MURRAY, Ky. — Basketball fans who adore gasp-worthy assists should have made a pilgrimage this season to this town of almost 20,000 just a hop above the Tennessee line and 180 miles southwest of Louisville, 173 miles southeast of St. Louis, 140 miles northeast of Memphis and 90 miles northwest of Nashville — a place near the vast Kentucky Lake that in August 2017 welcomed masses bearing eclipse binoculars.
Here, an artist performs with such beauty that he reminds all that the best basketball is a form of joy. Yes, there’s the doozy of a true story of how 6-foot-3 Murray State sophomore point guard Ja Morant has vaulted from an overlooked, under-recruited prep player in Dalzell, S.C., to the top three in most 2019 NBA mock drafts. Yes, he averages 24.4 points through Murray State’s first 27 games, but other players around the country approximate that.
No one in the history of the game, with an asterisk, has averaged 20-plus points and 10-plus assists across a season, though no one bothered to count NCAA assists until 1983-84, a reminder that parents who proclaim old times superior usually dwell in dippy nostalgia. With people once too hopeless to count assists, it’s a wonder they could get their own food.
What a relief, then, that Morant didn’t join us here on Earth until 1999. Given a choice between making one pretty assist or making one pretty basket, he finds no choice: “I would take an assist 10 times out of 10,” he said. Why’s that? “I think that’s one of my favorite things to do, just to see a smile come on one of my teammates’ faces, or just really help them build confidence.”
Any worthy assist freak knows that assists are exponentially more thrilling in person than on television, so had you plopped down in the CFSB Center on Thursday night, you would have joined 5,175 lucky spectators and about a dozen studious NBA scouts. For Murray State’s 26th game, an assist freak would have numbers on the brain. In Morant’s bid for the 20 and the 10, his scoring average (then 24.3) looked safe. It’s that hard-to-come-by assist average (then 10.2) that always could use bolstering, just in case, on a 23-4 team with plenty of games remaining.
Helpfully, the first time Murray State played Tennessee Martin, on Jan. 10, Morant had logged 18 assists, an assist freak’s daydream. As their rematch began, Tennessee Martin missed, Morant rushed it down and pushed the ball in a beautiful hurry to big man Darnell Cowart for a layup and one assist, 29 seconds in. Just 106 seconds later, from up high on the right, he threw a gasp of a long, angular assist to KJ Williams crossing the lane toward the left, giving Morant two assists and putting him on an early pace for roughly 39.
“Sometimes, it’s just crazy,” Cowart said, “because you would think he don’t see you, but then, you just know in the back of your head, he sees you. And it’s coming. So you know you’ve just got to always be ready.”
Yet in an uneven game, the assists dried up. By halftime, Morant remained with two, alongside 15 every-which-way points (which would wind up on 30). As assist freaks know, assists suffer when teammates have wayward shooting nights, even while it’s poor etiquette to become miffed at such teammates. Had you wished to go assist goober on us, you might have calculated at halftime that two assists for the whole game would have dropped his average to an unfitting 9.9.
But then, after halftime, came a flurry: to Cowart twice in the paint (once on an inbound pass), for four assists. There came a swell alley-oop to Brion Sanchious at 14:25 (five assists), and then at 13:08, an alley-oop all the way from 28 feet to Shaq Buchanan, one of those plays that provides a reason to get up in the morning. Morant smiled.
“He threw one [the previous] Saturday night, and everyone around here has just gotten so used to it,” Coach Matt McMahon said. “He caught an outlet pass, took one dribble and threw a 70-foot lob to Devin Gilmore, from the opposite top of the key, right on the money, for a two-hand dunk. Everyone just jogs down the floor like it’s normal, but that’s not normal, his core vision and unselfishness and his creativity. You know, he’s just a step ahead. He sees everything before everyone else on the floor, including the coaches.”
Later, moored amid trouble on the baseline, Morant whipped a soft beauty around a defender to Sanchious for a layup, and seven. After that, he scored often and tried assisting often, including a wow of an alley-oop that resulted in a drawn foul, raising the eternal question of whether such occasions should count as assists (provided the free throws are made).
“I really just study our team, you know,” Morant said, “and just try to do whatever I can to put my players in comfortable spots where I know they can score and they know they can score.”
Still, this wiry student and visionary, whose father, Tee, played at Claflin (S.C.) University before becoming his son’s first teacher, reached the three-minute mark on seven assists. An assist goober might have tabulated that finishing on seven would shrink his average to 10.11, while eight would make it 10.15, nine, 10.19, and 10, 10.23. So he kicked a simple one over to Sanchious for a 15-footer and eight, and would get to a closing nine with 1:49 left on a fast-break pass to Cowart. What happened at 2:26, though, might linger in memory.
On a break, a pass came out of the right corner to Morant on the right of the lane, and in a spellbinding whoosh, he whipped it behind his back to Sanchious alone at the basket. It was a marvel so fast that Sanchious dropped it out of bounds and Morant wound up saying, “We were just joking with him: ‘Catch the ball!’”
“Well, you know, Ja had really an amazing freshman year, where he put up high assist totals [an excellent 6.3 per game to go with 12.7 points], and this season you’ve seen him just go to the next level,” McMahon said. “I think some of the traits that allow that to happen are just his basketball IQ, his core vision, his feel for the game. You know, he’s on another level when it comes to those things.”
He’ll be on yet another level next NBA season, among both upgraded opposition and upgraded teammates. For now, two games remain, then the Ohio Valley Conference tournament and perhaps beyond. In game No. 27 Saturday night, against Southeast Missouri State, Morant’s 12 assists pushed his total to 277 and his average to 10.26, a gaping 2.4 clear of the nation’s second-place assister, in a season when it has grown essential to study Murray State box scores while remembering it’s wrong, even for assist freaks, to get mad at those who fumble mind-bending passes out of bounds.
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