MURRAY — Fans have drooled over Ja Morant’s explosive ability when he has a basketball in his hands, but what can go unmentioned is his ability on the other end of the floor.
The impromptu posters, the hangtime, and the ability to see things offensively that most can’t are the exact things fans and scouts have seen from Morant that makes him a hot commodity among NBA teams. What at times goes unnoticed is his ability to lock down his opponents on the defensive end.
“He’s got great basketball instincts, and it’s not just on the offensive end of the floor,” MSU head coach Matt McMahon noted. “With his length and athleticism, he’s able to impact the game at that end of the floor for sure.”
Morant’s ability defensively hasn’t gone completely off the radar through the Racers’ 19-4 season thus far, much in thanks to a handful of highlight chase-down blocks and some steals that result in dunks on the other end, but his energy and his lockdown defense on an opposing team’s best player when needed is a skill Morant has put on full display as of late.
Through 23 games this season, Morant is averaging two steals per game, which is tied with fellow “Bounce Brother” Shaq Buchanan for the team lead. In his last seven games, the sophomore guard is averaging nearly three steals per game, and has had three games with at least four steals in that stretch.
In Murray State’s last two games, it had a certain stretch of the game where the defense shut down its opponents. A nine-minute stretch against Eastern Illinois, and the first 15 minutes of the second half against SIUE. In those particular spurts, the Dalzell, South Carolina native was tasked with both team’s leading scorers and was key to helping the Racers fend off the two opponents.
“I thought he did a really good job when we switch him onto (Josiah) Wallace Thursday night against EIU,” McMahon said. “I thought his energy level in the second half defensively was important to the run we were able to make — the 19-0 run to turn the tide (Saturday).”
In those stretches, Morant guarded Wallace and SIUE’s Tyresse Williford.
Wallace had 14 points when Morant switched to him, and held him to four points in the final nine minutes of play.
Williford scored 33 points in the first meeting between the Racers and Cougars. In the second meeting, he scored just six points.
Morant said he takes pride in his defensive game, and because he is on the floor for a majority of games, he has adapted the way he plays so he can be more effective on defense.
“Now I play a lot of minutes, so I just try to find a way that I can get a breather in,” Morant said. “I’m just working on instead of taking breaks on the defensive end, trying to get them on the offensive end like going into a call to where I can be positioned in one spot or feed (someone) in the post so I won’t have to do as much on the offensive end so I can perform at the defensive end.”
Morant and the Racers will continue play Thursday against Austin Peay in Clarksville. Tip-off is set for 8 p.m.