By Gabriel Stovall
JONESBORO, Ga. — Flashback to Tuesday night. The moment was drawn up picture perfect for a storybook ending or a nightmarish climax.
Two-time defending state champion Jonesboro and 2014-15 Class AAAA state runner up Carrollton were duking it out on the Cardinals’ home floor in a matchup that turned defensive, not necessarily because the Trojans were keeping the Cardinals from getting good looks at the basket. It’s just that the shots weren’t falling.
At least, not until it mattered most.
Enter Jonesboro’s super junior, M.J. Walker — the 6-5 wing player regarded as ESPN.com’s No. 8 high school player in the country for the class of 2017 — who was in the throes of a horrendous shooting night, based on his own lofty standards.
Fifty-four seconds remained on the clock, and upset-minded Carrollton had a one point lead in an almost hauntingly quiet, yet packed to capacity Jonesboro gym. Walker had his instructions from his coach Dan Maehlman. He started calling for the ball to get in his hands.
“At the time, Coach had called a four load, you know, with a little bit of ISO action,” Walker said. “I was going to get to the rim and maybe try to get a foul. It was some motion offense, lots of screens.”
But then a Trojan defender did something that, though perhaps unexpected, was not lost on Walker.
“I read it,” he said. “And the defender was playing off, you know, and the three pointer was there, and I was just confident. Even though I didn’t have a good shooting night, I was still confident that I could pull up and drain that shot.”
He did, giving Jonesboro a two point lead. And you know the rest. The top-ranked champs defended their crown in the thinnest of margins with a 51-50 win that propelled Walker and company to an Elite Eight matchup at Fort Valley University against St. Pius X Friday night.
The moment for Walker could be described as a microcosm description of how this season has been so different from his freshman and sophomore campaigns.
Before nailing the go-ahead shot, Walker’s vehement appeal for the rock was a familiar sight. Such demonstrative enthusiasm hasn’t been the exception this season as in past times. He’s noticeably taken on a much more visible leadership role on this season’s team, and it has been by design.
“Coming into this year, I knew it was going to be a big year for stepping up,” Walker said. “It started last summer when I played on a team that, you know, we didn’t have just great athletes, but I knew I had to step up and be a leader. Playing this summer taught me how to become a leader, be more vocal and more animated in how I lead my team.”
It’s a big jump for Walker who, despite his all-world talent, wasn’t required to be an out-front player when he was flanked by rock solid leaders like Tracy Hector (Kennesaw State), Austin Donaldson (Georgia State) and sharp shooter DeAntre Mack in the 2014-15 championship season. But this year, he’s responded to the new challenge.
Walker’s scoring (22.5 ppg), rebounding (5.9 rpg) and assists (3.5 apg) have all increased from last season. It’s a sign that he’s looking more aggressively for ways to put his team on his back.
“I feel like I’ve always had this kind of leadership in me,” Walker said. “Just wanting to be in those moments and take those shots. I’ve been on the other side of that before, though too — down by two points and missing three free throws in a row. I’ve been there, but I’m always ready for those moments. I never back down from that. It’s always a learning process.”
Maehlman agrees. And while he’s quick to acknowledge the growth in his star player, he’s even quicker to balance out the praise with talk of Walker’s need to keep progressing.
“That’s been the difference,” Maehlman said. “We’ve had to try as a collective group to bring him into being a leader, and it’s not always easy. I would say he’s about half way there. There’ve been some learning curves during this time, as with all players. There are some times when he’s gotten frustrated with me, we’ve gotten frustrated with each other, and teammates and himself, and those things are part of it. Even though he’s a really, really talented player, there’s still some room to grow.”
Maehlman mentioned some of the desired growth areas — “IQ things,” understanding situations and leading his team in more ways than just what happens on the floor.
“It’s bigger than just playing hard and doing things on the court for those 32 minutes,” he said. “It’s about leading your team during the 90 minute practice. Leading them during a two hour team dinner. Leading them when they’re staying in a hotel on a road trip for four nights. We know he’s going to be this kind of leader on the next level, so we’re trying to get him ready for it.”
And Walker doesn’t object to his coach’s evaluation. He’ll be the first to tell you that increasing his leadership ability is more than a notion.
“Patience,” Walker said. “That’s a big thing for me. I’m learning when trying to be vocal, you can’t yell every time just because someone turns the ball over. Certain dudes, you know, you can’t say certain things to certain guys. You gotta learn how to say it a certain way.”
Part of the process is also learning how to share the stage with senior Eric Lovett who, while averaging close to 16 points per game this season — including over 20 points per contest in the last six games — is, in some ways, just as dangerous a scorer as Walker.
“EJ’s a great shooter, and the thing I tell him is even if his shot is not falling, to still be aggressive,” Walker said. “Just having him on the floor, you know, it takes a lot of pressure off. Just having him out there, I try to find him every chance I get. Even when he’s not at his best, I still look for him because that’s the kind of player he is.”
Case in point, the Carrollton game where Lovett was 0-for-8 from the field before nailing a couple of big shots late, along with Walker, to help grab some control.
Maehlman said the two scorers play off each other and not only help each other get better, but the rest of the team also.
“EJ has been huge, and gives another facet of our game where people can’t just come out and focus on MJ,” Maehlman said. “As good as MJ is, he needs that. But everybody always talks about EJ and MJ, but we’ve got like six or seven guys who are capable of going off any night. You’ve got Jamari who can get 20 any night. (Zerrick) Cooper can get you 16, 18 points and 11 rebounds. And then you’ve got MJ and EJ as your two shooters on the perimeter. As a defense, what do you do?”
Jonesboro’s offensive well-roundedness bodes well for a player like Walker who can concentrate more on the intangibles of leadership that make him the well-rounded player he wants to be once he steps onto a college campus — even as he tries to help the Cardinals to a third straight title.
“It’s been a bit tougher trying to win a championship this time around,” Walker said. “It’s a different group of guys who are used to playing under those seniors the last couple of years. We’ve had some mistakes and turnovers here and there. It was hard in the beginning, but I’m growing as a person and we’re growing as a team. We put the chip on our shoulder and we’re better now than we were at the beginning of the year.”
And although Maehlman is admittedly hard on Walker, he’s equal parts proud.
“MJ is the type of kid who, if he makes a mistake or something goes wrong, he’ll own up to it, man up, apologize and not allow it to happen again,” he said. “That’s very hard for a high school kid to accept that, especially one as high profile as him, and everything that comes with that. Is he there yet? No, he’s not, but the good thing is we’ve got a whole other year with him to get him ready for the next level.”