Explaining what Johnathan Motley has done to become a star begins with what he doesn’t do anymore. “He got to the point where he didn’t celebrate good games,” Baylor assistant coach Jerome Tang says, and the simplicity of the assessment belies its difficulty. Motley, the team’s 6' 10", 230-pound, profligately gifted junior forward, has had many games to celebrate. He had many of them before this season, the year in which he went from a guy to the guy and ascended into All-America strata, helping the Bears reach the Sweet 16 this week in New York. The problem was not Motley’s production. Not exactly. It was the negative space between.
Examining his sophomore-season game log, for example, is not recommended for those prone to motion sickness. Three straight double-digit scoring outputs ... followed by eight total points in the next two outings. A 23-point night ... followed by 22 points, total, in his next five games. A total of 51 points amassed in consecutive Big 12 contests, followed by an eight-point crash, followed by a 22-point revival, followed by 22 points combined in Baylor’s final four games before the NCAA tournament last spring. “At the beginning of his career he’d have some really good games,” Baylor coach Scott Drew says, “and he’d have some games where you’re like, ‘What happened?’”
The question sounds rhetorical and exasperated, but it’s also moot. Because here’s what happened this winter: Johnathan Motley finally understood how to handle attention just as he was put in position to attract more of it than he’d ever seen before. Due to the departure of a couple all-conference stalwarts, he would be required to become Baylor’s go-to outlet for difference-making performances on both ends of the floor. The talent to do so was self-evident. All that was left was to craft an approach to limit wild swings that were no longer sustainable.
Motley had been the variable for Baylor. Now it was time to be the control. “I just try to go out there every day and bring consistency,” Motley says. “If I can just make sure I play with more energy, instead of just making the one-on-one plays, and just make the hustle plays, the offensive rebounds, things like that, it helps me stay consistent.”
He enters a Friday showdown with South Carolina at Madison Square Garden averaging 17.3 points and 9.9 rebounds per game while using 30.4% of Baylor’s possessions—all team highs. Only two other players remaining in the NCAA tournament field are more regularly involved in their team’s offense: Oregon’s Dillon Brooks (30.9% usage) and Purdue’s Isaac Haas (30.6%).
Motley’s deft handling of the responsibility—he’s posted just four single-digit scoring efforts all season, and none since Jan. 14—is especially notable given his relative lack of experience with such expectations. The Houston native competed on an AAU team with Andrew and Aaron Harrison, the five-star prospects who would go on to Kentucky, as well as future Kansas State forward Wesley Iwundu and Derrick Griffin, a former top wide receiver recruit who, after navigating some issues with NCAA qualification, wound up as the SWAC Player of the Year for Texas Southern this season.
There are no complaints from Motley about playing alongside ball-dominating guards like the Harrisons. “They love throwing lobs,” he says. “It was just a dunk-fest.” But neither did the dynamic provide much room for growth as a primary scorer. “He might have been the fifth option,” Drew says of Motley’s AAU days. Baylor didn’t offer a crash course in taking over games, either. Motley redshirted in 2013–14 and then saw stalwarts like Taurean Prince, Rico Gathers and Kenny Cherry in lead roles when he finally took the floor the next season. Over his first two seasons, Motley was somehow both involved but also an ancillary offensive figure; his usage rate ranked third and second among Baylor regulars in his first two years, but he hoisted the fourth-most shot attempts among the Bears in both campaigns.
He did enough to earn third-team All-Big 12 honors last season, but Motley’s mercurial numbers demonstrated ample room to grow as a potential program centerpiece. “Early on he couldn’t handle success,” Tang says. “He’d have a good game, he’d start thinking two years down the road already. He wouldn’t think about the daily process, what I need to do every single day. Because when you have a good game, teams start scouting you and they prepare for you.”
To counteract that, Motley didn’t prepare more as much as he prepared better. He adhered to the borderline cliché college basketball player summertime workout plan: up at 6 a.m. to hit the gym with fellow big man Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. That was followed by an afternoon team practice, and then Motley and Acuil Jr. returned for a third session around 8 p.m.
The program is no revelation. It is, essentially, what every Division I player does. The attitude Motley brought to the sessions was not as common, in his partner’s estimation. “Some guys when they get in the gym, it’s more repetition, and after a while you get lackadaisical,” Lual-Acuil Jr. says. “Every move that he did, he was going at game speed. He was dunking the ball hard, like he would in the game. The way he was going about it, it was just different.”
It was gradual change that took a sudden leap, like a ride over the edge of a waterfall. Motley’s floor game had improved steadily, he had added 25 pounds to his frame since his arrival in Waco and now, at last, he stacked total assertiveness on top of it all. “Ish has always been his Kryptonite,” says Baylor guard Jake Lindsey, referring to 250-pound, wide-bodied senior Ish Wainwright. “Ish is big and strong and has a low base and long arms. And J-Mot started bullying him. And I was like, Oh, man. I don’t think people are ready to see what he’s about to do.”
The opportunity grew out of necessity: Baylor lost its top performers and needed to recast the lead. Motley’s recalibrated workout regiment ensured he could follow the script laid out for him. He has, as Tang puts it, a “refinement” to his game that preempts erratic results.
“In practice, coach Drew just embraced me, kind of turned me loose,” Motley says. “He said, Just play your game, we need you to produce on offense. I embraced the role.”
Despite foul issues in both first-weekend games in Tulsa, Okla., Motley notched two double-doubles while shooting 61.5% from the floor. He even hit his ninth three-pointer of the year in the first round against New Mexico State. As Motley explains it, the Aggies were hedging long on ball screens, so jump shots off kickback passes were wide open.
Normally, he notes, Motley doesn’t enjoy that much space when he touches the ball. The increased attention has made this a year unlike any other for Baylor’s bellwether forward. But by now the results are nothing new.