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The Sumter Item's Top 125 Sports Figures: No. 5 - Ja Morant

Dennis Brunson
dennis@theitem.com
Posted 12/12/19

If The Sumter Item would have celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2017, Ja Morant would not have made the list in our publication’s Top 125 Sports Figures. While Morant was an All-State …

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The Sumter Item's Top 125 Sports Figures: No. 5 - Ja Morant

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If The Sumter Item would have celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2017, Ja Morant would not have made the list in our publication’s Top 125 Sports Figures. While Morant was an All-State performer at Crestwood High School, he was just starting his college career at Murray State, an NCAA Division I mid-major school.

If the list had come out last year, Morant would have made the list, but would have been on the lower end. He had a nice freshman season at Murray State and much was expected of him. However, it was just expectation.

As the world now knows, Morant went far and beyond those expectations. He had an All-American season for the Racers, was a social media darling and a highlights regular due to his flamboyant dunks and ended up being the No. 2 overall pick in the National Basketball Association draft by the Memphis Grizzlies.

And, oh, yeah. Morant is the frontrunner for the NBA Rookie of the Year a third of the way into the season.

For all of those reasons, Morant is No. 5 on The Item’s Top 125 list.

Morant was a 3-time All-State performer for Crestwood. He averaged 18 points a game as a sophomore before averaging 26.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 4.7 assists as a junior. As a senior, Morant averaged 27 points, eight rebounds, 2.3 steals, seven assists and one blocked shot per game.”

“When Ja first started, he relied on his jump shot a lot,” Morant’s Crestwood head coach, Dwayne Edwards said on the day Morant signed with Murray State. “Now he has become good at using his athletic ability for more than just shooting jump shots. He’s learned to take the ball and drive to the basket, making good use of his athletic ability.”

How true those words turned out to be.

As a freshman at Murray State, Morant had a strong season, helping Murray State to the Ohio Valley Conference regular-season and conference tournament titles and to an NCAA Tournament berth. He averaged 12.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game and was named All-OVC First-Team and All-OVC Newcomer Team.

Morant’s sophomore year began with the two leading scorers in front of him having graduated. That left the door open for Morant to take a step forward and he came bursting through.

Morant averaged 24.6 points and 10.0 assists per game for Murray State in the 2018-19 season. The Racers went 28-5 and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Morant became the first player in college basketball history to average at least 20 points and 10 assists since assists became an official statistic in the 1983-84 season.

Morant also averaged 5.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals. He shot 50.3 percent from the floor and 81 percent from the free throw line.

Morant went from a relative unknown to a must-see player as a sophomore. The dunking exploits of the slender 6-foot-3-inch Morant were plenteous, and his all-around play along with his athleticism began the talk of him possibly being the No. 2 pick in the ’19 NBA draft.

That came to fruition when Memphis did pick him No. 2 after the New Orleans Pelicans had made Zion Williamson the No. 1 pick.

All Morant has done for the Grizzlies is lead them in scoring, assists and steals per game. He has played in 19 of the team’s first 24 games and is averaging 18.7 points 6.4 assists, 1.3 steals and 3.2 rebounds. He is shooting 46.3% from the floor, 42.2% from 3-point range and 78.6% from the free throw line.

NBA great LeBron James has had good things to say about Morant. Before meeting him though, he offered a great endorsement of Morant.

“I don’t know him personally so I can’t say how great of a kid he is or not but he seems like a really good one,” James said. “He seems like he loves the game. Both of my kids love him. They love his game.”