Penn guard Markus Burton is the best in Indiana, and it shouldn't even be close

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune
Penn’s Markus Burton (3) goes up for a shot as Kokomo's Flory Bidunga (40) defends during the Penn-Kokomo high school 4A Semi-State Championship basketball game on Saturday, March 18, 2023, at Michigan City High School in Michigan City, Indiana.

No more can they ignore this section of Northern Indiana when it comes to recognizing the best high school boys’ basketball player in a state where the game remains religion. 

Nearly every spring since 1939 (no award was given during 1944-45 seasons for World War II), one high school senior has been selected by the Indianapolis Star as Indiana Mr. Basketball. And every year since 1978, that honor has gone to someone from somewhere other than South Bend/Mishawaka. 

Play in Indianapolis? Your chances are pretty good at wearing/winning the No. 1 jersey. Anywhere north of Kokomo is an area that high school basketball honors seemingly forgot. Dismissed. Sometimes just ignored. Nobody around these parts gets a serious run for Mr. Basketball. It’s an Indianapolis-area honor. You don’t play down or around there, you’re probably not winning it. 

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Not this season. Not for Penn High School senior guard Markus Burton. He's been too good. Too dominant. Too electric. Too worthy of the honor to the point that nobody else should be seriously considered. There’s one guy in Indiana deserving of Mr. Basketball this season, and he’s ours. In our backyard. There at the corner of McKinley and Bittersweet where he piled up points, made teammates better and won so many games that the Kingsmen historically had no business winning. 

He’s Mr. Basketball, Indiana. 

Sometime this week, when the Star selects that player for the highest 2023 individual honor, the name should be Burton. It has to be Burton. If not now for our area, then when? 

Burton learned of the award when he was a freshman, when he wasn’t much bigger than he is now (6-foot-1, 170 pounds). He didn’t have much of a game, didn’t have the braces he currently wears on his teeth, didn’t know where his high school career might go. But he had heard of Mr. Basketball. 

“I just thought, that’s pretty cool,” he said. “I really didn’t think much of it. I kind of let that go over my head.” 

Burton busied himself with basketball. He had to get stronger. He had to get smarter. He had to get better. He played and he worked and he sweated through those long hours in the gym as a freshman. Then again as a sophomore and once more a junior. Senior year, after a summer where he raised a lot of basketball ‘brows with a solid showing on the AAU circuit, Burton again thought about Mr. Basketball. 

“I was like, that’s something I could win,” Burton said. “I started having great games, started producing, and having a good year and winning. That’s when I realized I might be Mr. Basketball in Indiana.” 

Make it should. 

Burton closed his prep career the leading scorer in the state at 30.3 points per game. He scored a school record 909 points this season and a St. Joseph County career record 2,273. He scored double figures in 57 consecutive games. He was a lot more than that for a Penn team that finished 28-2 following a semistate championship loss March 18 to Kokomo. Anything Burton needed to do this season for the Kingsmen, he did. Sure, he scored. But he also rebounded and he led and he got the ball to guys who could score it. 

Burton led Penn in rebounding, in assists, in steals, in belief.  

He was the toughest. He was the best. 

“He fills the stats sheet,” said veteran Penn coach Al Rhodes, who knows a bit about Mr. Basketball. “He’s our best rebounder. He's tops in assists and in steals. He was the most complete player in Indiana last year (and) he has stronger statistics this year.” 

The last area Mr. Basketball craves company

It’s sitting somewhere in the garage of his Indianapolis home, probably under a pile of whatnot. He might dig it out, dust it off and donate it to a local restaurant so it can hang on a wall. 

David Magley won Indiana Mr. Basketball in 1978 following his senior year at South Bend LaSalle High School.

That No. 1 jersey still sits in its frame for David Magley, who starred at South Bend LaSalle High School and was named 1978 Indiana Mr. Basketball. He's the last from the area to earn the honor, still a massive point of pride 45 years later. 

Magley played collegiately at the University of Kansas and was a second-round selection of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Recently, he was in Ohio on business (he’s president of The Basketball League) and struck up a conversation with someone who knows the game. 

“Somebody said, ‘Whoa, you played at Kansas? That’s pretty cool. Whoa, you played for the Cavs? Wait a minute, you were Indiana Mr. Basketball?’” Magley recalled with a hearty laugh. “They were more impressed by that than the other accolades. Being Mr. Basketball in Indiana is a really big deal.” 

Magley is one of only two prep players in the award’s history from South Bend/Mishawaka. In 1957, South Bend Central’s John Coalmon won it. Twenty-two years later, it was Magley’s turn. He’s ready to not be the answer to an annual Mr. Basketball trivia question. 

Magley wants Burton in the club. 

“God, yes, I’d love to see another Mr. Basketball from the area,” he said. “If Markus wins it, that’s a great thing. It would be amazing. He deserves it.” 

Mr. Basketball is a way bigger deal now than when Magley won it. Like Burton in his younger years, Magley gave little thought to the award. Even as a prep senior, when he averaged close to 40 points a game over the season’s final half, Magley figured it would go to Gary Emerson’s Wallace Bryant. 

One day before first period, LaSalle boys’ basketball coach George Griffith pulled Magley aside and kind of/sort of mentioned that he had won Mr. Basketball. 

Don’t tell anyone, Griffith counseled Magley. 

Don’t worry, Magley said. 

“By the end of the day, I’m sure I told 50 people,” Magley said. “I was just too excited.” 

We’ve seen our share of elite prep seniors roll through the area. Jaraan Cornell directed Clay to a magical state championship in 1994. Damezi Anderson led Riley to a 26-1 dream season in 2017-18. Marian's Demetrius Jackson was McDonald’s All-American dominant. Fellow Marian graduate Devin Cannady was an Indiana All-Star.  

None had so much as a sniff at the award. Why? Just look where they lived. South Bend. Mishawaka. To Indianapolis, that may as well be Michigan. 

For too long, the state’s fourth-largest city has been a boys’ basketball third wheel. 

Penn's Markus Burton (3) grimaces as he holds his wrist during the Penn-Hammond Central high school 4A Semi-State Semi-Final basketball game on Saturday, March 18, 2023, at Michigan City High School in Michigan City, Indiana.

“You’ve got to really do something special to catch their attention,” Magley said. 

“More and more, it’s headed in the direction of well, if you’re not from Indianapolis, you’re not a good player,” said Rhodes. “That’s hurt our area. Hopefully what Markus has done helps.” 

Magley believes he won in 1978 because he was the best story. He worked through the death of his mother during the season and scored 40 points in the first half of a game on the day of her funeral. He also battled a shoulder injury that required he wear a brace during games. He kept playing. He kept scoring. Others kept noticing. 

“That was a Hoosiers-esque story,” Magley said. “It would be a great movie.” 

So would Burton’s. 

A season to remember, reward

Mr. Basketball became an achievable goal for Burton in late June after Penn played Cathedral — in Indianapolis — in the Charlie Weber Shootout. The game matched Burton against Cathedral power forward Xavier Booker, everyone’s preseason pick for Mr. Basketball and at that point, the nation’s top collegiate prospect. 

Burton was better. He scored 35 points. Penn won by 15. That was the first sign to the state that everyone better pay closer attention to the guard up north. Booker’s candidacy faded while Burton’s flourished. 

You gotta see this Burton, kid, he’s legit for real. 

Even after three seasons on varsity, it was difficult for Burton to catch the attention of college recruiters. He had a few offers — mainly from mid-majors — but nothing special. The way he played toward the end of his junior season, then the way he played last summer, forced the local big-time school that calls the Atlantic Coast Conference home to take note. 

Thanks to that Sunday afternoon in Indy, Notre Dame was sold. He could play at that level. He could play for that school. In a span of 72 hours, Burton visited, then committed to play at Notre Dame. He signed his letter of intent in November. He hasn’t worried about the next Irish coach (sometimes, he does) and is less than three months away from enrolling in summer school. 

Penn head coach Al Rhodes during the Penn vs. Warsaw boys sectional basketball game Tuesday, March 1, 2022 at Northside Gym in Elkhart.

He's probably less than a week away from winning Mr. Basketball. 

Burton would be the third Mr. Basketball coached by Rhodes, who also tutored Jeff Grose (1985) and Kevin Ault (1996) at Warsaw. All three have different elements to their game that worked. Rhodes also saw that all three had something in common. 

“There’s an intense competitive nature that most people don’t have that they have,” Rhodes said. “They all made their teammates better.” 

Burton’s senior season ended short of the ultimate team goal. When last Saturday’s loss to Kokomo went final, he lay flat on his stomach in the lane under one of the baskets. He wanted so badly to get Penn back to Indianapolis and its first state championship game since 2001. Wanted to win the school’s first title. That dream died in Michigan City. 

The ultimate individual dream soon may be realized. 

“Knowing where I came from and my basketball background, having that No. 1 jersey would mean a lot,” Burton said. “I feel like I can do it.” 

For himself. For the area. Forever.

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.