Sometimes, those drive-by evaluations can be more significant than would appear to be the case at first blush. Our first exposure to James Banks occurred at the 2014 16-under Nike event in Hampton, Va., where multiple games tipped off simultaneously on a Friday evening and I happened to spot an angular, loping big man on a side court.
A sophomore at the time, Banks competed with the Alabama Challenge and impressed with his ability to run and his defensive instincts.
The 6-10 center didn’t attract a great deal of attention his junior season, but by this past spring he was ready to build an unassailable case for high-major offers. His size and talent leapt out at the Elite Preview in March, and from there he hit the Adidas circuit with the Atlanta Celtics.
Though his offense proved unremarkable, Banks shone on defense and drew legions of college coaches to his games during the April live period. By early May he’d drawn offers from Auburn, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Cincinnati, Notre Dame, Kansas State, Memphis, South Carolina, NC State, South Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi State and others.
He further enhanced his credentials at June’s NBPA Top 100 Camp. Competing among the country’s most touted big men, Banks proved himself a worthy opponent against even the most heralded names in attendance.
He proceeded through July with the Celtics and quickly set official visits to Texas and Vanderbilt. Following those trips and some later unofficials, he pledged to Shaka Smart’s program in early October.
Banks is a defense-first guy, which is great for a Smart-led program. VCU fielded the nation’s No. 24 adjusted defense last season and No. 6 the year prior. Under Smart’s direction, the Longhorns will play a fast, highly aggressive style of defense utilizing the entire court.
And that’s why Banks fits the program so well. When opponents do navigate UT’s defensive pressure, he’ll sometimes face challenges from wing scorers who attack the rim with a full head of steam. That’s why his broad shoulders and long arms will prove invaluable as a goalkeeper.
He averaged just under two blocks per game for the Celtics for an absolutely loaded squad, and frankly they simply could overpower some opposition athletically. Thus, his club didn’t always require his help as a defensive stopgap, but he stepped up when needed.
Albeit not an accomplished scorer at this point, Banks does hold potential. His length enables him get his hands on missed shots for tip-ins, and he’s fairly quick and fluid for a big man. Blessed with such broad shoulders, a year or two in Texas’ strength program should benefit him immensely.
He’s still a young guy in terms of musculature but projects to make big gains once he fills out his frame, which will help him establish low post position.
Even with all the caveats described above, Banks disappeared offensively at times during the spring and summer. He averaged just five points per game for the Celtics and, surprisingly, shot just 44 percent from the field as well. He must improve as a finisher so that, when he does get chances at the rim, he converts or draws a foul.
Along those same lines, he obviously must improve his 42 percent free throw shooting and shooting touch generally. Banks won’t necessarily need to become an offensive weapon, but he needs to develop at least some balance.
The extent to which Banks earns early playing time in Austin will hinge upon his defense and ability to rapidly pack on muscle. He’ll likely need time to cultivate a post scoring game, but he runs like a college athlete already, has the height and long arms to deter would-be scorers and should blossom quickly in the weightroom.
He projects as a multi-year college player and ideally will develop some offensive wrinkles as well, but even without a vast scoring arsenal he could develop into one of the Big 12’s most staunch interior defenders. And as mentioned at the top, his assets will benefit Texas even more than they would many other programs.
Thinking long-term, Banks could ride his defensive talents all the way to the professional ranks. There are plenty of 6-10 NBA big men who lack great offense, though clearly he’ll raise his odds if he can raise that aspect of his game up to speed. Regardless, with solid development a professional future should await him somewhere.
Banks slots No. 45 overall in the 2016 class and as the No. 9 center.