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Johnathan Motley leads Baylor’s early-season surge

Baylor forward Johnathan Motley (5) works to get through Oregon's Jordan Bell, left, and Chris Boucher (25) on a drive to the basket in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday Nov. 15, 2016, in Waco, Texas. Motley scored 17 points in his season debut and Baylor got a big early-season victory, 66-49 on Tuesday over the No. 4 Oregon team playing without its preseason All-American. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

After losing their two most prominent starters to graduation this spring, the Baylor Bears were not supposed to obtain national relevance during their 2016-’17 campaign — and definitely not within the first month.

Junior forward Johnathan Motley’s emergence as a star-in-the-making has drastically altered this prognosis.

The Bears have exploded out of the gates this November, as though being omitted from the preseason AP Top 25 lit a fire under head coach Scott Drew’s squad. A decisive 66-49 victory over No. 4 Oregon in the second game of the season certainly gave the impression of a team playing with a chip on its shoulder.

As this young college basketball season progresses, though, it is becoming clear that Baylor is not merely riding emotion to a hot start. With the help of a downright scary frontcourt presence, the Bears are starting to show signs of a legitimate contender — in the Big 12 and on a national level.

They are currently sitting at a perfect 6-0 and have skyrocketed to No. 9 in the polls, with last week’s Battle 4 Atlantis championship serving as a launching point for an exciting season in Waco, Texas. The larger effort has been led by the Bears’ star 6-foot-10, 230-pound big man.

Motley averaged 20 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2 assists per game during the three-day event in the Bahamas, earning MVP honors as Baylor rattled off victories in each game it played.

The Bears opened tournament play with a 71-63 victory over VCU, when Motley picked up the first of many double-doubles to come this season.

Even more impressive than his 19 points and 10 rebounds was a 9-of-10 performance at the free-throw line, the latter illustrating a monumental element of growth in his game. The athletic big man has never had a problem getting to the free-throw line, but he has struggled to knock down shots there. It is no secret that a 24-percent improvement at the charity stripe has coincided with his emergence into a consistently viable offensive threat.

Next up was No. 24 Michigan State, whom the Bears eventually exposed after a concerning start. Baylor could not find any offensive production in the first half — with the exception of Motley, who poured in 20 points by halftime to keep his team within three. As Motley cooled off offensively down the stretch, finishing with a total of 26 points on the day, the rest of the team stepped up to outscore the Spartans 43-25 in the final 20 minutes.

This captured the attention of No. 10 Louisville in the tournament championship game. The Cardinals sent constant double-teams at Motley. These tactics proved mostly to no avail in a narrow 66-63 Baylor victory. Motley still scored 15 points on an efficient 5-of-9 shooting performance from the field, including a timely go-ahead dunk with 2:49 left that served as the highlight of a game-shifting 21-5 run.

The offseason departures of leading scorer Taurean Prince and top rebounder Rico Gathers elevated Motley’s role immensely, and so far the change has been a welcome one for both parties. The Bears are playing arguably their best basketball in recent memory, and Motley is finally providing consistency to go along with his never-doubted potential.

A long season awaits, but if this pace keeps up, Baylor and its newfound centerpiece could dance into late March. At the very least, the Bears will provide Kansas with an unexpectedly vigorous level of competition once Big 12 play arrives.

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