Ask Ja Morant to play back the first time one of his assists elicited the type of crowd reaction one of his poster dunks gets, and in just seconds, the now-former Murray State point guard has dug through the archives and pulled up the decades-old memory, as detailed as if it happened yesterday.
“I think my first moment was in middle school,” Morant said. “I drove from the left wing to the middle of the floor. My teammate was on the left block. I drove to the middle and acted like I was going up for a layup so the defense jumped to try and block the shot. I threw a pass behind my head and (my teammate) had a wide open layup. That was that first moment when I got the oohs and ahhs from an assist that I really liked. I wowed myself.”
Morant finished the 2018-19 college basketball season averaging 24.4 points and 10.2 assist per game, the first player in NCAA history to average 20 points and 10 assists a night in a single season. His passing ability is what has him primed to potentially be the second player taken in the upcoming 2019 NBA Draft, with rumors coming out of Memphis that the Grizzlies are enamored with the mid-major point guard that took college hoops by storm last season.
Though Morant speaks methodically, his South Carolina-infused southern drawl giving each sentence its own leisurely cadence, don’t mistake Morant’s “aw shucks” vibe for kindness on the court. He’s heard the criticisms of his game, the whispers that his stats are inflated thanks to inferior competition, the “overrated” chants he got on the road in college, and he’s facing them all head on.
Just a few weeks before he’ll walk across the stage to shake Adam Silver’s hand, Morant spoke to UPROXX courtesy of Panini America about handling his newfound fame, being heckled by his own father and why putting on weight is a priority.
What’s been the most surreal part of this pre-draft process so far for you?
Becoming a part of different families, starting with Panini. When I was younger, I used to have trading cards. To have my own is a dream come true. Signing with a shoe brand as big as Nike, that’s another dream come true. And going down the line. That’s the most surreal thing right now.
Speaking of signing with Nike, do you have a favorite shoe of theirs? And do you have an idea of what you might pull out for your NBA debut?
I really don’t have a favorite shoe, but I like a lot of them. I really like getting old stuff, something that came out a while ago and everybody looked past. I really try to be different, but it’s hard when there’s some good looking shoes that everybody wants. I really haven’t thought about what I’m going to wear (for my debut), but it’ll probably be some classics. I’m a big fan of P.J. Tucker and his shoes.
You got the Nike deal, you’re on the cover of magazines, has it been difficult to deal with all this newfound fame?
I wouldn’t say it was hard or anything. Back home, I was known to be a good basketball player in the area, so I got a little bit from it then. Obviously now, it’s different. It’s worldwide. So it’s been crazy and something I’m still getting used to, but it hasn’t been difficult. I feel like I have the right people around me to help me along the way, and that’s been great.
You’ve previously talked about how your dad was actually your “first hater,” and how he would heckle you while he trained you. You think that’ll continue in the NBA?
I do think it will continue. I don’t think that will change until the ball stops bouncing, that’s when he’ll turn positive (laughs). He prepared me for the crowds. This past season, at away games I would hear a lot of “overrated” chants, this and that. It really didn’t bother me at all because I could take it from my dad.
Have there been criticisms of your game that you’ve seen as you’ve gone through this process that you think are unfair?
Yeah, a lot. But at the same time I really don’t try to get into it too much. But I’ve heard “he can’t shoot” or “he’s overrated, he’s too small.” Probably everything you can think of. But at the end of the day I don’t pay attention to it. I try to be the best Ja I can be and just prove ‘em wrong.
You have been working on adding muscle though, correct?
Yeah, I’m just trying to get stronger. I do feel like I still can finish plays, but getting stronger wouldn’t hurt. That’s my main focus right now, being able to absorb contact and finish through contact. I really didn’t lift weights until my freshman year of college. I was about 148 pounds going into my freshman year. I started lifting, and while I was Murray State I gained about 15-20 pounds. Now I’m lifting even harder than before.
Strength has never been an issue during some of your most iconic dunks. When you dunk on someone, do you know in the moment what’s just happened?
Oh I definitely black out a little bit. I flex like I’m the buffest dude in the world, but later on realize what I’ve actually done. Some of (my dunks) be having me say wow just going back and looking at the replays. They’re crazy. Obviously I didn’t notice during the game that they were really that bad.
Your passing is also such a huge part of your game, and what’s contributed to your rocketing draft stock. Did dishing out assists always make you feel as good as a dunk did?
Passing was always my favorite thing. Growing up, I had different point guards I liked, from Penny Hardaway to Rajon Rondo. Rondo was a pass-first point guard, and that’s what I liked to do. So I studied those guys, and my IQ got better helped me to see the floor a lot more and see plays before they happen. To see a smile on your teammate’s face or help build their confidence is great. That’s just one thing I like to do.
Your dad was known as an intense guy on the court who talked a lot of smack. You’re a little more reserved. Do you see yourself as a smack talker at all?
I’d say I’m both, honestly. I just got that dog, that killer mentality to where I really don’t get into too much talking. I’ll probably say some things, but I try to let my game do that talking. At the end of the day, if that’s what shuts whoever up, then that’s what shuts them up.
Finally, have you let yourself imagine what that moment you walk across the stage is going to be like?
It hasn’t really hit me yet. To be in the position that I’m in right now is crazy. It’s something I worked for, so I’m happy, but once that day comes and I do walk across that stage and shake the commissioner’s hand, it’s going to be very emotional.