Marlon Johnson was cut from his seventh and eighth grade basketball teams. As a freshman at Joliet West, he played on the B team. As a sophomore, he spent most of his time on the bench.
Now the 6-foot-9 senior is being described as "the next Anthony Davis," comparing him to the former Chicago Perspectives star who now is freshman sensation at Kentucky.
Obviously, like Davis, Johnson has come a long way in a relatively short period of time. In a year-and-a-half prior to his senior year, he grew from 6-foot-4 to 6-foot-9. After observing him in AAU competition, college coaches began to call. Illinois State offered a scholarship.
"He has a long way to go but he has great potential," Joliet West coach Luke Yaklich said. "He will have to attend a junior college next year to get his academics in order. But in two years, with more experience and 10 to 15 pounds of muscle, he will be a major Division I recruit."
Johnson is averaging 15 points and 10 rebounds for a Joliet West team that is 17-9, has won two games in a row and will play at Thornton on Friday night for the Class 4A regional championship.
"He was coming together as a junior but he didn't have drive or a work ethic. No kid was coached harder or yelled at more," Yaklich said. "But something finally clicked within him. He got motivated during his junior year. He didn't play much early and it bothered him. He made a lot of changes in the second half of the season.
"He is a unique kid. He loves the game. He kept showing up for workouts in the summer. put in a lot of hard work over the summer and in AAU and he kept getting better. He added skills. We got a lot of calls from college coaches about him during the AAU season. Some people said they saw the next Anthony Davis. We told him he would be a beast as a senior."
Well, the beast is loose. A five-game winning streak in January set the tone for the second half of the season. With Johnson, 6-foot-3 junior Morris Dunnigan (13 ppg), 6-foot-3 senior Brian Edwards (11 ppg, 5 rpg), 5-foot-11 junior point guard Carl Terrell (8 ppg, 3 assists) and hot-shooting 5-foot-10 junior Ryan Modiest (6 ppg) coming off the bench, Yaklich believes his team can contend with top-seeded Bloom in the sectional at Lockport.
Joliet West has been there before. Last year, the Tigers were 9-16 and lost to Marian Catholic in the regional. But they were 24-8 two years ago and eliminated Bloom and Homewood-Flossmoor before losing to O'Fallon in the supersectional.
"We're focused now. A lot of pieces are fitting together," said Yaklich, who coached at Sterling and La Salle-Peru before landing at Joliet West five years ago.
Dunnigan, who started as a freshman on the supersectional team, is back after missing his sophomore year with an ACL injury. Without him, last year's team had no identity on offense. "He has expereience as a scorer in big games. He likes the ball in his hands," Yaklich said.
In Tuesday's 64-61 victory over Plainfield South, Dunnigan was limited to nine points but made a basket and free throw with eight seconds to play to spell the difference.
Edwards, who had 17 points and 15 rebounds against Plainfield South, is committed to St. Francis University. Last year, he was the team's seventh or eighth man but has developed into a valuable contributor this season.
Terrell is the floor leader...emotional, vocal, full of energy. And Modiest is the team's best shooter, a scoring threat off the bench.
"In the summer, we talked about Friday night's game, the regional championship, that we had what it takes to win it," Yaklich said. "We knew this team had good potential and good athletes."
He was disappointed that his team finished 9-5 in the Southwest Suburban Conference and third behind Homewood-Flossmoor and Bolingbrook.
"We felt we could be better than 9-5 in the league," the coach said. "But we're playing as well as we have all year right now. We really hope we are capable of carrying it over through the regional."