Most of the players in the league today had a fairly traditional path to reach the pinnacle of the long journey to become a basketball star. For some, there are more obstacles than others but one common denominator is crystal clear among 99.5% of current NBA players: they dominated (or showed dominant potential traits) against a high level of competition.
There are very, very few exceptions to this. The story of Jonathon Simmons paying $150 for a G-League tryout is well known, but even Simmons put up 15 PPG for a mid-major D1 team in his last year before becoming a professional. Alfonzo McKinnie is a notable outlier and his story became well known earlier this season with his success on the Warriors. His story is absolutely remarkable, being only the 4th leading scorer on a low-level Division 1 team his last year of college. I actually saw his team play that season when Green Bay played my alma mater. The big name from that team was a player named Keifer Sykes. A 2-time conference player of the year who also happened to be a high school teammate of McKinnie as well. I remember watching Green Bay live, and Sykes was by far the most talented player on the floor at the time.
Point is: McKinnie’s story of making the NBA is truly impressive and improbable. But even McKinnie was at least solid at the Division 1 level.
There are currently 444 players who have recorded NBA minutes this year. 443 of those players were either in Division 1, overseas, or high school before they reached the league.
Only one current NBA player reached the league coming from Division II. Even more improbable is he did it in less than 10 months when hardly a single scout knew who he was when leaving college.
November 21, 2018: The Milwaukee Bucks are blowing the Portland Trail Blazers out of the water in a game which the Bucks would end up winning by 43 points. The margin was so large the 3rd stringers played most of the 4th quarter.
The Bucks have had a few games like this with the team’s early-season success and one can witness just how deep this team actually is. Sterling Brown with his strength and tough play, Christian Wood’s crazy length, and athleticism. Obviously not as exciting as watching Giannis take over the league but the chemistry on this team is very balanced. Bringing in coach Mike Budenholzer helps a lot as well, Bucks fans are very pleased with the results so far when comparing his early results to the Jason Kidd era.
So I’m watching this blowout and notice a player who I’m not able to recognize at first glance. He hits a pretty corner 3. This player then proceeds to hit 2 more very pretty jumpers later in the game. Nothing spectacular, but I notice who he is. Probably a two-way player I’m thinking.
Usually, two-way players (at least at this point in the season) are getting garbage time minutes and don’t stand out. This guy was different. He didn’t do anything spectacular but when watching I immediately noticed he had nice size, an extremely pretty jumper, and an energy about his game in which I sensed there could be a lot more brought to the surface still.
This player finished the night with 7 points on 3-3 shooting. I see his name is Jaylen Morris. I don’t immediately recognize the name but my first thought is he was probably a solid Division 1 college player. Put up big stats, maybe in a lower tier conference. Went undrafted, played overseas a year or 2 and is now getting his chance.
I immediately did some google research to figure out who this Jaylen Morris was. What I found is Jaylen Morris is the only Division II player in the NBA currently.
Molloy College is a private Catholic school in Long Island, New York that has more than 4,900 students. This is where Jaylen Morris played 4 years of college basketball. Coming out of high school, he was known as a player who hustled hard and was stellar on the defensive end. But he didn’t get any Division 1 offers. Luckily, his father was a longtime assistant at Molloy and Morris got his chance to prove himself.
It didn’t happen right away though. He averaged 7 PPG as a freshman, but he slowly built his college resume from there. His sophomore year he was honorable mention all-conference, the junior year all conference 3rd team, and his senior year he made the first team. He also scored a career-high 42 points against Mercy College on February 4, 2017.
So he had made a name for himself, but he was still a Division II prospect that wasn’t on any major radars heading into the 2017 draft.
Now here’s the interesting part about Division II players: There have been a lot of successful NBA players who came from D2 in the past. These players include Scottie Pippen, George Gervin, Manute Bol, Ben Wallace, and a lot of other solid role players who one might be surprised played D2. The factor here is that for some reason it hasn’t happened lately.
So within 10 months of graduating college how in the world did Jaylen Morris go from solid D2 player to getting serious NBA minutes with Kevin Durant guarding him?
Honestly, I wouldn’t consider this a made for TV movie. Simply an example of how hard work can lead to better luck.
Here’s the rundown of how his career has gone since graduating college:
- First of all, let’s mention that Morris grew from 5’11 at the end of his junior year of high school to 6’5 by the time he graduated college. That helped.
- Morris goes undrafted in 2017. He hired an agent that insisted it would be a better idea for him to stay in the US than go overseas.
- Pays $150 to work out for the Long Island Nets.
- Worked out and participated in summer showcases over the summer. Through this Malik Rose, former NBA player, and Hawks G-League GM notices him.
- Rose picks him with the 41st pick in the G-League draft. Morris wasn’t completely unnoticed though. According to Rose, some GM’s had contacted him saying it was a great pick and they wanted him as well. While others contacted him saying they had no idea who Morris was.
- Played well in the G-League. The Atlanta Hawks were one of the worst teams in the NBA last season. This helps if he were on let’s say Golden State’s G-League team he probably doesn’t get called up. The Hawks take a chance.
- Morris averages 5.7 PPG in 6 NBA games. He was signed for the rest of the season.
- The Hawks decide to ultimately cut Morris in July 2018. Shortly thereafter, Morris signs with the Italian club Auxilium Pallacanestro Torino. Most notably, Larry Brown is the head coach and the team includes former NBA champion, James Michael McAdoo.
- At the last second, the Milwaukee Bucks decided to give him a two-way contract for 2018-2019. Morris decides to take this over going to Italy.
- Has played in 3 NBA games so far in 2018-2019.
The story of Jaylen Morris isn’t spectacular. He is the only Division II player who has logged minutes in the NBA this season, but there is still a long way to go and a lot to work on. The biggest factor of his game he needs to work on is his 3 point shot. Including his G-League time last year, since November 2017 he’s shooting about 25% from there. That has to go up if he wants to become an NBA player that has a spot for multiple years.
Simply put, the story of Jaylen Morris is how hard work can lead to better luck. He consistently honed his craft, improved over time, and there seemed to be a lot of “right place at the right time” moments that happened to him since his college career ended. His first professional season just happened to be when the NBA expanded the G-League opening up more NBA opportunities. I’m not Nostradamus, but Morris is a player who potentially falls through the cracks had this not happened.
100% I know who Jaylen Morris is now, and I’ll be watching. There’s a lot for him to prove and he could potentially open up the door for NBA scouts to give Division II and III players a longer look if he succeeds.