Long before he became one of college basketball’s best players, drawing Russell Westbrook comparisons and shooting up NBA Draft boards, Ja Morant was just an 18-year-old having lunch in his high school cafeteria.
It’s all a simple scene in Dwayne Edwards’ mind. The basketball coach approaches his best player about any upcoming recruiting visits. At this stage — the early fall of Morant’s senior year at Crestwood High in Sumter — Edwards figured Morant was bound to sign with South Carolina. The Gamecocks, after all, represented the 6-foot-3 guard’s only scholarship offer from a Power 5 conference.
“I really thought Ja was on his way to South Carolina,” Edwards said. “I actually went into the cafeteria and I said, ‘Are you really planning on making the trip to Murray State?’ I asked because a lot of times, kids, when they don’t get the really known schools and big offers, they’re not as interested in the small schools.”
Murray State, located in southwest Kentucky with an enrollment of 10,000, plays in the Ohio Valley Conference. Morant, who was coming off a junior season at Crestwood when he nearly averaged a triple-double, was also being courted by the likes of Wofford (Southern Conference), UNC-Asheville (Big South) and Duquense (Atlantic 10).
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The SEC’s Gamecocks had just reached their first Final Four in program history.
“Just talking to his dad, listening to what he said Frank (Martin) was saying, they were kind of interested in Ja and the level of interest was going up,” Edwards said, “so I figured he’d be on his way to South Carolina.”
Martin offered Morant on August, 4, 2016.
“I saw him play a gazillion times,” Martin said. “He was on that AAU team with Devontae Shuler and Zion Williamson and no one really paid attention to him because he was kind of that forgotten guy that just made all kinds of plays, but everyone was so focused in on Devontae and Zion.
“And then I saw him at an event here in town that my son had been invited to. So I was privy to be in there to watch my son. They were on the same team. And I’m sitting there saying, ‘Holy cow, wow, I didn’t know he could do all that.’ ”
South Carolina signed five players in that 2017 class, including David Beatty, a four-star guard out of Philadelphia. A much less heralded Morant committed to Murray State on Sept. 2, 2016, while on his official visit to the Racers.
The decision came before Morant took an official visit to USC. Turns out he was interested in the smaller school.
“They must have put on something fantastic for him when he went up there because he was happy,” Edwards said. “Even on the way back, I spoke to his dad and Ja in the car on the way back. He was pretty much committed at that point to Murray State.”
Morant confirmed as much in a February 2018 interview with the Murray State News.
“Once I came to Murray, I just fell in love with Murray and just felt like it was the best fit for me as a player and a person, really,” Morant told the publication. “I started talking to my parents while I was here, and I just told them I was ready to commit because I thought it was the best place.”
Morant has the Racers in their second straight NCAA Tournament. The OVC champs take on Marquette on Thursday in Hartford, Connecticut. The sophomore is averaging over 24 points and an NCAA-best 10.3 assists per game. The latest mock draft posted to CBSSports.com has Morant going third overall to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
(Beatty transferred to La Salle after one season with the Gamecocks.)
“I’m a big fan of his,” Martin said of Morant. “I’m really, really happy for him because it’s a wonderful family, he’s a wonderful kid. In recruiting, you meet some guys that the more you visit with them, the less you want to talk to them. And he was the complete opposite, he and his family. Once I engaged in that recruitment, wonderful people.
“I would have loved to coach him. He would have been a star here. But it wasn’t meant to be. He did what he felt was right for him and it’s worked out. That’s the way life should be.”