MEMPHIS — Four years ago, Murray State assistant head coach James Kane stumbled onto a talented young point guard playing pickup basketball in a back gym, all in the search for something to eat.
Two years later, the Murray State Racers men’s basketball team was preparing for a run to an NCAA appearance, their second-in-a-row, with point guard Ja Morant.
He was relatively unknown for many outside of the OVC circles, but now, two years later, he has just been named the Kia NBA Rookie of the Year.
It’s been quite the journey for the kid from North Carolina, but Morant never doubted himself once.
“I said this draft night, after I was drafted, that this was my goal,” Morant said. “It’s every rookies goal. I told them (my family and friends) that this was my goal and that I would do whatever I can to work to get it, but I also told them that it wasn’t my main focus. My main focus was to try to be better at the end of the season than I was at the beginning and to push my team to the playoffs and get wins and win a championship.”
His current head coach Taylor Jenkins of the Memphis Grizzlies said that from day one Ja has been ready to learn and grow as a player.
“One of the greatest traits about you is that you’re super humble and super coachable and it’s all about helping the team win,” Jenkins said to Morant during a media Zoom call. “This is an unbelievable day to celebrate your individual accomplishments and unbelievable season. I’ve said it before, the sky is the limit for you. This is just the start of many individual and team accomplishments in your future. You need to soak this in because you worked so hard for it.”
The final vote had Morant with 99 of the 100 possible first place votes. That single vote will provide him with motivation in the coming years.
“I need to figure out who that person was that didn’t pick me first,” Morant said. “I want to shoot a direct message to them and thank them for motivating me even more to be better and do whatever I can to help my team win basketball games. If anybody knows who that is let me know.”
From humble beginnings in his backyard in Dalzell, North Carolina jumping on tires, to his time in the spotlight at Murray State, Morant grew into a budding superstar in the NBA. During his media availability he talked about what being a Racer meant to him and how it shaped him to be the player he is today.
“Racer Nation, I’m forever a Racer and I appreciate them, and I’ve been receiving messages from them also,” Morant said. “My coaching staff (at Murray State), my old teammates, I feel like they know I’m very thankful for them. I share this award with them. If I wasn’t found in a back gym, there’s no telling where I’d be at right now. They took a chance on me and helped me become a young man and pushed me to be better and we won a lot of games.”
After an incredible season for the Grizzlies where he averaged 31 minutes per game, scored 17.8 points and dished out 7.3 assists per game, he finally got some praise out of his toughest critic, Tee Morant, his dad.
“He’s been a tough guy to get something positive out of and I think the first positive thing since I’ve started playing basketball was when he said, ‘You played good this season,’” Morant said with a laugh.
Season highlights include a career-high in points with 35 in the final game of the year against Portland, a game-saving block on Kyrie Irving, quite a few poster dunks and circus passes, plus his first game-winning shot against Charlotte with several family members and friends in attendance.
After receiving the award Morant said the team’s trajectory is going up and that they have a bright future ahead.
The icing on the cake for him was the message he received about something that Murray State officials had done for him and his banner hanging from the rafters.
“I received a picture of my banner at Murray State that’s been updated now and it has Rookie of the Year at the bottom. That’s big,” Morant said.