Jarrett Culver

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Mid-major to millions: Ja Morant’s life is changing quickly

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CHICAGO (AP) — Here’s how much everything has changed for Ja Morant in the last 12 months: He’s gone from being considered the No. 3 option at Murray State to the possible No. 2 pick in the NBA draft.

Put another way, he’s a player from a mid-major and will soon be a multimillionaire.

Even Morant doesn’t fully understand how quickly it has all come to fruition.

“It’s been crazy, honestly,” Morant said. “Coming from being under the radar to one of the most talked-about players now, obviously, it’s been rough. It’s something I’m getting used to. But I’m happy for it.”

Morant made his appearance at the NBA’s draft combine Thursday; he wasn’t playing, but has talked with a handful of teams since he arrived in Chicago. With Zion Williamson seeming very much like a lock to go No. 1 overall, a pick held by the New Orleans Pelicans, that would seem to point to Morant going No. 2 to the Memphis Grizzlies.

Morant has met with the Grizzlies. If they’ve decided he’s their guy, they haven’t told him yet.

“I haven’t heard it myself from Memphis,” Morant said. “But obviously, I’ve seen what was on the internet. I’d really be happy with any team that drafts me. It means they see something in me. It’s just an honor to play this game at the highest level and just to be in the position that I’m in right now.”

Williamson is not attending the combine; he met with teams earlier this week and left Chicago before the combine technically started.

The NBA invited 77 players to the combine. Of those, 41 are listed on rosters to compete in games through Friday. Others will go through various testing and have their measurements such as height, weight and wingspan recorded – but won’t be playing any 5-on-5. Morant is hardly alone in that regard; most of the top players who were invited are doing the same thing, including Texas Tech guard and presumed early lottery pick Jarrett Culver.

“There are a lot of talented guys here,” Culver said. “To be talked about as one of the top players in this draft, it’s just an honor.”

They’re already selling tickets at Murray State for a draft party to watch Morant, so Racers fans can cheer him at least one more time. He helped them to back-to-back Ohio Valley Conference championships and a 54-11 record over the last two seasons. He averaged 12.7 points as a freshman, then 24.5 points and 10 assists while shooting 50 percent as a sophomore.

His stock soared, and he’s about to go places he’s never been. Morant said he’s never played in an NBA arena and doesn’t know much about most NBA cities. All he really knew about Chicago before arriving this week was Michael Jordan and the Bulls. He played in Detroit as a freshman – not in the Pistons’ building, but rather at Detroit Mercy, before a crowd of 1,107.

“Ja Morant, everybody knows about him,” Grizzlies director of player support Elliot Perry said at the draft lottery earlier this week, when Memphis bucked the odds and jumped up to the No. 2 pick. “He was a super-explosive young man, very exciting. I think he has a lot of confidence in himself and his abilities. He’s one of those guys who will be good.”

Good, probably.

Boastful, probably not.

Morant isn’t the type to proclaim himself the best player in the draft, or even the second-best for that matter. He’s a kid from the small town of Dalzell, South Carolina, from a mid-major school like Murray State, who hasn’t even started to fathom that he’s likely a few weeks away from a contract that will pay him somewhere around $8 million next season.

“I’m just a pass-first point guard who just loves to get his teammates involved,” Morant said. “I feel like my IQ is the strongest part of my game, being able to make plays for me and my teammates.”

Regardless of where he goes, this experience has been a long time coming for his family.

Tee Morant, Ja’s father, was a high school teammate of Ray Allen’s and a good college player who had an opportunity to play professionally overseas. When he found out that his wife was pregnant, he scrapped those playing-abroad plans and stayed home. Ja was born, and he had a coach even before knowing what basketball was.

Morant doesn’t have NBA players that he idolizes. He just tries to play in his dad’s image.

“That’s my motivation,” Morant said. “It’s like I’m living my dream and his dream through me right now.”

 

Likely top-10 pick Jarrett Culver of Texas Tech declares for NBA draft

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We all knew this was coming, but on Thursday he made it official:

Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver is declaring for the NBA Draft, where he is expected to be a top-10 pick. He made the announcement at a rally on the Tech campus Thursday, then took his message to social media.

Culver, a 6’6” wing player, passes the eye test for an NBA wing, he can shoot from the outside (he only hit 30.4 percent from three this season, but it was 38 percent the season before and his stroke looks good), he can put the ball on the floor and get inside, and he may have the best feel for the game of any wing prospect in this draft. The only question is athleticism — he’s not a classically explosive, and the NBA is loaded with freak athletes on the wing.

Still, Culver looks like a rotation wing player with the potential to be more, and that should land him comfortably in the top 10 in this draft (likely 5-8).

Ten future NBA players to watch Friday in NCAA Tournament

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Zion Williamson is something special.

However, there is talent is this upcoming NBA Draft class beyond him. Not “franchise cornerstone” talent, maybe not even the kind of talent usually seen in slots two through six in most drafts, but there are quality future NBA players who will spend this weekend — and they hope the next couple of weekends — playing in the NCAA Tournament. Players NBA fans may want to get a glimpse of now.

Here are 10 future NBA players to watch on Friday, starting with the big three from Duke (because you’re going to watch them anyway).

• Zion Williamson, 6’7” forward, Duke. Multiple NBA front office people have told me he is their highest rated prospect since Anthony Davis (some put Karl-Anthony Towns in there, too).

Williamson is an insane athlete, strong (lots of Larry Johnson build comparisons), can leap out of the building, but also shows a point guard’s feel for the game and he defends very well. His shot is improved but needs to get to an NBA level, however, with his work ethic it should come along. What some scouts like best: He plays hard, he doesn’t just coast on all that natural talent.

Cam Reddish, 6’8” wing, Duke. His stock has slipped a little lately, but he’s still a top-five selection. When Williamson was out a lot of watchers expected Reddish to thrive, instead he was inconsistent. He shows flashes that has coaching thinking “if he just…” because he’s an explosive but fluid athlete, he can space the floor as a shooter, he’s long and can defend, and he can create a little off the dribble (although his handle needs work). There are backers that think he’ll be better in an NBA system where there is better floor spacing, and once he gets stronger.

R.J. Barrett, 6’7” wing, Duke. With all the talent on this roster, Barrett is the guy Coach K runs the offense through, which should tell you a lot. He was incredibly efficient this season: He averaged better than 22 points, seven rebounds and four assists in a game, and as Sam Vecenie of the Athletic said, the last guy with those numbers in college was Penny Hardaway. How his game fits in the NBA, where he will play more of a role, will be the test. Barrett likely goes No. 2 or 3 in this draft, but as NBC’s own Rob Dauster said if he was in last year’s draft he might be 7 or 8. How will he handle those raised expectations?

• De’Andre Hunter, 6’8” wing, Virginia. He has been shooting up draft boards all season long because he is one of the best defensive players in this draft, he’s got good athleticism, he’s physical and long at 6’8” with a 7’2” wingspan. He’s not going to be a future superstar, but what he can be is a quality starter/rotation player who is a defensive stopper and can knock down threes (better than 45 percent from deep this season) and score some as needed on the offensive end. He is a willing role player, and likely a top 5 pick.

Jarrett Culver, 6’6” wing, Texas Tech. He passes the eye test for an NBA wing, he can shoot from the outside (that has improved), he can put the ball on the floor and get inside, and he plays a high IQ game. You’re not going to find a guy with a better feel for the game in this draft, and he likely shows that off in the tournament. The primary concern is he’s not an explosive, elite athlete and on the wing in the NBA that’s what he’s going to be up against nightly.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker, 6’5” guard, Virginia Tech. He’s a guard who over a couple of years has learned to let the game come to him a little, something he needs to do because he’s not an explosive athlete. However, he can shoot the rock (nearly 40 percent from three), is an improved playmaker off the pick-and-roll, gets boards, and is just a steady player. Scouts will be watching his defense during the tournament, it’s been an issue although he has improved. There is an NBA rotation swingman in his game if he keeps working.

Cameron Johnson 6’9” forward, North Carolina. In every draft, one of the best shooters falls farther than they should because teams fall in love with the potential of other players and overlook the guys who can just put the ball in the hole. Johnson also is a senior, often a strike against guys in the draft. But watch him this weekend — he’s a forward who is one of the best pure shooters in the draft (46.5 percent from three) who knows how to get in position and hit shots in big games (23 against Duke in the ACC Tournament). There are questions about his defense, something scouts will be watching as the Tar Heels move through the tournament.

Coby White, 6’5” guard, North Carolina. The more scouts and GMs have watched UNC play this season, the more Nassir Little has fallen down draft boards and White has climbed up them. White is lightning quick and used that and a good jumper to get a lot of points, but as the season has moved along he’s become an improved playmaker (his decision making still needs to improve, but he’s on the right track). He’s impressive in transition and loves to push the ball, but in any setting when he gets playing downhill he’s hard to stop. Can play the one or the two. There’s a lot to like here.

Grant Williams, 6’7” power forward, Tennessee. He’s a physical, nasty player, something that certain NBA franchises are drawn to in prospect. He can hit the three well enough that defenders have to respect it (he hits about a third of his threes, although that percentage needs to go up) but his game is really playing some bully ball around the rim. He is strong and plays smart angles down on the block. How he fits in the NBA game is a question worth asking, but he plays hard and those kinds of guys tend to find a way.

• Matisse Thybulle, 6’5” wing, Washington. He’s a potential defensive stopper, the guy you throw on the best perimeter player of the other team and know the job will get done. The kind of player coaches love. Thybulle gets steals, he blocks shots well for a guard, and he’s not just good on ball he’s a smart help defender. That we know. On offense, he can shoot fairly well but doesn’t really seek out his own shot. It’s the offensive end scouts will be watching, because if he can be good enough you just have to be careful helping off him then Thybulle is an NBA rotation player.