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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Michael O'Brien

Thornton senior Morez Johnson keeps his promise and signs with Illinois

Thornton’s Morez Johnson signs his National Letter of Intent to play basketball for Illinois. (Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times)

Morez Johnson committed to Illinois on Nov. 5, 2021. He was just a sophomore and wasn’t nationally ranked. He wasn’t even considered the best Class of 2024 prospect on his own team. 

Very few observers believed the pledge had much of a future. What were the chances that Brad Underwood would still be in Champaign in two years? And how many teenagers don’t change their minds multiple times during high school?

It turns out that while everything around Johnson swirled and changed, he stayed steadfast in his commitment to Illinois. 

Johnson’s star teammates and his coach at St. Rita all left for other schools immediately after last season. The program that seemed destined to dominate completely fell apart. 

“I would have stayed at St. Rita, but things happen,” Johnson said. “That’s part of life. You have to move on and keep on going.”

Fortunately, Johnson had a soft landing spot. The Riverdale resident went home to Thornton, where his club basketball coach, Tai Streets, is the head coach.

“Everything worked out perfectly,” Johnson said. “These are the kids I went to middle school with. It’s been an easy transition.”

Johnson led that middle school, Riverdale Washington, to the state title. There are similar expectations this season at Thornton. 

That campaign begins Thanksgiving week. Wednesday was all about Signing Day. Johnson and his friends, teammates and family gathered in Thornton’s Lou Boudreau room for a Signing Day ceremony. 

“It’s a little weird since he hasn’t played a game for us yet,” Streets said. “But he’s a local kid so it feels like this is how it always should have been.”

Johnson said he never wavered from Illinois, even as his national profile soared over the past two years. 

“[Illinois] has been honest with me the whole time and I’ve really gotten to know the coaches,” Johnson said. “They know how to help me reach the next level and will help me get to where I need to be.”

Johnson’s size and athleticism was impressive as a freshman. He had some stunning moments as a sophomore, producing dunks and blocks that teased a possible NBA future. His junior year was all about his motor. While other talented players appeared to be waiting for the game to come to them, Johnson was crashing the boards and putting in the dirty work that produces major numbers. 

Thornton’s Morez Johnson is joined by his parents, Natasha Jones and Morez Johnson Sr., as he signs his National Letter of Intent. (Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times)

“Morez has always been determined,” Natasha Jones, Johnson’s mother, said. “He was always told there was someone better than him.”

Johnson started playing basketball when he was 11, which is relatively late for a top player. 

“A lot of the kids had better skills than him when he started,” Johnson’s dad, Morez Johnson Sr. recalled. “But I remember talking with him in the car in sixth grade. I told him that he was going to have the height advantage and if he worked harder than everyone else he would catch them fast. That’s what he did.”

Johnson is now 6-9 and ranked No. 35 in the national Class of 2024 by 

“He’s come a long way since I met him in eighth grade,” Streets said. “He works hard and he’s a good kid. It’s kind of crazy how good of a kid he is. He’s come in here as a leader and everyone sees the way he works and that demands respect.”

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