Life comes at you fast.
One moment you’re enjoying a successful senior year and named to the First Team in the ECC and the next you’re undrafted, desperate to find a way to make it to the pros after leaving the comforts and security that the NCAA has to offer within it’s four-year walls.
Such was the journey for Molloy’s Jaylen Morris, who finished his four-year career at Molloy as the 4th leading scorer in the program’s history, as well as holding the record for most points scored in a game for the Division II outfit, scoring 42 points against Mercy College on February 4th.
But as many NCAA players know/will discover, college basketball success is no guarantee of future assurances, and Morris found himself in this box after going undrafted in the 2017 NBA draft.
But Morris was determined to make it and paid $150 to participate in the Long Island Nets’ (G-League affiliate of the Brooklyn Nets) open workouts, not far from Molloy College, Rockville.
“Growing up, I always wanted to play professional,” Morris told News12 during tryouts. “So this is a step in the right direction and it’s right around the corner from where I graduated college.”
Morris did enough to warrant being selected with the 41st selection in the second round of the G-League by the Erie Bayhawks.
It wasn’t quite the NBA draft, but Morris couldn’t hide his excitement after being drafted.
“It felt great to be drafted,” said Morris after being selected. “I tried to contain all of my excitement but I couldn’t help but smile. I worked very hard to get here and will continue to work even harder.”
Morris would not only make the team but would become an important part of Bayhawks head coach Josh Longstaff’s team as he started all 39 games he played in, averaging 12.8 points per game on 52% shooting, 4.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.2 steals per game.
Morris credited a strong off-season for putting him in the position he where he could succeed when the opportunity presented itself to him.
“All the work that I put in during the offseason definitely helped me transition from playing with Molloy to where I am now in the G League,” Morris said in an interview with Ridiculous Upside. “By continuing to grind and working hard, I trusted the process because I knew that I could play with the best of them if I was given an opportunity. So all of these events with the G League just helped me get to where I am. I’m extremely grateful for this opportunity that I’m blessed with.”
Morris is a defensive minded player and this fitted right in with what the Bayhawks wanted to do.
“His defense fits right in with who we are,” said coach Longstaff via Ridiculous Upside. “Morris competes every possession, he is often tasked with guarding the other team’s best wing player and he uses his length and athleticism to make it difficult on them...like a lot of our guys, he has NBA potential because he has great work habits.”
“He has taken ownership of his own growth and development,” Longstaff continued. “Combine that with his athleticism, ability to get into the paint and improved 3 point shooting and I think he has great potential.”
This potential and high-level of play did not go unnoticed, and in late February, the Hawks were in need of a player signature after the buyout of Ersan Ilyasova reduced the Hawks’ roster number to 13 players, one short of the required 14 (meaning the Hawks were required to sign a player within two weeks).
The Hawks decided to sign Morris to a 10-day contract and on February 28th the signing was made official.
Morris knew his shot in the NBA would come but not as soon as this.
“A dream come true, it’s been my dream since I was a little kid to play in the NBA,” said Morris at Hawks shootaround that day. “To see it come so soon, so quick, I’m blessed.”
I felt like I had played well. I didn’t know when it (the opportunity) would come, I’m just glad it did. I’m just happy to be here.”
“Versatility, ability to play defense, get to the basket, try and get my teammates involved,” said Morris on what he brought to the table, via the AJC.
It didn’t take long to see that that was, indeed, what Morris brought to the fold as Morris made his NBA debut later that day against the Indiana Pacers.
Morris shot 1-of-6 for two points in his rookie game but certainly showed some interesting flashes of potential, including his ability to turn on the jets and get to the rim:
Not the most explosive NBA debut but it was a debut that came sooner than Morris had originally imagined.
“It was surreal,” said Morris postgame. “I never thought I’d be in the NBA, at least not this soon.”
“Scoring my first basket was eye-opening,” Morris continued. “My first points on the biggest stage in basketball . . . I thought to myself, wow I just scored a point in the NBA, but I can’t celebrate because I have to get back on defense.”
It was in Morris’ second NBA game against the Golden State Warriors where we saw his defensive potential at work, against Andre Iguodala on this possession Morris coerces Iguodala into a turnover:
And on this one guy, his name is Kevin Durant, Morris does some good defensive work:
Over the course of Morris’ 10-day contract, he continued to show his defensive prowess.
On the ball defense (against Devin Booker here):
Morris showed his ability to switch defensively:
Morris also showed his defensive awareness, as he gets to the spot to draw the charge:
Not with the Hawks, but Morris is good in these situations (help/awareness) as he rotates for this block at the rim:
Offensively, Morris doesn’t make the same impact as be does on the defensive end, which is why — speaking after the Warriors game — Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer said the defensive end is the end Morris will have to hang his hat on, but believed that Morris could contribute offensively too.
“That’s where he’s got to start,” said Budenholzer of Morris’ defense on March 2nd. “He’s got to be great defensively. I think in a short period of time he’s made a good impression with how he can move his feet, how he can stay with his guy, the toughness, a little bit of strength. I think that’s usually, anytime you’re coming from that level — I guess there’s a few exceptions — but, for sure, he’s got to be great defensively and I think he can help offensively also.”
Morris did show flashes of offensive competency in the NBA, continuing to show he could get to the rim:
And also set up his teammates (which is something Morris had already discussed):
Three-point shooting hasn’t been a strength of Morris’ — he shot just 29% from three in his four seasons at Molloy, 29% with Erie and just 20% with the Hawks. That’ll have to be an area Morris will have to continue to work on if he wants to stick in the NBA.
But despite that, Morris had certainly shown enough to be, at the very least, tendered a second 10-day contract by the Hawks, who announced the news on March 11th.
However, during a game with the Chicago Bulls later that day (his first on his second 10-day), Morris rolled his ankle in the second quarter and did not return to the game:
Morris was subsequently ruled out for 2-4 weeks by the Hawks, which made the matter of his contract an interesting matter. In the end, the Hawks signed Morris to a multi-year deal when his second 10-day contract expired on March 21st.
Morris did not return to the court this season and, as of conducting his exit interview on April 11th, is still rehabbing that ankle — over a month later — showing the degree of the injury he suffered.
“It’s coming along,” said Morris of the injury. “Getting there, got to keep working everyday but I’ll be there soon. . . Probably another week or two.”
For the season, Morris averaged 4.7 points on 40% shooting from the field, 20% from three, 2.7 rebounds, 1.2 assists in 16 minutes a game in six games.
While his future is uncertain, Morris is already looking ahead and looking to improve.
“Trying to improve in every area of my game,” said Morris on what he’s looking to improve on in the off-season. “Jump shooting, being comfortable with the ball in my hands, continue to be a defender, things like that.”
While next season’s salary/roster spot is not guaranteed for Morris, he had still come a long way from having to pay $150 for an open tryout in the autumn.
“It was everything I thought it would be — dream come true,” said Morris of the experience. “It’s unfortunate I had to get hurt but just another along the process.”
You’d imagine that perhaps just one or two of the younger wings the Hawks finished the season with (Andrew White, Damion Lee, Morris and Antonius Cleveland) will be back next season with the Hawks.
There are many who prefer Lee over Morris but I think it’s fair to say that Morris’ defense is, by far, the greatest individual talent/skill that any one player possesses out of that quartet. The lack of jumpshot is definitely a concern (and I think it will get better) but Morris can make an impact the game in more than one facet and I think that level of defense will be something Mike Budenholzer — if he remains as Hawks head coach — will really value, because I don’t think you can second guess Morris’ defensive ability compared to the others. He was able to come in and, almost straightaway, become one of the Hawks’ best perimeter defenders.
Whether he sticks with the Hawks or not, I think there’s certainly a spot in the NBA for Morris either as a end of bench guy, a development guy on a rebuilding team or a two-way contract player — what he showed in those 10 days was really solid.
Time will tell, but Morris’ future looks bright. But will it be with the Hawks or elsewhere?