Jonesboro freshman James “MJ” Walker is averaging a team-leading 16.8 points and 5.2 rebounds per game for the 5-1 Cardinals. (Staff Photo: Derrick Mahone)
JONESBORO — Dan Maehlman calls freshman James “MJ” Walker an “immediate impact” player for his Jonesboro Cardinals basketball team.
And the 6-foot-5 freshman certainly hasn’t disappointed in the early stages of the season. Walker is one of the main reasons the Cardinals have started the season at 5-1 entering the week.
Walker is averaging a team-leading 16.8 points per game in his first season.
“He is one of those immediate impact players talentwise,” Maehlman said. “Those type of players don’t come along all the time.”
Maehlman compares him to former Jonesboro standout Toney Douglas, who is now a member of the Houston Rockets. Douglas graduated as the school’s all-time leading scorer, and most recognized players.
“He (Walker) still has a lot to learn because there is a big difference between AAU and high school basketball,” Maehlman said. “You have to play a little more under control on this level, and we ask our players to do more of the little things.”
With the graduation of nine seniors off of last season’s team that reached the second round of the Class AAAA playoffs, the Cardinals came into the season needing some impact players. DeAntre Mack was the only player returning this season with any significant playing time.
The junior guard is averaging 16 points per game for the Cardinals, who were region runners-up to eventual state champion Eagle’s Landing last season. The two teams meet this Friday in McDonough for the first time since the Region 4-AAAA championship game.
Walker has taken all the high praise and the pressure of those expectations in stride.
“I feel my role is to hustle, and be a player that can score for this team,” Walker said. “I need to be able to put this team in a position to win. I really don’t feel a lot of pressure, because I’ve been in that situation before. I will accept my role and do what the coach tells me to do.”
So far, so good for the former middle school standout.
Prior to coming to Jonesboro, Walker led Rex Mill Middle to the Clayton County Middle School title. He entered Southwest Atlanta Christian after graduation to reclassify himself.
After a year at the former Class A powerhouse, Walker entered Jonesboro this school year as a freshman.
“I expect a lot out of myself,” Walker said. “I’ve put a lot of work into this, and I’m serious about this game. I want to be that guy that others look to. Being at SACA last year was great for me. The academics were on point, and it was a small environment.”
Walker said it was a smooth transition coming over to Jonesboro at the beginning of the school year. He already had several friends at the school and on the team.
“His attitude is real good, and he is a very unselfish player,” said junior Tracy Hector, who transferred from North Clayton during the spring. “He is a total team player that does what it takes to win.”