Johnathan Motley is the most versatile big man in the Big 12, a gifted forward who has the size to muscle up with the most physical players in the league and the athleticism to guard smaller players on the perimeter.
Every day he spends on the court is a joy for Baylor’s All-American. And a second chance.
There was a three-week period back at Houston North Shore High School when Motley wondered if he’d survive, much less ever play basketball again.
As he was preparing for his junior season in 2011, Motley’s appendix burst. He ended up at Texas Children’s Hospital for 18 days where he underwent surgery to remove his infected appendix.
“It was a near death experience,” Motley said. “With God and my mom and family praying for me I was able to get through it. I don’t really think about it that much any more, but it was definitely a crazy experience.”
The ordeal began when his stomach started hurting at basketball practice.
“I asked my coach if I could go sit down because my stomach wasn’t right,” Motley said. “I apparently fell asleep on the floor and when I woke up I was in a puddle of sweat. I went to the doctor and went through different tests. My appendix ruptured in the hospital.”
As Motley underwent medical treatment, his mother, Willie Motley, constantly prayed for her only son.
“I began praying and crying out to God for him,” Willie Motley said. “He was infected inside really bad, and the doctor did the surgery and cleaned him out real good. Then they tried an antibiotic and that did the trick. When he got home we still had to give him antibiotics to make sure the infection was cleared up.”
With the medical scare behind him, Motley got another chance to play basketball again. When he returned to the court after missing the first five games of his junior year at North Shore, he played with a vengeance that has continued to this day.
Motley has averaged nearly a double-double this season with 17.3 points and a Big 12-high 9.9 rebounds for the No. 12 Bears as they prepare for the NCAA tournament opener against New Mexico State at 11:40 a.m. Friday in Tulsa.
He dunks with power and flair but can also step outside and nail a 3-pointer. Motley is shooting 51.7 percent from the field and has reached the free throw line 179 times, nailing 125 for a 71.4 percentage.
“Motley really has gotten better and better,” said Texas coach Shaka Smart. “Last year, Rico Gathers and Taurean Prince were the primary personalities on that team, but now that those guys have moved on Motley has been able to assert himself even more. The best thing about him is his motor. He goes nonstop, he’s constantly working and getting his hands on the ball. He’s turned himself into a phenomenal pro prospect.”
If Motley chooses to forgo his senior year at Baylor, he’s projected to be taken in the middle of the first round of the NBA draft. That’s a decision Motley will make after the season, but first he wants to help the Bears make a deep run in the NCAA tournament after an impressive 25-7 regular season.
“I want to put my heart into the tournament and make sure we go as far as possible,” Motley said. “I want to make sure I do everything to make the team win. But I’ve shown (NBA scouts) I can rebound and be able to do different things on the floor.”
Coming into his own
Motley didn’t always look like the polished 6-10, 230-pound NBA prospect that he’s become at Baylor. When he started playing organized basketball in seventh grade he was quite awkward.
“When he first started playing basketball, the ball would go through straight through his hands,” said Willie Motley. “He was really small and his jersey and shorts were too large for him. He’d run down the court trying to hold up his shorts.”
Motley began getting a lot of attention from college coaches during the summer after his junior year of high school. Playing on an AAU team with Kentucky-bound twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison, Motley became a top 100 national recruit.
But he made it clear he wanted to stay in the state so his mother could attend his games, leading to his decision to choose Baylor over schools like Texas and SMU.
“After my junior summer, college coaches called me left and right,” Motley said. “But I had it in my heart to stay close to my mom. Baylor is close to home and I was friends with Isaiah Austin and TP (Taurean Prince). I would come up here and hang out, so it was kind of like family. I felt I fit right in.”
Patience pays off
Motley made Class 5A all-state as a North Shore senior as he averaged 17.3 points and 10.9 rebounds per game. He was eager to play as a freshman at Baylor in 2013, but coach Scott Drew asked him to redshirt to give him time to add strength to his lean body and adjust to the college game.
“I didn’t really want to hear that,” Motley said. “I was ready to play and come in and help the team. But I met with some people like my mom and I thought it would be a better thing for me to do. Just adding weight and going against guys like Cory Jefferson, Rico Gathers and Isaiah Austin every day prepared me for where I am now. Looking back on it I’m thankful I did it. I don’t know where I’d be if I hadn’t done it.”
Moving into the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman in 2014, Motley averaged 7.7 points and 4.2 rebounds. After a strong start in nonconference play, Motley’s numbers dropped against more physical Big 12 players, and he spent the summer getting stronger while developing a tougher game in the paint.
The work paid off as Motley averaged 11.1 points and 5.1 rebounds last season. When Gathers missed several games due to a health issue, Motley moved into the starting lineup during Big 12 play and asserted himself even more as he helped the Bears reach the NCAA tournament.
“I thought his role last year was very prominent,” said Kansas coach Bill Self. “He was good as a freshman and you saw potential, but he was terrific as a sophomore. He was wise enough to come back (to Baylor), and now he’s played himself in position to be one of premier players in the country. He’s not just a scorer, he’s a player who can move around and can guard on the perimeter. He’s a complete player.”
Racking up awards
With 13 double-doubles, Motley has become a semifinalist for both the Wooden Award and the Naismith Trophy. In Baylor’s first game against Texas on Jan. 17, Motley set career highs with 32 points and 20 rebounds. He’s scored 20 points in 10 games this year and has cracked double figures in 27 of his 31 games.
His biggest improvement has been as a rebounder as he’s almost doubled last season’s 5.1 average. Much work in the weight room with Baylor strength coach Charlie Melton has paid off.
“Charlie has done a great job helping him develop in the weight room,” Drew said. “When you’re bigger and stronger you get better looks. When you get more offensive rebounds it puts you in position to be more consistent. As a coach you’re really excited when you see improvement in a player.”
Motley has embraced the role of being Baylor’s go-to player. He knows his teammates can count on him to deliver in the biggest moments.
“I’m not surprised by this season because my teammates have full confidence in me,” Motley said. “I know what I can do with my skills and how much work I put in. I wanted to be able to finish through contact more, so I definitely worked on my rebounding. I’ve also worked on my outside shot to stretch the floor a little bit.”
When Motley looks out in the crowd, he sees his mother who makes most games at the Ferrell Center and some road games. During Baylor’s win over West Virginia in the last game at the Ferrell Center, Willie Motley got a lot of TV time on ESPN when she cheered for the team from the front row of the Baylor student section.
After he signs his first NBA contract, Motley wants to give back to his mother for all the things she’s done for him.
“She’s a big inspiration,” Motley said. “She helped me and I want to give back to her one day, just knowing how much she supported me. I wasn’t always good, it took a lot of practice. But she drove me a lot and I’m thankful to her.”