HARTFORD, Conn. — As Ja Morant left the court at the XL Center on Saturday night, he handed his shoes to a kid sitting courtside before walking toward the tunnel and waving as fans dressed in Florida State, Murray State, Duke, Boston Celtics and New York Yankees garb all cheered for him.
He had left an impression — and a question: When can we see that show again?
Morant, a projected top-three NBA draft pick, would not commit to entering the draft this summer after his team’s lopsided loss to Florida State in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
“That time will come,” Morant said following Saturday’s 90-62 defeat. “My focus is not on that right now. It’s just on celebrating what a great season we had with my teammates.”
His effort in the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament, likely his last action at the collegiate level, was the culmination of a 48-hour blur. Now, NBA scouts and executives will decide if Morant is worthy of a high draft pick.
“He’ll flourish in our league,” one NBA scout said on Saturday.
Some in the stands had paid as much as $800 for nosebleed seats to see him live.
Morant’s triple-double in a win over Marquette on Thursday magnified his profile. That grew on Friday as social media steeped the buzz around him in a pot of hype, with celebrities such as Stephen Curry saying the sophomore’s “transition” to the next level will not be difficult — all before Morant made his first five 3-point attempts and scored 18 points in the first half against the Seminoles on Saturday.
“To be honest with you, I’m still not sure that we stopped Morant, and I’m not sure anybody can,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said after Morant finished 8-for-21 shooting from the field, including a career-worst 3-for-15 from inside the arc.
We’ve seen this script. Barring an extraordinary event, Morant will soon leave Murray State and take his talents to the NBA. And once that happens, the league will add a player who demonstrated the flamboyance and skills of a next-level star during this brief stay in this year’s NCAA tournament.
How’s your bracket? Check out Tournament Challenge for live updates with a chance to win $10,000 in Amazon.com gift cards and a trip for two (2) to the 2019 Maui Jim Maui Invitational!
Not faring well so far? Sign up for TC Second Chance and make your picks for the Sweet 16!
As he racked up buckets against Marquette on Thursday, he pointed toward family members and friends who sat in the front row. His two-handed dunk over Joey Hauser will live on highlight reels for years.
He threw a wild, behind-the-back pass in the middle of a dominant win over the Golden Eagles and nobody got mad. He scored over 7-foot-4 Christ Koumadje in one of the season’s most impressive drives.
And when he hit a 3-pointer in the first half over Florida State on Saturday, he feigned a trance.
“Oh, my god! Oh, my god! Oh, my god!” he screamed as he stared at the ceiling and ran down the court.
The subdued youngster who doesn’t like to talk about his draft status becomes an “America’s Got Talent” contestant with a basketball in his hands, zipping impossible passes through traffic, soaring over bigger defenders and making sure you know he’s having fun while he’s doing it.
“I just try to get to the middle of the floor,” he said, “and then I have options.”
The coming months for Morant will feature a disproportionate amount of scrutiny. The general public has dissected Zion Williamson ad nauseam, generating enough banter for a series of TED Talks on the Duke star’s strengths and weaknesses. But Williamson’s train continued to build momentum throughout the five-month season.
His projection as the top pick in this summer’s NBA draft stands.
Nothing feels certain for Morant.
Is he strong enough to consistently finish at the next level? Will his defense improve? Can a 34.4 percent 3-point shooter excel in a league that thrives on spacing? Is his speed enough of an edge to overcome any weaknesses?
Those are the questions some of Thursday’s admirers asked on Saturday after the Florida State loss, and they’re all questions Morant and a collection of NBA executives will likely confront in the coming months.
That’s why the next steps for Morant will demand our attention.
Maybe he is the next Russell Westbrook. Maybe he is a bust-in-the-making.
In just 48 hours, however, he captivated a national audience that will stick around to see either way.
When he left the floor toward the end of Saturday’s loss, Morant draped a towel over his head and refused to look up. After the game, he said he was “hurt” by the loss.
Yet, that’s not the final image of his collegiate career.
Morant removed the towel when teammate Mike Davis entered the game and launched a 3-pointer in the closing seconds. He held his hands in the air hoping Davis’ shot would fall.
Davis missed. The buzzer went off. It was all over.
“He loves to play,” Murray State coach Matt McMahon said of Morant. “He’s just a relentless competitor. He’s tough, and he’s a winner.”
If Morant can showcase those attributes in the NBA, he could turn this weekend’s buzzworthy performance into a phenomenon.
After what unfolded in Hartford, we will all be watching.