Jonesboro’s M.J. Walker and McIntosh’s Jordan Lyons share the Southern Crescent Buzz’s first boys basketball Player of the Year Award. Both players led their respective teams in scoring, but they also led their teams in making history. Walker guided Jonesboro to back-to-back Class AAAA championships, while Lyons paced the Chiefs to an undefeated (25-0) regular season, and a Region 4-AAAAA championship — the first region basketball title in school history.
Perhaps most impressive is the fact that both men excel in the classroom in similar manner as on the basketball court.
So the only way we could think of to determine which player is better is to have them both face off on the court one-on-one. Since that couldn’t happen, we’ll just call it a draw between two of the best high school players in Georgia.
Check out the 411 on each player, including our Q&As with both.
JAMES “MJ” WALKER
THE VITALS: Jonesboro’s 6-foot-5 sophomore phenom put in 17.5 points, four rebounds and 2.6 assists per game for the back-to-back Class AAAA champions and nation’s No. 8 team, according to maxpreps.com. Walker is considered the No. 2 rated Class of 2017 prospect in Georgia and the No.16 player in the country. He is the Region 4-AAAA Player of the Year, the hoopseen.com Class AAAA Player of the Year and a the winner of the 2015 AJC Slam Dunk Competition. Walker currently has a 3.6 grade point average.
WHY WALKER: It’s not just because he’s the most dynamic scorer on arguably the most dynamic team in the state. But Walker plays with a maturity that belies his 16-year old stature. He has the uncanny knack of finding other ways to be just as impactful to his team when he’s not scoring as when he’s going for 30-plus. On a squad chocked full of alpha-male type players, Walker’s style of play never made it hard to get the other talented Cardinal players involved.
Q&A WITH WALKER:
SCBUZZ: When you first started your career at Jonesboro did you envision this kind of success?
WALKER: “Everything right now is me just putting in work. When I came here I was expecting a lot, and I knew the coaches looking at me were expecting big things. But I figured this would come, you know, because of my work ethic and because of how I work in the gym. It’s truly a blessing to have all these acknowledgments, accolades and awards. It just truly is a blessing.”
SCBUZZ: I know it’s just been two years, but what do you feel like has been the highlight of your career at Jonesboro so far?
WALKER: “The highlight, I’d say, is just winning two state championships in a row. A lot of people haven’t done that. A lot of people haven’t won one state championship. So, I’m real thankful for that and to be in the position to do that. It’s great.
SCBUZZ: Was this year harder than last year?
WALKER: “I wanna say this year’s harder. because the spot light is on you. That bullseye is on you and everybody’s trying to beat you. This year we had a lot of injuries — more than we did last year, and just a lot of adversity going on. But we were still able to pull through and stick together as a team. It was really tough.”
SCBUZZ: What was the most difficult place you’ve played this year?
WALKER: “I think really the first adversity we faced was at Griffin. That’s when we didn’t have Tracy (Hector). We didn’t have Jamari (Smith), and Austin (Donaldson) was battling a couple of injuries with his shoulder. That’s when we had to click. Someone was gonna have to step up. Someone was going to have to make a play. When the people that did get in, they did what they had to do to step up and make big plays. And I think from then on, even when the playoffs came those guys weren’t so iffy. They were always ready and ready to play. I feel like that game was a turning point for us, especially because of the injuries going on and adversities we were facing. Those other guys knew it was their time.”
SCBUZZ: Was there ever a moment in the Carrollton game when you thought you might not win this?
WALKER: “I don’t think it was. But there was definitely a point where it was like, man, we gotta pick it up. I think it was like 51-50, and we knew then we were gonna have to step up. I think everyone was thinking, all this hard work we had put in, there was no way we’re gonna let down now. And I looked at everybody and saw it in their eyes that they were still hungry, you know. There wasn’t any nervousness at all. Like, in that moment everybody realized their role to play. We stuck together and battled through.”
SCBUZZ: How do you read into all of the hype around you being one of the top-ranked players in the nation?
WALKER: A lot of people ask me, ‘MJ aren’t you ranked,’ or whatever. But, you know, I don’t really look into it like that. I don’t play basketball just to get ranked. I play basketball because I just love the game and continue to grind. But I don’t get caught up in that. Even my dad tells me don’t get caught up in that because as soon as you do that’s when someone else working just as hard as you can take your spot. So I don’t really pay attention to that. I keep my head down, work as hard as I can so that when I look up I’ll be where I need to be.”
SCBUZZ: What areas of your game do you feel need the most improvement as you look to your junior season?
WALKER: Really my ball handling. I need to work on becoming more of a point guard. At the next level, if I don’t grow anymore, I know there are gonna be other guys big and strong and fast, and I’ll need to be able to handle the ball better to control the offense.”
SCBUZZ: So how many offers are you up to now?
WALKER: Man, I don’t know. I know it’s a few. Recently I was offered by West Virginia and Auburn University just offered me as well. I’ve got some more football offers also.”
SCBUZZ: Yeah, what’s up with the football offers, man? You’ve got a few of those too, right?
WALKER: “Yes sir. I’ve got Clemson, Miami, Ohio State, NC State. Just a lot.”
SCBUZZ: So you’ve really got a plethora of choices when it comes to your college education in a couple of years. What’s it feel like to have so many great options?
WALKER: “Like I said earlier, it’s just a blessing to have the talent that I was blessed with. It is hard right now. I played football last year, and I wasn’t gonna play, but I played it and I was able to make some big plays. I know it’s going to be a really tough decision when the time comes for me to make a decision.”
SCBUZZ: Have you ever thought about playing both sports in college?
WALKER: “I might look into it. I thought about playing both sports in college, but I don’t think any schools have offered both sports to me at the same time yet.”
SCBUZZ: What is your favorite of the two sports?
WALKER: Really, it’s whatever season I’m in is the sport that’s my favorite. Right now it’s basketball that I’m loving, but when football comes it’s gonna be football.”
SCBUZZ: Are you willing to predict a third straight title?
WALKER: “Yeah, I mean, I feel like to me anything is possible. But the team we’ve got coming back next year, we’re going to lose a lot of seniors and that means a lot of people are gonna have to step up. We’re going to have to work twice as hard — really three times as hard as we did this year because this year we had a lot of seniors step up. If we’re going to win another state championship, we’re going to have to be in the gym all the time. We’re going to have to practice every day and work out on weekends, work out after practice. We’ll have to be at our best every day to achieve that goal.”
SCBUZZ: So what’s next for M.J. Walker?
WALKER: “I know spring (football) practice is coming, and I’ll look into that. But right now, I just need to take a break and rest my body.”
THE VITALS: Lyons, a 6-foot-1 combo guard tallied 24.7 points and close to three assists per game. He is the Region 4-AAAAA Player of the year, the hoopseen.com Class AAAAA player of the year and one of the state’s leading scorers regardless of classification. Lyons currently holds a 3.41 grade point average.
WHY LYONS: Quite simply, he’s the two-guard equivalent of a quarterback who can “make all the throws.” Lyons can penetrate, pull up, create his own shot and spot up from anywhere on the court and be just as deadly. He’s arguably the best pure shooter and scorer in the four-county area, and when he’s hot, he can take over a game in a moment’s notice (see Region 4-AAAAA championship game vs. Drew). Just as Walker led his Jonesboro team to make history in the realm of back-to-back titles, Lyons did the same, helping guide McIntosh to its first undefeated regular season and region championship in school history.
OTHERS CONSIDERED: Tracy Hector (Jonesboro), Will Washington (McIntosh), Austin Donaldson (Jonesboro).
Q&A WITH LYONS:
SCBUZZ: Jordan, what was the highlight of your season?
Jordan: “The individual accolades are a blessing, and it’s an honor to have been named the things that I’ve been named, but by far the best accomplishment has been going to war with my brothers day in and day out. Going 25-0, undefeated in the regular season. Winning that region championship and bringing back the first banner in school history. You know, finishing 29-1. A lot of schools just cannot compare to that. We had some injuries down the stretch that hurt us, but everything happens for a reason, and it will just add fuel to the fire for next season. But definitely holding that region trophy and seeing the smiles. That was definitely the highlight.”
SCBUZZ: How tough was that loss to M.L. King, given the injury to Will Washington and just your team goals?
LYONS: It was devastating. “When Will went down, it hurt. That’s our point guard, man. That’s our floor general. (M.L. King) went on a run. We stayed in there and we fought, but it just didn’t’ fall our way. It hurt, though. We were all crying. I mean it really hurt because we knew we had the potential if we were healthy to go all the way. It actually took me a while to get through it. It hit me for like a good week. But you live and move on.”
SCBUZZ: How do you think that loss has affected your goals for next season?
LYONS: “It’ll be a key factor into how we achieve next year. That loss means a lot, but we’re only letting it serve as motivation. We’re going to come back next year and come back strong. We’ve got guys already training now, and we’re going to be working over the summer. We’ve got a good group of kids, a good coaching staff. We’re all bought in. We don’t want that to happen again. We understand what it takes to get there, and we just need to take that next step to get past the hump to get in where we want to go.”
SCBUZZ: You’ve got one of the purest shots we’ve seen this season. IS that something that’s always been a big part of your game?
LYONS: “Shooting’s always been my strong suit. I’ve been playing with the same AAU coach since 7th grade, and he’s always been a proponent of having confidence in my shot. When you get into a cold streak it doesn’t matter. Shooters keep shooting. You keep shooting out of your slump. I’ve always had confidence in my shot. My trainer Dorian Lee helps me with that, and sometimes it’s all about just getting shots up and repetition. That’s what I try to do to perfect my jumper. And when you catch yourself in a zone, it pays off.”
SCBUZZ: What’s the biggest improvement you want to make in your game for the next season?
LYONS: “Leadership is something always want to improve on. I’ll be the first to admit to you — I won’t say I was a bad teammate, but I’d get on to my teammates when I was a freshman, just because I knew I had to try and be a leader. But this year I’ve taken the best transition into leadership so far. But also, you’ve always got to be working on ball handling. At the next level, you’ll have older guards who are bigger, quicker and stronger, so you’ve always gotta have a tight handle. Other than that, I’ll just keep working on a shot. And then my quickness, verticals, you know. It doesn’t always have to be ball stuff. Just anything to make my game better.”
SCBUZZ: Speaking of the next level, what’s the recruiting process looking like right now?
LYONS: “Currently I have seven Division I offers. I’ve got Middle Tennessee State, Troy University, Tennessee Tech, Liberty University, Old Dominion, Abiline Christian and Wofford, Then I’ve had Clemson, Vanderbilt, Georgia Tech, South Alabama and Florida State show interest. It’s been a blessing to go through this process.”
SCBUZZ: Finally, what was the biggest thing you learned from this season?
LYONS: “When you’re at the top, it’s very hard to stay at the top. When you’re at the top, a lot of teams get complacent. Satisfied. We were ranked No. 2 for most of the season. So we had a huge target on our back, but it made us play hard and physical. It made us battle and get better throughout the season. I learned we have to stay on top and never overlook anyone you play. You’ve always gotta play your best and don’t let down to anyone. If you let a team hang in a game, that game can be taken away. You’ve just gotta keep your composure and poise and just live in the moment, play in the moment and be easy and it’ll be all good.”
COACH JASON EISELE SAYS: “Jordan is just really a special player. I think he, as much as anyone else I’ve ever coached, deserves everything that’s coming his way. He’s always been kind of our best player since he showed up as a freshman, but he’s really starting to increase his leadership on the team. I think he’s just an unbelievable player. There’s not just one thing he does better. He’s improved on everything since he’s been here. And when that shot is on, I don’t think there’s anyone who can stop him. I’m glad he plays for us and I don’t have to game plan against him.”