Just 360 days.
It took Jaylen Morris less than a year after he played his last college basketball game at Division II Molloy College until his first NBA game.
There have been plenty of steps on the journey, even in such a short time, and there are more still to take. Morris has taken the road less traveled. The guard has gone from college to exploring opportunities overseas, to showcases in Las Vegas and Chicago, to the G League and finally to the Hawks in less than a year.
“I definitely look back on my journey, where I’ve been to get here,” Morris said. “I take nothing for granted.”
Morris played that final college basketball game on March 5 last year. Molloy College, located in Rockville Centre, New York, lost to Saint Thomas Aquinas in overtime in the finals of the East Coast Conference tournament. Morris’ father, Pat, is a long-time assistant coach at the school.
Agent Ronnie Zeidel watched video of the 6-foot-6 point guard and saw a player who was long and athletic, could defend and made the right decisions. Those sentiments were echoed by those who worked with Morris before and after college. Zeidel said in the back of his mind he thought about the G League, but in the front of his mind he began to explore opportunities overseas for Morris. It’s a route that many players have taken to get to the NBA. The right fit wasn’t there.
“You can send a kid overseas, and he can get lost real easily,” said Zeidel, of RZA Sports. “I didn’t want to send him to some tiny country where he was going to earn $1,000 a month. There were some low-level offers. I didn’t think it was right.”
So Zeidel worked to get Morris into a three-day European showcase in Las Vegas in July, one of 64 players. He was named an MVP of one of the sessions. The next step was the one-day G League Player Invitational in Chicago in August, and Morris was in the group of the top 50 players. That’s where he caught the eye of Malik Rose, the Hawks’ manager of basketball operations and general manager of the Erie BayHawks, the team’s G League affiliate.
Rose selected Morris in the second round of the G League draft, the 41st overall pick, in October after he had workouts for several G League teams. Rose struck first in the draft.
“I got a couple of calls from certain GMs in the G League who said ‘Great move’ and ‘You beat me to him. I wanted him,’” Rose said. “Then I got calls from other GMs who said ‘Who the hell is that?’”
It wasn’t long into his stint with the BayHawks that Morris stood out again. As the roster was being assembled, Morris played several positions during training camp, from the point to the power forward.
“This is the biggest thing with me, his basketball knowledge and his ability to pick things up really jumped off the charts,” Rose said. “Just watching him pick up the offense and pick up the concepts of certain drills. He wasn’t confused with them. He listened to the explanation one time and then he’d have it. It was like this guy has a really high basketball I.Q.
“We moved him all around and after two or three days of camp, he knew every spot. You didn’t have to teach him. He was playing the point. He was playing the wing. He was playing the post. He picked up the entire offense in a couple days and that’s when we knew we had something special. Since then, he’s gotten better every day.”
Morris played in 39 games in the G League for Erie, all starts, and averaged 12.6 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.2 steals and 31.4 minutes. When injuries mounted for the Hawks, they didn’t have to look far for a solution. Morris signed a 10-day contract and made his NBA debut Feb. 28. He played in five games and totaled 24 points, 15 rebounds and six assists during the stint. Morris signed a second 10-day contract on March 11 but after one game he suffered a left ankle sprain.
While Morris has yet to return from the injury, the Hawks signed him to a multi-year contract on March 21.
“You want to get a guy like that in the program,” Rose said of the organization’s decision.
Morris may return in one of the Hawks’ final six regular-season games. In six games with the Hawks, he averaged 4.7 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 16.4 minutes. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said Morris’ defense has impressed in his short time in the NBA.
Morris said he has never wavered in his confidence – then and now. His college coach, Charles Marquardt, described something more.
“It’s something to prove,” Marquardt said. “I think that replaces confidence and has just as strong as an emotion. He wanted the next level, whatever that next level was going to be. I think he had something to prove in the showcases last summer and it kept moving forward. With every step he built more confidence. What he could do was established in steps and pillars over time.”
Morris said he will remain in Atlanta in the offseason to continue to work. There will be the Las Vegas Summer League and training camp to continue to prove his worth. There is still much work to be done.
“Keep the ball rolling,” Morris said. “It doesn’t stop here. I want to continue to make a name for myself. I’ve made it. Now, I just have to stay here.”