O’Brien: St. Joseph freshman Marquise Walker proved his worth in Peoria

The area’s star-studded freshman class has a little bit of everything: raw, promising big men, athletic wings and dependable scoring guards. More than two dozen freshman played prominent roles on good varsity teams this season.

St. Joseph’s Marquise Walker was more than just potential and flash this season. The freshman point guard helped lead the Chargers to the state tournament, where they finished fourth in Class 3A. The Chargers lost to eventual champion Belleville Althoff on Friday and lost to Peoria Manual on Saturday.

Walker had 18 points, four assists and six rebounds against the Crusaders. It was one of the best performances ever by a freshman point guard at the state finals. He wasn’t quite as good on Saturday, but managed eight points and two assists against the Rams.

“Marquise accomplished a lot for us,” St. Joseph coach Gene Pingatore said. “But he’s got three years of high school ball left. He’s obviously going to be better as a senior. He’ll mature and make better decisions. He did what we needed him to do. We needed a guard and he walked in the door. But he has to get better for us to be better next year.”

Walker moved to Kentucky last season to play varsity basketball as an eighth grader. That helped prepare him to take over the point guard position as a freshman at St. Joseph.

“Some people were telling me [Pingatore] wasn’t as good of a coach anymore,” Walker said. “I wanted to try it out. Isiah Thomas, Evan Turner, Demetri McCamey, those guys went here so I wanted to.”

There’s been a lot of confusion about Walker’s age and eligibility status. He turned 16 in December, so he is old for a freshman. But he’s well under the Illinois High School Association’s age limitation (a player can’t turn 20 during the basketball season). He’ll be able to play all four years of high school.

“I feel like I’m a ton better,” Walker said. “I think I progressed a lot under [Pingatore] this season. I’m getting better about listening to him. The player I was at the beginning of the season never could have played like that against Althoff. I’m happy to be with him these next three years.”

Pingatore has turned out a few dozen quality college point guards in his 47 years at St. Joseph.

“I believe in point guards,” Pingatore said. “I don’t care what level, college, pros, if you don’t have a point guard you are in trouble. If you have great big men and no point guards you are in trouble. If you have point guards and no big men you are always competitive. If you have both you’ll go far.”

Pingatore doesn’t go over the top with praise for Walker, at least with his words. Handing a freshman the starting point guard role on his team says plenty.

“It depends how much he wants to get better, but [Walker’s] potential is there,” Pingatore said.

Walker already has a fairly high national profile, but it is possible he could climb the national rankings quite a bit this summer.

“I have the confidence now,” Walker said. “I’m comfortable on offense, but with the defense I got from [Pingatore] I’m just so much better now. It’ll be a show.”

Illinois coach John Groce watched both of St. Joseph’s games this weekend. Walker’s family is intrigued by the Illini.

“If Illinois offered [a scholarship] it would be awesome,” Walker said. “I’ll probably wait till junior or senior year to commit.”

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