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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Joe Henricksen

Illinois recruit Morez Johnson transfers to Thornton

Morez Johnson (21) shoots against Mount Carmel. (Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times)

While so many of the state’s high school basketball stars have left Illinois for prep schools, the state’s top prospect in the Class of 2024 had every intention of staying in high school. 

It’s just not going to be where he started his high school career.

Following an upheaval at St. Rita this spring where teammates left and the head coach departed, Morez Johnson is headed to Thornton. 

“Coming home and playing for [Thornton coach] Tai Streets has me excited,” Johnson said. 

Johnson, who is committed to Illinois, is a south suburban native. He helped lead Washington Junior High in Riverdale, which is just three miles from Thornton, to a state championship in eighth grade. But he opted to attend St. Rita as a freshman where he emerged as the No. 1 prospect in Illinois and a consensus top 75 player nationally. 

Johnson said he chose to go to St. Rita out of eighth grade because it was “bigger than just basketball.” He had a strong relationship with the St. Rita coaches and welcomed an opportunity to be in new surroundings. 

“I really wanted to go there and learn how to deal with different people and be part of a diverse community,” Johnson said.

But with all that has transpired at St. Rita this spring, the situation was nearly untenable, especially with the neighborhood school he grew up near as an option. 

Throw in the fact Johnson plays for Thornton coach Tai Streets in the spring and summer as a member of Meanstreets, and the move made sense. 

The move that didn’t make sense to Johnson was going the prep school route. The prep schools hounded Johnson and his family. But playing high school basketball in his hometown, leaving a legacy that he’s started, remains important to him. He simply says prep school wasn’t for him. 

“I’m not a big fan of leaving and doing the prep school stuff,” Johnson said. “I know they tell you it’s to get ready for college. But I feel like it’s about how hard you work. I’m confident in myself, my trainers and coaches to develop and get me ready. I don’t have to go across the country to do that. I have faith in what we can do right here.

“I am trying to set a tone. Everyone doesn’t have to leave to be great or reach their goals.”

The draw of playing close to home is big for Johnson; it’s a big reason he chose Illinois early in the recruiting process. But even he admits playing for a high school in your hometown is a special and different experience –– and one that won’t be there forever.

“You never know when you’re going to be able to play in your home city again,” Johnson said. “I only get to play in the Chicago area one time in college when Illinois plays at Northwestern. And let’s say I don’t get drafted, or if I do I don’t get drafted by the Bulls. You never know when you can play right at home in front of your family and friends every single game. I’m a big believer in enjoying the moment. You don’t want to get so caught up in living in the future.”

Now Johnson will try to resuscitate a Thornton program that finished with an uncharacteristic 14-12 record a year ago while finishing fourth in the Southland Conference. The addition of a player like Johnson, the No. 1 senior in the state next season, will instantly lift the Wildcats into the preseason top 25. 

Streets knows what he’s getting. The veteran coach has had one-year star transplants before, including Alonzo Verge in 2016-17 and Ty Rodgers last season. But beyond the talent, Johnson’s former coach, Roshawn Russell, appreciates his coachability.

“He’s mature beyond his years,” said the former St Rita coach. “He never complains. Not once has he ever complained about anything.”

Russell also loves the star player’s work ethic. Russell, who is now an assistant coach at St. Laurence, and Johnson talked –– and continue to talk –– regularly. But every time the coach hits him up on the phone, Johnson always has to go.

“We talk a lot,” Russell said. “But it’s always ‘I have to get in the gym. I have to get to the weight room.’ He so consistent with his work ethic. He wants it. He’s hungry.”

What strikes you with Johnson is he simply looks the part. The 6-8, 215-pound big man is a physical specimen. He runs the floor, foes bounce off of him and he’s still a vertical athlete at his size. 

His offensive game continues to evolve and is a work in progress. The jumper and overall offensive feel must improve. But where Johnson makes his mark is with his motor and mindset, which leads to impacting the game defensively, on the glass and as a powerful finisher at the rim. He’s always been about the right things in helping a team. 

With that, Johnson will help you win basketball games. And Thornton is set to win a whole lot more this season. 

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