My alma mater is a school that plays basketball in the Ohio Valley Conference (OVC). I graduated from Eastern Kentucky University in 2009 and still enjoy OVC basketball. In fact, most years my son and I go to the maroon/white scrimmage at EKU and frequent several EKU basketball games throughout the year. It’s only a 30 minute drive, the quality of basketball is superb, and it’s cost-efficient. It’s great to watch and occasionally, you’ll see very talented players. In recent years, I remember Corey Walden of EKU was a fantastic guard who got drafted by the Boston Celtics, but never became a regular NBA player. Current EKU forward Nick Mayo should definitely be an NBA talent, but I wouldn’t select him to build my franchise around. When you look through previous draft picks from OVC schools (some current and some former) in the lottery era, you see some memorable names like Kenneth Faried, Trenton Hassell, Popeye Jones, Anthony Mason, and Kevin Duckworth. These are probably the most notable draft picks from the OVC since 1985. Again, solid NBA players, memorable, and had great careers.
So, when I see Ja Morant projected to go #2 (Sports Illustrated and Bleacher Report) and #3 (ESPN and The Athletic), it makes me skeptical. This draft is clearly top heavy and the Chicago Bulls are in a precarious position right now. The rebuild has entered a critical stage: The main pieces seem to be there and they’re looking for a potential franchise player that could push them over the top. The hope is it will be Zion Williamson. Zion definitely has the most potential of anyone in the draft and teams are (rightfully) salivating over him. RJ Barrett might be the most skilled player right now in college basketball. Cam Reddish is obviously a nice shooter, but we probably haven’t seen much more than a fraction of what he will truly be because he’s playing alongside two awesome talents like Zion and RJ Barrett. The right pick here sets the Bulls up for the next decade and the wrong pick causes a major hiccup in the rebuild.
That’s why they need to stay away from Ja Morant.
I know the Bulls need a point guard. I know Ja Morant is captivating everyone’s attention right now and gaining a nice following, but I’m skeptical. Judging from history and the quality of competition Morant is facing, he feels like fool’s gold and may never materialize into a quality NBA player. Murray State has only played one top 25 team this season (Auburn in a losing effort) and Morant was great in that game with 25/8/7. A great statline and Murray State almost pulled out the upset. But Ja Morant also has 5 or more turnovers in 14 of his 25 games this season, again, not against elite competition. That makes me worry.
Furthermore, Murray State has had a couple of other guards who made the NBA and Morant’s statline resembles theirs:
Player A (6’2″, 180 lbs):
Freshmen season: 16.8 points, 5.4 assists, 3.6 rebounds, 1.7 steals, 3.2 turnovers, 40.4% FG, 34.1% 3pt
Sophomore Season: 20.2 points, 6 assists, 3.7 rebounds, 1.9 steals, 2.5 turnovers 45.6% FG, 37.7% 3pt
Player B (6’1″, 195 lbs):
Senior season: 21.8 points, 4.3 assists, 3.5 rebounds, 1.5 steals, 3.2 turnovers, 43.1% FG, 37% 3pt
Ja Morant (6’3″, 175 lbs):
Freshmen season: 12.7 points, 6.3 assists, 6.5 rebounds, 0.9 steals, 2.5 turnovers, 45.9% FG, 30.7% 3pt
Sophomore season: 24.3 points, 10.2 assists, 5.5 rebounds, 2 steals, 5.3 turnovers, 49.9% FG, 32.8% 3pt
The numbers aren’t dramatically different, right? Player A only played 32 minutes per game both seasons, Player B and Ja Morant both average about 36 minutes per game, so they’re relatively close. Player A is former Chicago Bulls laughing stock Cameron Payne and Player B is former underwhelming Chicago Bulls guard Isaiah Canaan. If that doesn’t scare you, I don’t know what will. (Note: Also, draw your own conclusions about the connections with Iowa State since current Iowa State head coach, Steve Prohm was Cameron Payne and Isaiah Canaan’s coach at Murray State.)
Could Ja Morant be more versatile and more talented than both men? Absolutely. But his lack of three-point shooting and his outrageous turnover numbers give me pause. It’s definitely possible to go from the OVC to the NBA and be successful, but the Bulls need to hit a homerun on this lottery pick. I’d prefer we didn’t add Ja Morant to the list of disappointing big swings with Tyrus Thomas, Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry, and Doug McDermott. Trust what you see, trust the guys you’ve seen succeed against the best possible competition in college, and play it safe. This is not the time to take a chance on a guy with question marks surrounding his game. The Bulls have an opportunity to make something special. Don’t screw it up.
Brandon Pence is the co-founder of “B2 Hoops” and the author of “The #45 Chicago Bulls Blog.”
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