There’s a new basketball phenom making his mark in South Dakota. His name is Matthew Mors, he’s 14 years old, he’s 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds and is averaging 22 points per game for the Yankton Bucks high school varsity team as an 8th grader.
Considering the Bucks play at the state’s highest level of prep hoops, this is fairly unprecedented stuff, even in a sparsely populated, rural state. Mors was already on the radar in Yankton after seeing varsity action last year as a 7th grader, but when the youngster scored 41 points in a December loss at Washington it became clear something special was going on.
On Tuesday Mors and the Bucks came to Roosevelt and erased a 15-point first half deficit to improve their record to 7-6 with a 57-51 win. Mors didn’t hit his first field goal of the game until the second half, but still ended up scoring a team-high 18 points. Rough Riders coach Mitch Begeman, himself a former O’Gorman star who went on to play at USD, was impressed.
“He’s for real,” Begeman said of Mors, who will be a major baseball prospect as well. “We watched a lot of film on him, really did our homework, and I thought did a pretty good job against him, and he still scored 18 points. The kid can flat our score.”
It would be unfair to Mors to speculate too much about his potential future. He’s not even old enough to drive himself home from games, after all, and is probably not done growing. But he’s not your typical middle school kid, and if anything makes him equipped to handle so much attention, it’s that everything he’s accomplishing has been a long time in coming.
Mors’ parents, Ryan and Aimee (Noll), were both high school basketball standouts themselves – Ryan at Huron and Aimee at Washington. Both were three-year varsity starters, and both went on to Northern State, where Ryan played football and Aimee played soccer.
After college Ryan became an assistant basketball coach at Huron, and Matthew’s upward trajectory began literally as soon as he could walk.
“When he was not even two years old he was at basketball practice, over on the sidelines with a ball,” Ryan says. “The girls would play catch with him. He was there every day. From then on that’s where he always wanted to be.”
And he was growing fast. When Matthew was five the family moved to Freeman, where Ryan was the head girl’s basketball coach. He let his kindergarten-aged son practice with the team, running alongside them and participating in ball-handling drills. In the summer he was playing on T-ball teams with kids three and four years older than him.
By the time he was in second grade Matthew was as tall as some of the high school girls, and began showing skills far beyond his age.
“For as long as he’s been playing sports he’s been bigger, stronger and taller than everyone else, so he’s always excelled,” Ryan said. “He could hit the ball farther and throw it faster than kids who were much older than him.”
The question, then, was how much is too much for someone so young. While the physical tools and skills were there, Ryan and Aimee, as former athletes themselves, didn’t want to force Matthew to grow up too fast.
“When he started to comprehend that he was farther ahead of the other kids we really stressed to him to be thankful to his coaches, compliment his teammates and respect his opponents, because not everyone is blessed like he has been,” said Ryan Mors, who is now the athletic director at Yankton. “He’s handled everything in stride. As an educator I’ve been around so many kids his age, and I can honestly say he’s got a maturity about him at this age that most kids don’t.”
Yankton basketball coach Chris Haynes said that’s the most impressive thing about Mors. He caught the Bucks’ attention the summer before his 7th grade year, and they invited him to their high school team camp. The endless hours Mors had spent working on his game were even more impressive than his raw size. The original plan was for Mors to play sophomore or JV basketball as a 7th grader, but when injuries hit, Mors, who was then 6-foot-4, got the call to the varsity, and played extensively.
“That was the first step towards this year and the years to come,” said Matthew, who called himself a ‘stretch four’ when asked his best position on the court. “It helped a lot and it made me way better. If I’d just started playing varsity this year I’d be a way different player.”
Indeed, Haynes says Mors was mostly just asked to shoot as a 7th grader. It’s almost hard to believe how much more diverse his game has become in one year.
On Tuesday against Roosevelt, Mors frequently brought the ball up the floor, and when the Riders double teamed him, Mors deftly zipped passes to open shooters. The Bucks were ice cold in the first half or Mors could’ve had a half-dozen assists. In the second half, as Yankton mounted their comeback, Mors began attacking the paint and getting to the line. He went 10-for-11 from the stripe, and is shooting 86 percent from the line this season.
“He knew after last year he had to become more than just a shooter,” Haynes said. “Now he can put the ball on the floor, he can play with his back to the basket, he crashes the boards. Those things don’t just happen. He put in the time to develop that.”
The Bucks are not a one-man team – Justin Leader, Jack Wolfgram, Rex Ryken and Casey and Cameron Krejci are among those who can make teams pay when they focus all their attention on Mors. And the arrangement works not only because Mors has showed the poise to handle leading a group of kids far older than him, but also because the Bucks’ upperclassmen have accepted the young phenom.
“They’re great, they’re really good kids,” Mors said of his teammates. “They’ve been stepping up and they’ll keep helping me get to where I want to get.”
Where Mors can ultimately get is the question fans will be asking a lot over the next few years. Colleges have already started sending letters, and Matthew’s AAU coach for the South Dakota Attack told Ryan Mors the interest is heating up quickly. Those college programs may wait to see how tall Matthew gets, but offers could arrive soon. Ryan said the family doctor speculated that he could reach 6-foot-8 or 6-9.
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“He’s still growing into his body, but he obviously doesn’t look like a 14-year-old,” said Roosevelt’s Begeman. “I feel like if he continues to drop some of the baby fat and gets a little quicker the sky is the limit. He’s already improved so much just from last year. I think if he keeps working he’ll be a D1 player.”
In case you’re wondering, yes, Bucks football coach Arlin Likness (who assists Haynes with the basketball team) has asked Matthew about playing football, but the youngster has resisted. He says baseball is his first love (he’s a power hitting first baseman and hard-throwing pitcher who could debut at the varsity legion level this summer), but basketball has moved into the top spot.
Mors averages 21.8 points and 5.4 rebounds for the Bucks, and has hit 20 3-pointers while shooting them at a 39 percent clip. He seems genuinely more excited about what he can help the Bucks accomplish over the next four and a half years than what might come after that, and his dad wants it to stay that way as long as possible.
“It’s a long ways away, but at the same time it’s not so far off,” Ryan says of Matthew’s college prospects. “That’s one of those things that we’ll just let it happen when it happens. Right now we just want him to enjoy this and let him be a kid for as long as he can.”
Follow Matt Zimmer on Twitter at @ArgusMattZ .