Chicago Hope defeated Rantoul in a close game at Parkland College. Hope is a Class 1-A school, and coach Mike Edwards has high hopes for the season despite an inconsistent showing last Saturday.
"We were missing four of our top 8 players tonight. Two were suspended and two injured. This is a hard team to guard at the 1-A level, speed-wise, height-wise, size-wise. If we play our game, we should win a state title. If we don't, I'll look at it as less than a success for these guys."
"Last year we lost to the state champs, but they lost a lot of seniors. This year we have 11 seniors, so if we don't win state this year, something's definitely not good. Our main goal this year is to win state."
James was pleased to play in front of Illini fans Saturday.
"I seen a lot of Orange and Blue in the crowd. It was nice to see them come out and support me."
Did he feel any pressure playing in front of his future coaches Bruce Weber and Jerrance Howard?
"Not at all. I've played in front of them a couple times, so I'm kind of used to it now."
James isn't a flashy scoring machine like many high school stars. But he is the kind of player all good teams need.
"I share the ball. I'm a pass-first point guard. If they collapse on me, I'm willing to dish to anybody. That's always been my style."
True point guards are rare these days. Most players look for their own shot first, but a point guard must know when to shoot and when to involve his teammates. James is that kind of player.
"That comes natural to me. I've been playing since I was about three, and ever since I've been playing basketball I've had an itch to get the ball to my teammates. When I drive, if they're open I get it to them. If not, I kick it out or shoot a layup."
Edwards feels James has made significant progress since last season.
"I think his confidence is up. He's got a real focus of where he wants to go, so he may be more open to listening to what he needs to do to get better. Being a pass-first point guard is always his fun part. Now it's how you lead your team when you're not scoring.
"I think he averaged 12 and 6 last year. But they didn't sign him for numbers. We know that. It's knowing how to run your team. He's getting much better at that. Now if we can just feed him a little more, he'll be okay."
James is nearly 6'-3" but claims a weight of just 155 pounds. His coach says that is with all his clothes. He knows strength is a concern and is working to improve it.
"I've been working out at Attack (Athletics) with my brother after practice, lifting weights and drinking protein shakes. I'm getting there."
Players who commit early to a major college put a target on their backs. Competitors want to prove themselves and do whatever they can to take the stars out of their games. James has not been immune to the extra attention.
"Yes, that's true. Many of the people who commit to a school early are mostly scorers and superstars. I'm not that type of player. When we go to gyms, and I have only 10 points and 6 assists they ask, 'Why is he going to Illinois?'
"They guard me hard the whole game. I get that a lot. They try to prove their self. I'm kind of used to it now."
He admits he hasn't always handled it well.
"This fall we had a little incident. I've learned from my mistakes, I should say. Coach Mike told me to keep playing and tune out the crowds and players. I keep to myself now."
James has two years to mature, gain needed strength and refine his game. But he already has the mentality and skill to be an asset to future Illini teams.
James will continue his diary for InsideIllini in January.