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Taylor: Shot blockers a force on the basketball court
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Last Tuesday night, Johnson High forward Montrell McKenzie had a smile on his face that no one could wipe off.

Left and right he was blocking shots against Lanier, leading the Knights to a 63-49 win on the strength of a whopping 13 blocks to go along with 19 points and 11 rebounds.

“I had a little smirk on my face the whole game,” McKenzie said. “My coaches always tell me, every time you see the ball leave their hands to go for it.

“Every time it leaves their hands I try to block it.”

The 6-foot-6-inch junior has already blocked 116 shots this season — that’s 5.5 per game. For comparison’s sake, the University of Kentucky’s Anthony Davis leads the nation with 4.7 blocks per game. In the NBA, Los Angeles Clippers’ forward DeAndre Jordan leads the league with just over three blocks per game.

And the scary thing for Johnson’s future opponents — he still has plenty of room to improve.

“He’s gotten better every game,” said Johnson coach Jeff Steele, whose shot-blocking sensation only played limited minutes on varsity last season, but is now being put in position to control the paint. “Defensively we encourage him to be aggressive and keep him in the middle.

“It’s getting difficult for people.”

No kidding.

McKenzie sees first-hand just how much his blocking ability can change the game. He’s noticed that after he blocks a shot, the next time that player drives to the basket he will usually try to adjust his shot.

“When most players drive in, they try to do a fancy layup,” McKenzie said. “And then I’ll get the rebound.”

He has been collecting rebounds with incredible regularity this season. In addition to the 11 he grabbed on Tuesday night, the forward set a school-record with 32 rebounds in a loss to Walnut Grove on Jan. 13. On Friday McKenzie added 20 rebounds (in addition to 13 points and seven blocks) to his prodigious rebounding total in a 71-45 win over Oconee County. Just two days ago, he added his latest triple-double with 24 points, along with 10 rebounds and 10 blocks.

But it’s his shot-blocking abilities that have other coaches talking.

Gainesville coach Todd Cottrell, whose Red Elephants held off Johnson 69-60 in Dec., mentioned McKenzie first when asked to name the top shot-blockers in the area, noting his “good timing and incredible length.”

The Knights’ forward is quite possibly the top shot blocker in an area that includes such talents as Gainesville’s Deshaun Watson (15 blocks) and Shaquan Cantrell (14), as well as East Hall’s 6-6 senior Joe Berry (3.5 blocks per game) and fellow senior Chris Orr, who blocked 125 shots last season.

On the girls side, Gainesville Rebecca Webster is averaging jut over a block per game for the defensive-minded Lady Red Elephants.

They are just a few of the talented shot blockers around the area, but all, like McKenzie, have one thing in common: Their blocks have the power to change a game.

“Oh yeah,” McKenzie said. “They change momentum.”

The figure of McKenzie guarding the paint has also kept Johnson afloat despite having a tough time on offense and playing much of the year without two key starters, including last year’s leading scorer and senior Matt Hollis, who only returned recently returned after recovering from a meniscus tear.

“Our problem is that we have trouble scoring,” Steele said. “But a lot of people don’t score much on us either, and he’s the reason why.”

It’s a big turnaround for a player that was a little-used sophomore, and it’s a credit to the work that McKenzie has put in.

“I just started listening to my coaches, working extra hard, staying late in the gym, and I went to a couple of camps,” said McKenzie, who looks up to North Carolina forward John Hinsman and Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett.

The work is paying off, and his coach doesn’t know what will happen if he keeps this pace of improvement into his senior season.

“If he keeps this up as a senior,” Steele surmised. “It’s going to be really difficult for other teams.”

McKenzie likes it that way.

Zac Taylor is a sports writer for the Gainesville Times. He can be reached at