From Player Invitational to NBA Contract: Shaquille Harrison and Jaylen Morris’ Journey

Jaylen Morris and Shaquille Harrison are two of the best underdog stories that you will learn about this season.

Both are currently playing on 10-day contracts in the NBA for the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, respectively, and began their professional careers at the NBA G League Player Invitational; a tryout every summer that welcomes hundreds of players to play in front of personnel from all 30 NBA teams and affiliates – all with goals of making a roster in the NBA G League.

The NBA G League has players that have come from several different avenues. There’s players that were highly recruited out of college, journeymen that have bounced between pro leagues around the world, and even the unsung heroes that may have been overlooked and are just trying to make their mark at the pro level.

Making a roster from the annual Player Invitational is a goal that few achieve. Morris (Erie BayHawks) and Harrison (Northern Arizona Suns) join Detroit Pistons guard Dwight Buycks, and Dennis Horner, who spent time with the then-New Jersey Nets in 2011-12, as the only players ever to make an NBA roster beginning their professional careers at the Invitational.

For Harrison, a 6-foot-4 guard out of Tulsa, it didn’t matter the route to getting to the pro level, he was going to do whatever it took to get noticed.

“I remember my agent called me while things weren’t moving as fast as we wanted them at the time, and he told me about this invitational,” he said. “He thought it would be a great idea for me to go out and show people what I can do since not many knew about me or my game.”

With the volume of players that compete at the invitational, it could be easy to get lost in the shuffle, but Harrison didn’t worry about that. He stayed true to his beliefs and just played his game.

“I wanted to prove to people that I was a winner,” Harrison said. “I wanted to show people that I can win. Whoever was on my team didn’t matter, as long as we won at the end of the day I would have been happy.”

And that it did. Days after the invitational, the Northern Arizona Suns brought Harrison in for a pre-draft workout.

Northern Arizona GM Louis Lehman credits the invitational for allowing the league to discover guys like Harrison, who may have fallen through the cracks during scouting for new talent.

“The Player Invitational is a great opportunity for everyone involved to get scouted and have eyes look at you from the NBA level,” said Lehman. “The whole goal for the invitational is to find the diamond in the rough, and after watching Shaq, we knew we had found that in him.”

Another NBA G League General Manager, Malik Rose of the Erie BayHawks, spoke highly of the event as well.

“With how the Invitational was set up, with all the players and courts going on at once, there was a great flow to the whole event making it easy for me to watch and evaluate,” said Rose.

The Invitational allowed Erie to land its star guard, Jaylen Morris, who played his college ball at Division II Molloy College, not earning him the exposure that many college standouts enjoy at the Division I level.

“Regardless of the level of basketball you play, it is still the same game, and I knew I could play it with anybody,” said Morris, who averaged 12.6 points per game on 51.8 percent shooting in 39 games with Erie. “So I just went out there and showed them what I could do, and let the chips fall where they may.”

Erie General Manager Malik Rose said he noticed Morris, a 6-foot-5 guard, right away.

“Jaylen just stood out immediately,” said Rose. “For him coming from Division II, it didn’t really bother me. You watch him, and you understand that he can play, he has a great basketball IQ, he made a lot of great plays, handled himself well on the pick and roll, so I thought that he was an easy guy to take a chance on.

“The G League is a huge opportunity for everyone involved to get noticed; players, coaches, front office members, everybody has a chance to follow their dream of reaching the NBA, and this event is just another chance for everyone to show their stuff.”

Lehman discussed the importance of this event as well, even as non-glamorous as it may sound to some.

“I give a lot of credit to the NBA G League for recruiting the players that they do because an open tryout doesn’t sound like the most appealing thing, but it is an opportunity. And that is all these men need,” said Lehman. “One opportunity, one team that finds something about their game that they believe can add value to their team.”

What the Suns loved about Harrison were his intangibles. The defensive focus and tenacious attitude that he brings really is what attracted their front office. In 35 games with the Northern Arizona Suns, Harrison averaed 1.9 steals per game, to go with 11.0 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists.

“We brought him in for a pre-draft workout, we loved his toughness, his strength and energy. I knew his offensive skill set wasn’t where it needed to be yet, and that is probably why he went under the radar and un-drafted,” Lehman said. “But what I saw in him was a player that can effect the game without scoring, and that is super valuable.”

Harrison always has stayed true to the process his entire basketball career. Through the trying times, and the triumphant times, he has stayed the course, knowing that his time would come eventually.

“Keep pushing forward. Always,” Harrison said. “There is beauty in the struggle, and I truly believe that, and you cant get tough without going through tough times. Sometimes things don’t seem ideal at the moment in reality, but you should always dream as big as you can, and if you work hard everyday, things eventually pay off.”

As Harrison and Morris enjoy their 10-day contracts with their respective NBA teams, they understand that the journey doesn’t end here.

They will continue to work hard, and never become complacent in their efforts at getting better. Because their whole life, hard work and defying the odds is all they know how to do.