HARTFORD, Conn. — It seems almost unfathomable now, when you watch Ja Morant put 6-foot-9 defenders on posters and turn pregame layup lines into his own personal dunk contests. But it’s true.
As recently as three years ago, Morant could barely dunk.
“My 11th-grade summer, going into my senior year, is when I started dunking consistently,” Morant said Friday. “Before then, I’d probably get one dunk out of 25 tries.”
Before he arrived at Murray State, and before he emerged from the relative anonymity of the Ohio Valley Conference to become of of college basketball’s most electrifying young stars, Morant described himself thusly: “I was a short, slow guard.”
He estimates that he was about 5-foot-10 in the summer of 2016, leading up to his senior year at Crestwood (S.C.) High School. He rarely attacked the rim. His now-dominant first step was, well, pretty average.
“I actually became a little faster my senior year, and as I got into college,” Morant said. “I guess (that’s) when my athleticism started to kick in.”
As the basketball world has come to learn about Morant this season, viral dunks have helped to define his persona. The dunks are what spread on social media, and make the “Top 10” segment on SportsCenter. The dunks are what make people talk — or, in some cases, gasp.
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But like those of his former AAU teammate, Duke forward Zion Williamson, Morant’s dunks are only part of a broader skill set.
“He’s kind of a throwback,” said Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton, whose team will face Morant and Murray State in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Saturday night.
“(He’s) like a Nate Archibald, who can lead the NBA in scoring and lead in assists at the same time. A guy like Magic Johnson, who got so much joy making the game easy for his teammates. Even a player like Muggsy Bogues, who has an uncanny way of making things easy for his (teammates).”
The country learned Thursday, when Morant recorded the first triple-double in an NCAA tournament game since 2012 in an 83-64 rout of Marquette.
To the casual fan, however, it can be easy to lose sight of his skill amid the dunking highlights. Just ask Williamson, the projected No. 1 overall pick in this summer’s NBA draft, who was the subject of dunk mixtapes when he was barely 16 years old.
“I could probably score 40 points, get 10 rebounds, 10 assists, but I can have one dunk that was incredible, and those other 38 points don’t matter no more,” Williamson told GQ in an interview last month. “And at first it did kind of bother me. I’m not going to lie.”
Williamson told the magazine he avoided dunking in layup lines for a while, simply to make a point. Morant isn’t at that point, though he admitted he is wary of being pigeonholed as dunker — while, at the same time, trying to still be himself.
“Obviously I think that’s a good thing,” Morant said of his dunking ability. “But I feel like I’m way more than a dunker. I can score the ball, obviously share the ball. I really just try to do everything on the floor, and hopefully (people) see that.”
Contact Tom Schad at email@example.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.