Col. Zadok Marguder High School junior J.J. Epps is tough. Anyone who saw him shake off a sprained ankle to make a pair of championship-clinching free throws knows that.
But Epps didn’t become this year’s only public school player on the All-Gazette boys basketball first team by merely shaking off sprained ankles. As a 5-foot-4 point guard, he had to be much tougher than that.
Before Epps injured his ankle in the final seconds of overtime during Magruder’s state title game victory against Eleanor Roosevelt, he aggravated a groin injury he suffered earlier in the season.
“As the game went on, it kind of got worse,” said Epps, who first noticed the injury reoccurring during warmups. “Certain cuts I make would aggravate it more.”
At halftime, Epps was in considerable pain.
“He is on the ground, laying on his back and almost has got tears in eyes,” Magruder coach Dan Harwood said. “Our trainer is working on him for a whole six or seven minutes we’re in there with him. J.J. doesn’t even look up. He could probably hear what I was saying, but he couldn’t see me.”
Epps overcame the injury to score a game-high 13 points against a stingy Eleanor Roosevelt defense. That has made Harwood’s job of convincing college coaches to overlook Epps’ height much easier.
I don’t have to say much anymore, because I just show them the films,” Harwood said. “He’s got a heart of gold. He gives you everything he has. He’s very coachable. He’s unbelievably quick. He’s a game-changer.”
Many college coaches have watched Magruder to evaluate Nick Griffin, but Epps has also garnered their attention.
“Every coach has come by has loved J.J.,’” Harwood said.
It’s not just coaches who are impressed.
“He’s, by far, our most popular player,” Harwood said. “I can’t tell you how many people with emails, text messages and from little kids, older fans that just love watching J.J. play.
“Join the fan club.”
Harwood might be the club’s president. His comments on Epps go above and beyond the praise coaches often bestow on their players:
“His decision-making this year was off the charts. When to shoot, when to pass, when to try to make a play — it was just off the charts. He’s going to be a great college player.”
“I think, J.J., he’ll be the best before he’s through of all the point guards I’ve coached here in 22 years.”
“He’s the best pullup jump-shooter I’ve ever seen in high school since I’ve been a high school coach.”
“I think he will be a Division I player. There’s no doubt in my mind. Every Division I school, some head coaches just aren’t going to want a point guard of that size, but I think they’d be making a mistake.”
“Really, he has no weaknesses other than his size.”
“He’s a special kid, and I’ve been blessed I’ve been coaching him for three years. I can’t believe I get to coach him another year. It’s just a real treat, a real treat. He’s just a super-talented kid. I can’t emphasize enough: He’s a great kid.”
After nearly 20 minutes of singing Epps’ praises, Harwood said he’d finally run out of things to say about Epps — or at least Harwood thought he had.
“I really can’t say anything more positive,” Harwood said. “He’s an easy kid to talk about. I love J.J. He is just a joy to coach. He’s just a special kid.”