By Gabriel Stovall
ATLANTA, Ga. — No matter how you look at it, it’s game day for the Jonesboro Cardinals.
The Clayton County school boasts arguably two of the state’s best programs in football and basketball, and while the Cardinals’ football team will be in Cartersville facing the No. 3 Hurricanes Friday night, the reigning two-time Class AAAA boys basketball champions will tip off their 2015-16 campaign against Norcross in the Atlanta Hardwood Jam Fest at Mays High at 8:30 p.m.
The season opening matchup with Norcross will be a great test for the Cardinals to see how close to championship form they can remain after losing six seniors from last season’s title team.
So naturally there are some questions that Georgia high school hoop heads will be looking to start getting answers for tonight.
Here are five things to watch for as the Cardinals tip off its second straight title defense season:
1. CAN JAMES “M.J.” WALKER SHOULDER THE LOAD? Last season’s Southern Crescent Buzz co-player of the year (with McIntosh’s Jordan Lyons), Walker was widely considered one of the nation’s best players in the class of 2017. Walker was the top-ranked Cardinals leading scorer at almost 18 points per game, and was on everybody’s all-state, All-American and player-of-the-year ballots last season. What can’t be lost, however, is the fact that Walker had a tremendous supporting cast of players in guys like seniors Tracy Hector (F) and Austin Donaldson (PG) — guys who are now playing Div. I ball, and could’ve been thee guy at any other school. Throw in sharpshooter DeAntre Mack, and the Cardinals will be losing 32.4 points of production per game, not to mention the senior leadership.
Walker will be the first to admit that many of his scoring opportunities came as teams were trying to prevent the aforementioned three seniors from hurting them. But now all eyes will be on the junior who is considered by 247sports.com as the No. 3 junior in Georgia. More than just scoring, Walker will have to prove he is up to the task of leading and making some younger, less proven guys around him better.
2. WHO WILL BE THIS YEAR’S FLOOR GENERAL? We’ve already talked about Walker’s ability to lead being key this season, but coach Dan Maehlman has said that perhaps the biggest cog in the Cardinal machine last year was Donaldson at point guard. The now-Georgia State freshman didn’t post eye popping stats last year. But his toughness, rangyness on defense and ball handling skills will be hard to replace. He wasn’t a rah-rah, in your face guy, but he was the unquestioned leader of Jonesboro’s second title team — and maybe the first one as well. Of course, much of that responsibility to take charge on the floor will fall on Walker’s shoulders. But seniors like point guards Kenneth Qualls and Tariq Jenkins will need to step up. Jenkins scored 5.1 points and had close to 3 assists in a reserve role last season. He’ll definitely be called upon to do more.
3. WILL A SEMI-NATIONAL SCHEDULE BE A PLUS OR MINUS FOR THIS TEAM? While the Region 4-AAAA schedule may leave a little to be desired as far as formidable challenges go, the non-region schedule looks like one that belongs to one of the southeast’s most dominant teams. Of course there’s Norcross and Wesleyan Christian Academy to open up with in the Hardwood JamFest. But next month the Cardinals will travel to Palm Springs, Fla. to compete in the MaxPreps Holiday Classic. Then a huge end-of-the-regular-season matchup against perennial national power Oak Hill Academy on February 3. One thing will be for sure, regardless of the wins and losses: The Cardinals will be a battle tested team by the time the state tournament rolls around.
4. HOW FORMIDABLE IS NORCROSS THIS YEAR? One way to answer this question is to take a look at the sample size of action we’ve seen so far from coach Jesse McMillan’s team. The Blue Devils (2-0) have notched wins against King’s Ridge (81-52) and Lovejoy (89-57) — neither team will be mistaken for juggernauts. But Norcross did to those teams what elite teams should do to lesser squads in the beginning of the season – dominate them. Like Jonesboro, Norcross lost six seniors from last season’s 27-4 Class AAAAAA squad. But solid, sizable talent returns in the personage of 6-foot-8 junior Rayshun Hammonds and 6-foot-9 junior Lance Thomas. Thomas is a three-star guy with offers from Clemson and Texas Tech, while 4-star recruit Hammonds has offers from the likes of Tennessee, Texas Tech, Georgia State and Florida International, with ever increasing interest.
In short? With just one senior on the roster, Norcross may be green, but there is no shortage of big time talent. Win or lose, Jonesboro should be able to get a great read on who it is after playing the Devils Friday night.
5. DOES A YOUNGER JONESBORO SQUAD STILL HAVE CHAMPIONSHIP HUNGER? Don’t necessarily count out Jonesboro just because its a somewhat young squad this year. Remember coach Maehlman himself thought the 2013-14 state title team was a year away from championship contention, while most so-called high school hoops experts didn’t even give the Cardinals that distinction. It’s rare that Jonesboro’s long time coach has fielded a team that doesn’t at least compete for a region title. And with young guys like sophomore Jamari Smith — a promising freshman whose 2014-15 season was cut short due to a wrist injury — and the return of football players like Zerrick Cooper and Jordan Griffin — it’s not the talent that’s in question. It’ll be whether or not this year’s squad has championship heart.
The Region crown should be a lock. But adversity will surely come to this team at some point during the season, perhaps causing some to question whether or not this bunch has what it takes to pull of a three-peat. If Jonesboro can circle the wagons and let adversity make them better instead of folding to the pressure of high expectations, it would be wise not to put a cap on what the Cardinals can accomplish this season.