Jonesboro junior guard Austin Donaldson, left, is third on the team with a 6.4 scoring average heading into Saturday’s game at Mount Zion. (Special Photo: Jason Mussell)
JONESBORO — Dan Maehlman wasn’t sure what to expect from his team entering the season.
When you graduate nine seniors that have a region championship and two Class AAAA semifinals on their resumes, it can be a challenge for a new group.
Consider only one starter on this season’s team got any significant playing time, and a freshman was being counting on for the bulk of its scoring, you would think the Cardinals were heading for a rebuilding season.
Heading into Saturday’s non-region game against rival Mount Zion, the Cardinals are 12-3 overall.
Jonesboro is doing it with a cast of new players that include freshman sensation James “MJ” Walker and junior DeAntre Mack — one of the few players that got a lot of playing time last season.
Throw North Clayton transfer Tracy Hector in the mix, and the Cardinals are one of the top contenders for a playoff berth.
“All the players are fitting in well,” Maehlman said. “We got a lot of new faces that are being counted on to lead this team. The one thing that I like most about this team is that they are very unselfish. They come out and play, and no one player is looking to take all the credit.”
The Cardinals are averaging 63 points per game with Walker chipping in with an average of 14.9 points per game. Mack is second on the team in scoring with a 12.7 average followed by Hector, who is averaging 10.1 points and a team-leading 7.4 rebounds per game.
“We started out slow, but we now have a lot of chemistry and trust among the team,” Maehlman said.
“We are definitely coming together as a team,” Hector said. “We know each other, and know what to expect when the other person has the ball. We are like a family.”
Last season, Hector was a starter at North Clayton before a wrist injury sidelined him for the remainder of the season. Walker was playing at Southwest Atlanta Christian after a standout career in leading Rex Mill to the county middle school championship.
The 6-foot-5 Walker is considered one of the top freshmen in the state by several recruiting services.
“Coming in, I think I was a little timid until I got comfortable,” said Walker, who has scored at least 20 points four times this season. “I think the chemistry is real good on this team, and we are in a groove.”
Jonesboro’s losses have come to Class AAAAAA teams McEachern in the season-opener and Westlake in the finals of the Peach State Classic over the Christmas break. The Cardinals lost 52-51 to defending Class AAAA and Region 4-AAAA champion Eagle’s Landing. It was a rematch of the region championship game that Eagle’s Landing won last season.
This season’s region tournament starts on Feb. 8 at Jonesboro for the first two rounds before moving to Griffin for the remaining games.
Maehlman said he is looking for more improvement in the next three weeks before the region tournament begins. He said with a team of players that range from ages 14-16, it is understandable that there would be some growing pains in the beginning.
“It took us a while to understand our roles,” Maehlman said. “I’m pleased at where we are at, but I know we have to get better. On a percentage of 100, I think we are at about 50 percent right now.”