St. Rita stars James Brown, Morez Johnson prepared for hype train

All eyes will be on St. Rita coach Roshawn Russell’s program this season as his star-studded cast includes the state’s top two prospects in the junior class: James Brown and Morez Johnson.

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St. Rita’s Morez Johnson, Jr., (35) drives toward the basket.

St. Rita’s Morez Johnson, Jr., (35) drives toward the basket.

Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times

Rankings of any kind are supposed to start debates. They’re subjective, but they can lead to arguments.

But for St. Rita coach Roshawn Russell, the last thing he needs is a rankings debate or squabble.

All eyes will be on Russell’s program this season as his star-studded cast includes the state’s top two prospects in the junior class: James Brown and Morez Johnson.

These two coveted high-major targets have been the top two prospects in the Class of 2024 since they walked into St. Rita just over 24 months ago.

Fortunately, up to this point, there doesn’t appear to be any potential of tearing apart this team due to the fact its best players are vying to be the No. 1 ranked prospect in the state.

“The cool thing has been watching their relationship evolve,” Russell said. “They’ve come a long way and become close, so that is always going to help with this type of thing.”

And this “type of thing” is today’s infatuation in our culture with rankings and the fact individual players and those around them seem to be starving for social media and recruiting attention. Russell just hasn’t seen it with them. But he is fully aware of the potential distractions, namely from outside the program.

“It’s so different now with social media out there,” Russell said. “We know everyone will try to pit them against each other. We’ve seen that.”

Following a busy summer with various experiences with Meanstreets on the EYBL basketball circuit and USA Basketball, the two have separated themselves from everyone else in the class in Illinois. Now it’s about who’s No. 1 going forward.

Johnson shuts down the talk immediately when asked.

“I don’t think either one of us worry about the rankings,” Johnson said. “We are just focused on winning, playing together. No one is worried about rankings.”

Nationally, they are both top 50 prospects; Brown is No. 31 in 247Sports’ composite rankings while Johnson checks in at No. 42.

Brown is the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s top-ranked prospect in Illinois.

“I don’t pay attention to the rankings,” says Brown. “I know I’m not worried about who has me ranked where. Being ranked No. 1 or No. 2 is cool, but I’m not concerned with that. We want to make St. Rita as successful as we possibly can. That’s really all I’m concerned about. Getting caught up in rankings? That’s not really important to me.”

Russell is adamant that his two high-profile players can not only flourish together but take advantage of a unique opportunity.

St Rita’s James Brown (13) shoots a jumper against Oak Forest.

St Rita’s James Brown (13) shoots a jumper against Oak Forest.

Quinn Harris/For the Sun-Times

“We have told them that they can both benefit from each other,” Russell has pointed out to them. “They are the same caliber player going through the same stuff together. Don’t view it as a competition. Compete against each other, make each other better every day and win together at a high level. Our communication to them has been to lean on each other.”

By the sounds of it, the two stars have bought in and are feeding off each other.

Johnson says they battle and “go at it in every practice in a real competitive way,” while Brown calls their relationship “great” and the competitive nature between the two an added plus.

“Morez is like a brother to me,” Brown said. “We’ve gone through a lot together already at St. Rita. I know he is going to give me everything he has in practice each day. That’s what helps us get better and develop.

“We are two high-level players who bring out the best in each other. We make each other uncomfortable. He knows my moves, and I know his moves. We put each other in a position where we have to adapt and adjust when we play against each other.”

Johnson and Brown are in different positions when it comes to their recruitments, with Johnson ending his early while Brown remains a red-hot commodity.

Johnson’s recruitment ended last November when as a sophomore he committed to Brad Underwood and Illinois. The Fighting Illini, who are still in the race for Brown, are getting a tough, high-motor forward in Johnson who brings athleticism and an improving skill set.

Brown has an endless list of high-major options from across the country. He’s in no hurry to make a decision, though trimming a lengthy and ever-growing list may be a necessity.

“I am in no rush,” Brown said. “We are starting to prioritize certain schools and plan to cut my list down just before the season or at the start of the season. I want to take some official and unofficial visits to help narrow the list. We were talking about cutting the list down near my birthday which is Nov. 16. Then we can focus on the season then and then re-evaluate college after my junior year.”

There is so much still to learn about each of these ballyhooed prospects, simply because they are still young in terms of being prospects. How much better will they get? Are they winners and big-game players? Are they terrific teammates? Will they rip your heart out as the best athletes in any sport do when they step on the court?

Those are tangibles that go beyond their talents, and they’re ones that are still in the process of being developed and proven.

For big names and reputations and all the offers and hype they’ve received, the Brown-Johnson tandem has played very little high-stakes basketball in high school; they played an abbreviated varsity season as freshmen during Covid and one full high school season a year ago as sophomores that ended in a sectional loss to Kenwood.

Their time is now, however, with the St. Rita hype train set to take off in November.

“We’re ready for a big year –– both Morez and I and the program at St. Rita,” Brown said.

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