Brion Whitley believes potential top-three draft pick Ja Morant, a Murray State teammate, is worthy of the hype.
The NBA Draft lottery, held May 14, revealed through a drama-filled process that the top-three picks in June’s draft would belong to, in order, the New Orleans Pelicans, the Memphis Grizzlies and the New York Knicks.
It is widely believed that the Pelicans will take Duke forward Zion Williamson, the most-hyped basketball prospect since perhaps LeBron James in 2003, with the first pick. In contrast, the widely considered second-best prospect in the draft is Murray State point guard Ja Morant, an unheralded recruit before exploding onto the scene this season. Thought scouts drool over his ability, NBA fans may not be familiar with Morant because of his small-school background.
Who better to provide insight on Morant than Murray State teammate and Riverview High graduate Brion Whitley?
“When I first got to Murray State, we had seniors like Jonathan Stark and Terrell Miller Jr., and I thought, ‘These are the guys,’” Whitley, a sophomore, said. “Ja didn’t come in as a starter. We didn’t know how good he could be. He knew, but we didn’t. He still averaged 12.4 points and 6.4 assists per game, which was great for a freshman. Then, this year …”
Whitley threw his hands in the air.
“It has been a pleasure getting to play with him.”
Morant averaged 24.5 points, 10 assists and 5.7 rebounds a game in 2018-2019. Whitley, who is a shooting guard, said Morant was a great teammate off the court. He still is a frequent participator in the team’s group text, Whitley said, even though he has been going through the pre-draft process, and carries a humble demeanor. Watching Morant, Whitley learned he needs to improve his distribution skills, getting the ball to teammates with space to operate. Even though they play different positions, it is a crucial part of anyone’s game, Whitley said, and can change things for an offense.
“Any team that drafts him is going to be happy they did,” Whitley said. “They will be a lot better than they were before him. He is a matchup problem.”
Whitley is home for three weeks, he said, a rare prolonged break from team activities. Then he will get back to work. With Morant and senior guard Shaq Buchanan — the reigning Ohio Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year — leaving, there are lineup spots the Racers need filled. Whitley, who saw action in 30 games this season, is gunning for one.
“We are all going to compete,” Whitley said. “That is what will make us a great team. We all want a big role.
“I have two years under my belt. I have sat back and learned from Ja and Shaq and Jonathan (Stark). Now, it should be my time.”
Since Whitley joined the Racers, the team has gone 50-11 with two OVC titles, and established itself as a legitimate program that can run with major conference teams. In March, the Racers defeated Marquette 83-64 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, thanks in part to Morant’s 17-point, 16-assist, 11-rebound performance. Whitley did not see action in the game, but he saw what it took to win on that stage, he said. It is one of his favorite memories from his time with the Racers, along with a Dec. 22 game at Auburn. That game was the first his parents, Kent and Danielle Whitley, got to see in person. Whitley hit two 3-pointers in the game, a 93-88 loss.
To keep the team’s momentum going, Whitley knows what the team will need to do.
“We have to have a sense of urgency,” Whitley said. “Some people might say, ‘Two OVC championships, we can take a year off.’ Coach (Matt McMahon) won’t let us do that. People said we wouldn’t be as good without Starks and Terrell (Miller Jr.). Then we were even better. Now we’re losing Ja and Shaq, and people are saying the same thing. We need to prove we are going to be here for a while. We are going to keep our crown.”
The NBA Draft will be held June 20 in New York City and broadcast on ESPN.