HARTFORD — Rick Byrd, the longtime Belmont coach, began hearing rumors before the season began. Belmont had played Murray State, an Ohio Valley Conference rival, twice last season, and Byrd knew that Ja Morant, then a freshman, was a perfectly solid player.
But then Byrd and his staff started getting the word-of-mouth from preseason workouts, Byrd said Friday in a telephone interview. Morant was not just solid. He was the best player in the league, they heard. In fact, after the season, he would be an N.B.A. draft pick. Make that an N.B.A. lottery pick.
“It was hard to believe,” Byrd said, “because he was the third wheel on that team at best, really.”
“He just was a guy,” Byrd added. “You knew you didn’t want him in the open floor on the break. You knew he could see the floor and pass the ball. But we went under all his strong screens” — that is, on pick-and-rolls, Belmont dared Morant to shoot.
Now Byrd is a believer, along with everyone else, and not just because Morant led Murray State to the conference championship over Belmont this month. Morant has emerged as college basketball’s most exciting player this side of Duke’s Zion Williamson, the transcendent freshman who may well turn out to be the only player taken ahead of Morant in June’s N.B.A. draft. Morant is eighth in Division I in scoring, with 24.4 points a game, and first in assists, with 10.2.
On Thursday, Morant led the 12th-seeded Racers (28-4) to an 83-64 thrashing of fifth-seeded Marquette in Hartford in the N.C.A.A. tournament’s first round, contributing 17 points, 11 rebounds and 16 assists — the first tournament triple-double since 2012. Murray State was scheduled to face fourth-seeded Florida State on Saturday night.
Even Morant’s own coaches and teammates, his firmest backers and closest watchers, acknowledge that they were not quite prepared for this. It is as if Morant had received magic beans or sold his soul to the Devil down at the crossroads.
“We didn’t see the jump he’s had this year coming,” the Murray State assistant coach Casey Long said, “but we knew the work ethic he put in and his ability that allowed him to make the jump.”
Jonathan Stark, who won conference player-of-the-year honors on last year’s Murray State team and is now on an N.B.A. development league roster, said in an interview: “I knew he was going to have the keys to the ignition. I knew he was going to be an N.B.A. player. I knew he was going to go first round.”
“No. 1 and 2?” Stark added, referring to predicted draft position. “I honestly didn’t know about that.”
A sudden rise like Morant’s is not supposed to happen in 2019. The very best high school players are spotted early and gravitate to the top programs, which they treat as the basketball equivalent of a two-hour airport layover on their way to their preferred, even expected destination: the N.B.A.
If, as expected, Morant is taken with a top-three pick, he will be the first American who was not a freshman so honored since 2013, and the first from a midmajor university since Memphis’s Derrick Rose in 2008.
The college basketball establishment probably took longer to catch up to Morant’s abilities because he was under-recruited. Morant, whose YouTube highlight reels are on hoops fanatics’ heavy rotations, said Friday that he was under six feet tall as recently as his senior year of high school (he is now listed at 6-foot-3) and that he could not reliably dunk the ball until he was nearly in college.
This also explains what to Morant’s coach, Matt McMahon, was an underrated freshman season, one in which Morant averaged 12.7 points, 6.3 assists and 6.5 rebounds per game — numbers that McMahon compared to college seasons of future N.B.A. stars like Anfernee Hardaway and Jason Kidd.
“I think he did take a leap, but I think he did not receive enough credit for the terrific freshman year that he did have,” McMahon said.
Morant’s evolution from his freshman to sophomore seasons was neither “exponential” nor “linear,” the Murray State strength and conditioning coach Zach Whitman said. Morant is lanky — listed at 175 pounds — but Whitman said he probably added 20 pounds since arriving at Murray State’s campus in far western Kentucky in 2017.
“Over the summer,” said his teammate Brion Sanchious, “he dunked on one of my teammates, and I thought, ‘Yeah, he’s here.’”
Morant’s shooting has improved, too, with both his 2- and 3-point percentages up.
But maybe most of all, the explanation for Morant’s remarkable improvement between two seasons was the changing team dynamics around him, and his willingness last season to sublimate his own numbers for the team’s sake.
In the seniors Stark and Terrell Miller Jr., the Racers had two proven scorers last year. They would go on to average nearly 37 points a game combined, and lead the Racers to the N.C.A.A. tournament, as Morant accepted a role as the team’s third scoring option and shared point guard duties with the more experienced Stark.
“Last year, I just felt like I didn’t have to take many shots,” Morant said.
“He was more of a role player last year, due to Jonathan Stark and Terrell,” added Shaq Buchanan, Morant’s current backcourt partner.
“He played the role great,” Buchanan added, “and when the time came for him to be that leader and player we needed, he stepped up and delivered for us.”
Morant prepared for this task over the summer, hitting the weight room and the court with redoubled ferocity, according to teammates and coaches. He was also selected to attend the CP3 Elite Guard Camp, a crash course in point-guarding that is connected to the N.B.A.’s Chris Paul.
“He came back from CP3 Camp and we started having pickups and workouts, and he was scoring at such a high rate that we knew he was going to be able to take a jump in that aspect of the game,” said Long, the assistant coach.
His teammate Devin Gilmore pointed to an early-season defeat at Alabama as evidence that Morant had assumed a new role: He scored 38 points, taking nearly half his team’s field goals.
“He knows what needs to be done to win,” the assistant coach Tim Kaine said. “Last year, we had two studs. He knew they were the guys. He got them the ball and put them in position where they were going to be successful. This year, he knew he needed to step up the scoring.”
One final thing that helped Morant this season might serve as an implicit rebuke of those college coaches who have sought to win games by recruiting talented but green freshmen: experience.
Last year, when Murray State lost to West Virginia by 17 points in the N.C.A.A. tournament’s first round, Morant had 14 points, 2 assists and 3 rebounds.
This year, he put on the show of the tournament’s first day, and afterward Dwyane Wade tweeted about him while Luka Doncic and De’Aaron Fox direct-messaged him on Instagram. And Morant hardly seemed fazed as he spoke in the locker room on Friday afternoon.
“Last year, I felt like I was excited to be here, had a little bit of nerves,” Morant said. “This year, I feel way more comfortable.”
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