft, front offices will use the following three months to identify the next-best option to build around. Their immediate focus is about to shift toward Murray State in the NCAA tournament for Ja Morant.

With the explosive ball-handler expected to be the first player (since 1992) to complete a season averaging 20 points and 10 assists, his athleticism and stats have popped all year. It's led to buzz suggesting Morant should be in the same draft tier as power-school prospects like Duke's RJ Barrett, Virginia's De'Andre Hunter and Texas Tech's Jarrett Culver.

"[He's a] stud, playmaker, top-three pick," one NBA executive recently told Bleacher Report after flying to scout Morant for the first time. "May go as high as No. 2 to a team that needs a point guard."

Looking at the projected lottery teams, practically each one could use an upgrade at point guard, which eliminates fit from the equation and allows for draft decisions to be strictly about talent. That helps maximize the number of potential suitors for Morant and means Thursday's game against Marquette could be one of the year's most heavily scouted matchups. It will also be watched by executives who aren't usually on the road scouting. 

"It's hard, but at the same time I try not to pay attention to it," Morant told Bleacher Report's Mirin Fader about the new attention he's receiving. "I'm just trying to be the best leader I can be to help this team."

His games moving forward will be a priority for over a dozen NBA front offices, particularly since Morant has only faced two power-conference opponents this season.  

Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press

He's pounded Ohio Valley schools, both during the regular season and conference tournament when he hit a game-winner against Jacksonville State before torching Belmont for 36 points in the title game. Morant also passed both tests against Alabama (38 points) and Auburn (25 points) early in the season.

But teams have been reluctant over the years to use such high-value picks on mid-major prospects. Draft bust Anthony Bennett was the last player not from the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC or Big East to go in the top five. Memphis alums Tyreke Evans and Derrick Rose were the previous two, but they were also both top-five consensus recruits.

Morant wasn't ranked out of high school. The chances are, many executives first learned of his existence within the past three months. General managers will be basing an enormous decision, which could impact the franchise for the next decade, off a 30-35-game sample size, mostly against weak opponents who don't have any NBA talent.  

From a draft-stock standpoint for Morant and an evaluation perspective for NBA teams, this NCAA tournament is an opportunity. 

Scouts will have a great chance to gauge Morant's defensive chops in the round-of-64 matchup with Markus Howard (25.0 PPG), who is one of the nation's most potent scorers. Morant does have something to prove at the defensive end, where his effort has fluctuated when fighting through screens, retreating in transition and staying attached off the ball.

The Racers advancing and meeting Florida State would be the dream scenario for evaluators. With KenPom.com's ninth-ranked defense in the country, the Seminoles have big, strong and long athletes at each position. They would represent an ideal test for Morant, who's looking to convince scouts that he can create and finish just as easily against players with NBA size and length. 

CHARLESTON, IL - JANUARY 17: Ja Morant #12 of the Murray State Racers brings the ball up court during the game against the Eastern Illinois Panthers at Lantz Arena on January 17, 2019 in Charleston, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The biggest question teams have right now revolves around his perimeter skills, as he relies so heavily on athleticism and vision, leading the country in both transition points and assists per game. Despite averaging 24.6 points, he's only shooting 33.6 percent from three, 30.0 percent off the dribble and 5-of-19 on contested half-court jumpers. 

He combined to shoot 1-of-10 from three against Alabama and Auburn. He gets limited elevation on his shot, particularly when pulling up. And in today's league, few point guards achieve star status without being plus-shooters.

Burying jumpers this week against Marquette and Florida State/Vermont could alleviate concern from teams that are on the fence about taking Morant over Barrett and others.

Regardless, Morant's game will always be about putting pressure on defenses with dribble penetration that leads to layups, free throws and open shots for teammates. His left hand has also become a signature weapon. Many of his dimes are delivered with his left, which he also uses more effectively as a driver (16-of-31 going left versus 5-of-20 right). 

Overall, he's been too productive throughout the season for an off game against Marquette to cause a draft-night slide. But picking up wins and continuing to generate offense at his current rate, especially against Florida State, would help validate the historic numbers and hype, and strengthen the narrative that this draft isn't Zion-or-bust for lottery teams hoping to add a franchise player.

       

Stats courtesy of Synergy Sports, Basketball-Reference.com

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