Photo by Jerry Jackson
Jonesboro junior guard Patrick Petty (12) turned into a reliable starter and scorer for the Cardinals this season after coming off the bench a year ago.
Jonesboro boys basketball coach Dan Maehlman knows what he has on his roster. Among the 10 players poised to return next season, there is only one who has scholarship offers from Division I schools — and they’re for football.
But the rest of Georgia knows what Maehlman has, too — a team that’s appeared in back-to-back semifinals, each time falling to nationally-ranked and three-time Class AAAA champion Miller Grove.
The season: The Cardinals finished 26-5 and lost to North Clayton in the Region 4-AAAA championship game. Jonesboro lost, 70-49, to Miller Grove for the second straight season in the Class AAAA semifinals.
Who Jonesboro loses: The Cardinals will graduate just two seniors, most notably Cedric Nettles, who earned a spot in Jonesboro’s rotation coming off the bench to provide solid defense.
Who’s back: Jonesboro will get its entire starting five back, including Casey Wells, who went down with a leg injury during the state tournament, plus key reserves Brandon Black, Deantre Mack and John Walker, who stepped in to replace Wells during his absence.
Looking ahead: The bar has been raised for Jonesboro after two consecutive semifinal appearances, and a top-four ranking next season is expected. The biggest hope for the Cardinals is that another year of experience for center Chukedubem “Duby” Okeke could truly balance their offensive attack and round out the team into a state title contender.
By the numbers: 4. Number of semifinal appearances in school history (2002, 2003, 2011, 2012).
Coach Dan Maehlman says: “I’m just proud of Jonesboro basketball and what it’s become, because it used to be terrible. But now there’s talk about us being one of the better programs in the state. And, really, that has to do with these kids.”
This time, the Cardinals fell 70-49 to the Wolverines, worn down by Miller Grove’s dominant center Tony Parker, a McDonald’s All-American. But Parker is a senior, and Miller Grove won’t be in Jonesboro’s way next season when the Cardinals are reclassified in AAA, leaving a unique opportunity.
That opportunity is made only more urgent with Jonesboro returning its entire starting five, and then some.
Daniel Peace, Patrick Petty and Cameron Sutton are familiar names to Clayton County basketball fans by now. They combined for 41 points against Miller Grove, and are far more seasoned than the average junior backcourt. They give Jonesboro arguably the most experienced and accomplished trio of starting guards in the state next season.
The questions for Jonesboro entering this season centered around how to replace their mid-major Division I signees Rasham Suarez (Georgia Southern) and James White (Arkansas-Little Rock). The answers came in the form of juniors Casey Wells and Chukedubem “Duby” Okeke.
Wells established himself as a starter, a solid fourth option behind Peace, Petty and Sutton to keep opposing teams honest. When Wells went down with an injury in the first round of the state tournament, the Cardinals certainly missed his presence. But Jonesboro’s depth showed when John Walker, another junior, stepped in and kept the Cardinals moving onward to the semifinals.
Okeke quickly became Jonesboro’s most pleasant surprise this season. The 6-foot-7 center has only played organized basketball for two years, but he gave the Cardinals the frontcourt presence it needed to go up against the likes of Lovejoy’s Justin Tuoyo and North Clayton’s Marcus Hunt.
If there is reason to hope that Jonesboro can take the next step to a state championship, it may come in the continued development of Okeke.
“The sky’s the limit for Duby,” Maehlman said. “He’s a freak athlete. He’s not only a great kid, he’s very coachable.
“He’s been playing basketball for two years, and he steps on the court [Wednesday] against a McDonald’s All-American. ... He’s never seen anything like this before in his life. I couldn’t be more proud of him.”