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Richey | Morez Johnson keeps proving his basketball value

Jun. 11—CHAMPAIGN — Spring turning to summer has made one thing remarkably clear.

Morez Johnson Jr. being left off the McDonald's All-American team certainly seems like a mistake now, doesn't it?

All the soon-to-be Illinois big man has done since his exclusion — snub, if you will — was prove why he should have been among that group of 24 players. Guards and wings have a clearer path to "Burger Boy" status given more are selected, but the 6-foot-9 Johnson has spent the last two-plus months showing why one of the few frontcourt spots should have been his.

Flory Bidunga and Derik Queen were reasonable selections. The five-star centers going to Kansas and Maryland, respectively, were never not going to get the McDonald's All-American nod. But, sorry, John Bol, Jayden Quaintance or Aiden Sherrell. One of your spots should have gone to Johnson.

Johnson did get Jordan Brand Classic and Iverson Classic invites. But it was his inclusion on the U.S. team at the Nike Hoop Summit and the role he played this past week for gold medal-winning Team USA at the FIBA U18 AmeriCup that proved his value.

All-star games are more hype than hoops. Name recognition. Recruiting rankings. Future college basketball home. Those things can potentially have an outsized influence on who is chosen.

Roster building for international competition is different. What you bring to the court in a team setting matters. Which is why Johnson nabbed one of the frontcourt spots alongside Purdue-bound center Daniel Jacobsen and future Duke big man Patrick Ngongba.

Left at home? Quaintance for one. Plus a pair of younger bigs in Class of 2025 centers — and Illinois recruiting targets — Malachi Moreno and Xavion Staton.

Johnson backed up his junior national team selection with his performance in six games in Argentina. The forward/center might have played just 13.6 minutes per game, but he led Team USA in rebounding and averaged eight points, nine rebounds and two steals for the tournament.

Enough to help bring home gold alongside Jeremiah Fears, who played a similarly productive role off the bench for the U.S. backcourt. Illinois' lone commit, to date, in the Class of 2025, Fears averaged 6.5 points, three assists and 2.8 assists and 2.7 rebounds for Team USA and established his own foothold in the conversation about best players in his class.

The international success Johnson experienced last week is another layer to the experience he'll bring with him to Champaign. To an Illinois team that looks far different from what might have been when he went from longtime committed player to officially an Illini last November.

Illinois coach Brad Underwood completely remade his frontcourt this offseason after Dain Dainja (Memphis) and Coleman Hawkins (TBD) opted to transfer. How Johnson fits in a frontcourt rotation with Tomislav Ivisic, Ben Humrichous and Carey Booth, of course, has yet to be explored.

What's clear, though, is it's going to be difficult to keep Johnson off the court in the 2024-25 Illinois season. The reigning News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year literally did it all as a senior at Thornton. Averaged a double-double at 20 points and 15 rebounds. Chipped in four assists, four blocks and three steals per game for good measure.

Johnson will fill a narrower role at Illinois, in the Big Ten, but that should only help him. He'll be asked to do the things he does well like in his run last summer on the Nike EYBL circuit where he had a breakout, dominant Peach Jam performance and like in last week's gold-medal pursuit in Argentina.

Keep his motor running. Rebound everything in sight. Finish around the rim.

As good a starting point as any. Realistic goals to set for a freshman getting his first college basketball experience in a conference that only gets deeper and more difficult with its four West Coast additions.

Don't be surprised to see Johnson succeed within those parameters. Will it be perfect? Of course not. Freshmen struggle. But Johnson has proven himself at every step along the way from high-level young prospect to top-30 national recruit to gold-medal winner.

Doing so at Illinois and in the Big Ten is simply the next step.