By James Butler
After winning the Class AAAA Championship for the second year in a row last season, the Jonesboro boys basketball team heads into the 2015-16 season after losing six seniors – four of whom are playing college basketball this Fall.
“What I heard on the street is that we’re rebuilding, so I’ll accept that,” Jonesboro head coach Dan Maehlman said. “All we’re going to try to do is work hard and we’re going to try to win a few games. We won a state championship last year and the year before, [but] that does nothing for us this year. The kids we have now have to accept different roles leadership wise. The way they carry themselves in the building, the way they lead the young kids, that will determine how good we are this year.”
The Cardinals do return their leading scorer in junior guard MJ Walker. The 6-foot-5 Walker is one of the top juniors in the country, but he knows that accolade and the success of previous seasons will not win games this season.
“This season we’re really just humbling ourselves,” Walker said. “We won two state championships, that’s cool and all, but we always come into the season with a different mindset.”
Jonesboro lost three starters from last year’s 32-1 squad. They were forward Tracy Hector Jr., guard Deantre Mack, and point guard Austin Donaldson. Donaldson is currently playing for Georgia State University and replacing him is Tariq Jenkins.
“I’m trying to bring my team another championship,” Jenkins said about his expectations for the season. “I know we got the tools and we got the ability to do it. I’m just trying to step out of Austin’s shadow because I know I’m a great point guard as well. I’m going to [use] some of the stuff he taught me and be a great leader.”
While losing quality players, Jonesboro will welcome back Jamari Smith, a highly regarded sophomore, who missed the last 10 games a season ago due to injury, as well as football standout Zerrick Cooper, who missed all of last season because of injury.
Maehlman also expects to see a different Walker.
“MJ is going to have to accept a totally different role as far as being a leader,” Maehlman said. “Leadership is the biggest thing. We have talented kids that [played] in a reserve role, but leadership will be the biggest thing for us. Just like anything, it’s going to take chemistry, all the right pieces and people to understand their roles for us to be good.”
Jonesboro will have a schedule worthy of one of the top teams in the country as it will open with Brooklyn’s Lincoln Memorial on Nov. 27, while also playing Oak Hill Academy. The Cardinals will also make appearances in tournaments in California and Memphis, Tenn., as well as at Class AAAAAA power Norcross.
“I think two or three of those teams will be nationally ranked,” Maehlman said. “I don’t know if I can say I bit off too much too early, but it’s definitely going to get us ready for when that region tournament hits.”
Walker says he and his teammates are ready.
“Last year we got a taste of it, going out of town to North Carolina and playing Montverde [Academy],” Walker said. “It’s competition. Nobody on our squad has fear in their heart when they get on the court. We’re going to play our absolute hardest, we’re going to give it all for God, and just not have any fear at all.”