MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Several years ago, the idea of Ja Morant being the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft by the Memphis Grizzlies wasn’t on anyone’s radar.
On Thursday night, the unlikely scenario became a reality.
“It was wow,” Morant said of the moment his name was called by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. “I really couldn’t believe it. Who would have thought I would be in this position three or four years ago?”
Memphis had only one pick in the draft and the 6-foot-3 Morant appeared to be the Grizzlies target almost as soon as the franchise got the second pick in the lottery. The predictions became more certain Wednesday when Memphis traded longtime point guard Mike Conley to the Utah Jazz for a trio of players, clearing a spot for Morant with the Grizzlies firmly in rebuilding mode.
Morant, unheralded out of high school in South Carolina before playing at Murray State, recognizes the restart situation for the franchise.
“Obviously, I know I have some big shoes to fill with Mike Conley,” Morant said, “but I’m just excited. It just makes me happy to see that Memphis has trust in me and believes in me.”
Zach Kleiman, in his first Memphis draft since being named executive vice president of basketball operations after last season, said they watched Morant this past college season and the guard seemed to earn the team’s respect in interviews.
“Once we received the No.2 pick in the lottery, we did our homework, we worked through all the possibilities,” Kleiman said after the draft. “As we started to drill down on what the options were, we felt very good about heading in the direction of selecting Ja. .He’s a special kid.”
Morant was the sparkplug for Murray State as the Racers won the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament and made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in March. His draft stock skyrocketed as Morant averaged 24.5 points last season — seventh in Division I — while also handing out 10 assists and grabbing 5.7 rebounds. He became the first Division I men’s player to average 20 points and 10 assists since the NCAA began tracking assists in 1983-84.
Morant, 19, had three triple-doubles last season, including one against Marquette in the Racers’ opening victory of the NCAA Tournament. That earned him comparison to other NBA guards.
“I wouldn’t compare my game to anybody,” Morant said. “I feel like there’s only one Ja and that’s me. I do see a lot of people comparing me to (OKC guard Russell) Westbrook, De’Aaron Fox and some other players. But I just study different point guards. If I feel like they have something that I feel can help my game, that’s what I take out of it.”
Morant, along with Jaren Jackson Jr, last year’s fourth overall pick, become the main pieces in the Grizzlies rebuild. Kleiman said the franchise believes they have started with the right two players.
“We’re very excited about the core that we have, the exciting pieces that we have,” Kleiman said. “The idea of Ja and Jaren out there, it’s going to be an exciting brand of basketball.”
Dressed in a lavender suit with white stripes and a chain adorned with “12” around his neck, Morant became slightly emotional as he talked about reaching this level of his basketball career with the help of his father.
Despite the comparisons and his reputation as a dynamic playmaker, Morant recognizes he still has a lot to learn. “I’m just saying I still have a lot more to prove. I’m coming in trying to make an immediate impact with the Grizzlies and try to make a name for myself in this league.
“I feel like I still have room to improve on every aspect of my game,” Morant said. “I’m never satisfied with anything.”
Morant has the reputation as a smooth, but explosive point guard with excellent floor vision evidenced by his 10 assists a game last season. Questions about his defense may be attributed to the Racers’ dependence on his offense and floor leadership, coupled with his extended minutes. Arthroscopic surgery earlier this month to clean up his right knee also did not deter the Grizzlies.
The injury means he will not play for the Grizzlies in the summer league.
Still, by the start of the season, he expects to be ready as a centerpiece of the Grizzlies rebuilding process.
“It feels good to be able to accomplish my dream,” Morant said. “How I got here, it’s crazy. It probably gives a lot people more confidence, and I’m just very excited.”
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