Thursday May 26th, 2016 12:47AM

Johnson boys ready to test growth with tough slate ahead

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter
OAKWOOD -- You know what people really mean when they say someone has potential, right? That they haven't really done anything yet.

According to head coach Jeff Steele, the Johnson boys basketball team has loads of potential.

However, statistically speaking, it's arguable that the current group of Knights may be the best Steele has assembled in his 15 years at the helm of the program.

"That's tough to say because we had a great group in 2005 that won the region and went to the Sweet 16," Steele said. "Last year's team was outstanding. This year, potentially it could be the best team we've had. But we'll have to see how the season progresses."

So far, things have been progressing nicely for the Knights, who are 13-3 overall, 2-0 in Region 8-AAAA, and are undefeated at home this season.

That 2005 group, led by one of the best players ever for Johnson, Marqise Wright, won Region 7-AAA and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the state tournament. Only a tip-in at the buzzer by Banneker kept the Knights out of the Elite 8 and perhaps a trip to the Final Four.

"That 2005 team was special," Steele said. "I think we had a real shot at Macon but we lost a heartbreaker. That team also had more depth than this team. But, the starting group we have now may be the most talented we've ever had as a whole, and the most versatile."

Senior forward James Hodges is averaging a double-double on the season (18 ppg, 10 rpg), senior point guard Drew Dunham (8.0 ppg, 7.0 apg) recently set the school's all-time assists record, juniors Ty Cockfield (18 ppg) and Rod English (12 ppg) give the Knights two slashers to attack the basket, and senior Carter Cagle (12 ppg) is the 3-point bomber who has never met a 3-point attempt he thought was out of range. As a group they account for 85 percent of the offense while averaging roughly 23 minutes of court-time apiece.

"A great high school team needs five guys on the court at the same time that can score," Steele said. "I feel we have that for the first time since I've been here. We can shoot over a zone, we can beat man-to-man with our slashers, we can pound it inside. We can hurt you in a variety of ways.

"Drew has been one of the best leaders we've had since I've been here and Ty and Rodney are tough to guard one-on-one. Carter can stretch a defense like no one I've seen, and James, we just call him 'an enigma' because he can do so many things. He's only about 6-foot-2 but no one has been able to really stop him inside. He has a tremendous basketball IQ and is always in the right place for a rebound or a pass."

Hodges gives credit to the style of offense the Knights run.

"I just try to be in the places where I can make plays," Hodges said. "We are a dangerous team because all of us can score. When one of us is off someone else is there to pick them up."

Cagle said their biggest strength is their diversity on offense.

"We have a lot of weapons and we try to get everyone involved," Cagle said. "My role is to open things up from the outside and that's what I try to do."

When asked if any shot is out of his range...

"Not really. I practice shooting from half-court so I feel comfortable anywhere," Cagle said.

Dunham, who has 339 career assists and eclipsed the old school-record of 330 held by 1999 graduate Stewart McIntosh last week, said they just try to "feed the fire."

"If someone gets hot, I just try to get that guy the ball," he said. "If Carter hits that first one, I'm giving it to him until he misses."

If he misses that first one?

"Well, I look inside for a while," Dunham said smiling at Cagle at the time. "But we always go back to him because eventually he'll get it going."

But, with great potential also comes great responsibility. The Knights had tremendous potential last season only to see it come to a disastrous end in the first round of the playoffs on their home court against Shaw.

"That was probably the toughest lose since I've been here from the standpoint that we had a team we felt could go a long way (in the playoffs) and we didn't show up against a good team and got beat," Steele said. "We went from the hunter to the hunted at the end of last year and we didn't handle it as well as I had hoped.

"We're definitely the hunted this year and we need to accept that responsibility and be prepared every game. We know everybody will give us their "A" game and we have to respond back. We're still learning how to do that. Once we get that, I don't think there is a limit to what this team can do."

Dunham said one of their biggest motivators coming into the season was the awful finish to last year.

"That hurt," he said. "We probably went in a little over-confident and didn't take (Shaw) as seriously as we should have. I think we're playing with more of a sense of urgency this year.

"We know this is our last chance, and our best shot, to win a state title as seniors. We set a goal of winning Lanierland and we did that. Now we're looking for a region title. Obviously we would like to win the state title but we're just trying to take things one game at a time."

"That was a big wake-up call for us," Cagle said about last year's playoff loss. "Sometimes we're a little too loose against teams people think we're supposed to beat and that's what we're trying to change this year."

Over the next week the Knights will find out if they can shed the potential label for the contender label.

Johnson travels to Lanier on Friday in a key Region 8-AAAA battle, then takes on Class AAA title contender Buford on Monday in the MLK Classic at Berkmar, plays host to Class A title contender Athens Christian on Tuesday, and then travels to Eastside in a showdown of region unbeatens. The winner of that game will have the inside track for the top seed in the region tournament.

"Four very tough games in eight days," Steele said. "I think we'll find out just how good we are or how much work we still have left to do. But this is the kind of week you look forward to because to be the best you have to beat the best."

Hodges thinks this could be the beginning of something special for the Knights.

"I feel like we're at least a Final Four team, if we play to our potential," he said. "We need to improve our defense. If we can do that, I think we can win it all. We have the weapons to do it. We just need to play like it when it matters."

Steele said he has borrowed one of Vince Lombardi's best quotes as a way to motivate his group:

"Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence."

"We know we'll never be perfect but I think we have a chance to be excellent," he said. "At times they have lost their focus, like last year's playoffs, If you don't focus against the teams you're probably supposed to beat, you won't be able to beat good teams at all when you don't focus. That's what happened last year I think. They saw the No. 4 seed and figured it was already won. We saw what happened.

"If we want to do something special we have to be focused and consistent every minute of every game. That is our challenge right now."
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