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St. Joe's grad Jaylen Morris takes unusual road to the NBA

Jaylen Morris is used to being overlooked.

He was only an honorable mention on the 2013 boys basketball All-Western New York team in his senior year at St. Joe's Collegiate Institute. He played college ball at Division II Molloy College and was spurned by general managers in leagues overseas after graduating.

But as of Wednesday, he's an NBA player. Morris signed a 10-day contract with the Atlanta Hawks, making him the first former Western New York high school player in the NBA since Lazar Hayward in 2013.

"The past few days, it's been crazy," Morris said. "I never thought this would happen. While I'm here, I'm just making sure I enjoy every moment, take as much information as I can."

Morris made his NBA debut Wednesday night against the Indiana Pacers, scoring his first points on a putback layup in the first quarter. He played 11 minutes in the Hawks' 107-102 victory.

"When coach called my name and I'm about to sub in and guard Victor Oladipo, I'm like, 'Wow,'" Morris said. "'I'm in the NBA and I'm guarding one of the best scorers in the league right now.' ... I got nervous for a second, but at the end of the day, it's just playing basketball."

Morris, an Amherst native, said he wants to be an example to others that there's more than one way to reach the pros.

"I want to inspire people that you don't have to go high DI to be able to reach your dreams of being in the NBA," Morris said. "The Division I, Division II, Division III doesn't mean anything. As long as you know how to play the game the right way, you'll get your chance."

St. Joe's Jaylen Morris breaks past Aquinas' D.J. Roberts during the first half of the game at St. Joe's Saturday, December 22, 2012.
{Mark Mulville / Buffalo News}

Physically, Morris didn't come close to resembling a pro prospect while at St. Joe's. He grew from 5 foot 10 to 6 foot 2 between his junior and senior years but was still quite skinny. He had some tools, but it wasn't surprising he didn't receive any Division I offers.

"I don't think anyone will deny he was a little bit undersized," said former St. Joe's boys basketball coach Mark Simon. "But he was long and he was lanky and he could shoot it. ... It should be a motivational story for any high school athlete who's got potential to never give up the fight."

Morris found a home at Molloy, an East Coast Conference rival of Daemen College in Rockville Centre, thanks largely to a familiar tie. His father, Pat Morris, joined Molloy head coach Charles Marquardt's staff as an assistant two years earlier.

Morris got significant playing time from the get-go, earning starts in 20 of 28 games as a freshman. He was able to learn through experience, first honing his craft as a wing as an underclassman and then taking over point guard duties as an upperclassman. He was a true four-year player, adding tools as time went along.

"I don't think we had anyone who was so multidimensional," said Marquardt, who has served as Molloy's head coach since 1995. "Whether it was bringing the ball up or guarding a four, to going in the post. ... He really put it together those past couple of years."

Morris graduated the fourth-leading scorer in school history, totaling 1,618 points in addition to his 650 rebounds and 150 steals. He was a two-time All-ECC selection, a third-team member as a junior and first-team member as a senior.

The changes in his frame were just as notable. He grew to 6 foot 5 and bulked up to 185 pounds. Simon said he looked like a whole different person and was only able to pick him out on a broadcast by his running style.

Jaylen Morris graduated fourth on Molloy College's all-time scoring list with 1,618 points. (Photo courtesy of Molloy Athletics)

But when Morris looked to continue his career in the summer, he dealt with the stigma that follows Division II players. He talked to a handful of European general managers but only had offers from lower-level leagues. Teams were wary his success at Molloy wouldn't translate professionally.

Many Division II players have succeeded in the NBA, including the likes of George Gervin, Earl Monroe, Charles Oakley, Sam Jones, Bob Dandridge, Ben Wallace and Phil Jackson. However, the number of Division II players in the league has dwindled with an influx of European players and improved recruiting.

"No one respected the DII level," Morris said. "No one respected where I went to school."

Morris turned his attention to summer showcases, with some tailored to European scouts and others to the G League. He eventually caught the eye of Malik Rose, a two-time NBA champion as a player and the general manager of Atlanta's G League affiliate, the Erie BayHawks. Rose liked what he saw enough to draft Morris in the second round, 41st overall, of the G League Draft in October.

Morris made the most of his opportunity. He's started in all 39 games he's played with the BayHawks this season, averaging 12.6 points, 4.8 rebound and 2.3 assists. Erie head coach Josh Longstaff commended his work ethic and his coachability, calling Morris a model for others on the team to follow.

"Jaylen plays as hard as he can every possession, offensively and defensively," said Longstaff, who has seen first-hand what it takes to play in the NBA. He spent three years as an assistant coach with the New York Knicks and held multiple roles with the Oklahoma City Thunder before accepting the Erie job in July.

"He’s one of our best wing defenders and offensively, he just has such a great ability to get into the paint and make the right play," Longstaff said. "Both of those things transfer to the NBA."

The NBA's investment in the G League in recent years played into Morris' favor. The G League, then called the National Basketball Development League, was founded in 2001 with eight teams as a minor league system for the NBA. It was successful at keeping players in game shape, but the structure was limited. Today, the G League is up to 26 teams and all of them have a direct affiliation with an NBA club.

Unlike a traditional minor league system, most of the players are signed through the G League team, not the NBA team. However, the G League squad mimics the terminology and playbook of their NBA affiliate. The Hawks had a better idea of how Morris' style would translate than they would have in the past.

"Teams have really realized how valuable it is to have that feeder system," Longstaff said.

Morris' play and potential were noticed by the Hawks, who are clearly looking to the future while sitting in the cellar of the Eastern Conference. However, the team had already filled its available roster spots. That changed on Monday when Atlanta reached a buyout agreement with forward Ersan Ilyasova. Morris signed two days later.

"I think he's just someone that's a good overall player," Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer told Atlanta media Wednesday morning. "I think he's shown good athleticism, an IQ, an ability to play multiple positions."

On Tuesday, Morris will get as close as he can to a hometown game in the NBA when the Hawks play the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre at 7 p.m. He said he's hoping a few family members can make it, including his mom and his aunt.

Now, he's focusing on sticking in the NBA. He doesn't want this to be his only week and a half in the sun.

"I've just got to continue to work hard and continue what I've been up to this point, but also make sure to enjoy the moment and take it all in," Morris said. "You never know when it can happen again."

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