Last season was one of adjustment for James. He went from being an after thought for opposing teams to the guy they needed to stop on the inside. The graduation of Brian Cook removed the many open looks and back door slam dunks James grew accustomed to during his freshman season. Cook's graduation did not just affect James on the offensive end, though. On defense, James was now the man in the middle for Illinois. It was his job to slow down the opponent's best interior threat, clear the defensive glass, and make life hard for any guard that decided to enter the paint.
When Bruce Weber came to Champaign, James was the player I worried about most adjusting to the new offense. Not because I did not think he would be open to it, but because of the vast changes Weber would require of Augustine's role on the team. In the Hi-Low, James had two main offensive roles: the high post passer / screener or the low-post sealer. The number of roles he would potentially play heading into the season dramatically improved with the new offense. James would no longer be locked into one of two positions on the court, but getting the post position necessary to score would not be as easy as it was either.
This year James was asked to do many different things on offense, and still be Illinois' largest post presence. Among the new things James was asked to do include: the pick and roll from the top and wing, getting post position with a target, and take the open mid-range corner jump shot. The combination of being the focal point of opponent's interior defenses and learning a new system turned James into a timid player. Sure there were always the signs that James was gaining confidence, the slam dunks in traffic, running the floor, the jump hook without hesitation, but none of these signs were ever together for an extended period of time.
James' biggest improvement between his freshman and sophomore seasons was on defense. Sure, he would still end up in foul trouble every once in a while, but as the season wore on, the sign of James on the bench due to fouls became less and less. The new defensive philosophy installed by Weber utilized James' athleticism to double team ball handlers on the perimeter, reeked havoc on opponents creating turnover and trap opportunities for Illinois. Even with the aggressive defense, James' fouls went down, but not as much as they could have. Sure, James was not on the bench in nearly every first half with two fouls this year, but was still saddled with foul trouble in key games.
When James Augustine runs the court in transition it is a thing of beauty, and it is normally seen when the Illini are playing well. There are very few 6'10 players at the center position that can run the floor as well as James. When he used his speed and athleticism to his advantage he was difficult for opposing teams to stop.
The transition game was not the only place James can use his athleticism to his advantage. In the half court offense, James uses his athletic advantage over opponents on the offensive glass. James was able to use a quick jump to beat opponents to the basketball, generating second shot opportunities.
Another sign that occurred in nearly every game (I think there were just two games this did not happen) displaying James' quick jumping ability was him winning the opening tip off. It happened so often, that in the few instances it didn't, it made me think it was a bad sign for Illinois whenever he did not win the tip.
- One of the biggest struggles for Illinois last season was rebounding, but that was not because of James Augustine. James led the team in rebounds with 7.3 per game, and routinely used defensive rebounds to start the transition game. Defensively James needs to work a little better at getting inside position and then keeping it against bigger and stronger players, but when the situation called for him to do just that he did (see versus Missouri in St. Louis).
- Despite his lack of confidence on the offensive side of the basketball, James does have one very solid post move: his jump hook from the left block. If everything is set up right, James' jump hook is unstoppable. As his confidence grows, his attempts of this shot should increase, and so should his scoring average and Illinois' inside presence. James just needs to regain faith in his offensive movements, but especially his already defined jump hook from the left block.
- If Illinois fans learned one thing about James Augustine last year; it was that he was one tough SOB. The number of injuries Augustine played through last year was amazing. It was not just that he played through his injuries (namely his shoulder); it was that his effectiveness did not decrease when he was on the floor. He was still Illinois' most effective post presence on both sides of the court. You never saw James complain about hurting on the court, or after games, he just played the game and grimaced through the pain. He has spent the early portions of this off season resting his rehabilitating his injuries, and he should be at one hundred percent before next season rolls around.
If there is one person on Illinois that I scream at to shoot the ball, it is James. I don't know why he does not shoot the ball more, but he just is not aggressive with the ball when he has it in a position to score. Sure there were times last season when I would see two straight aggressive moves from James and think "this is where he turns the corner," but then ten minutes later he reverted back to a passive offensive player.
The thing that really irks me about his is, he is a good offensive player. He has the ability to score from both the inside and the outside (out to about seventeen feet), he just does not appear confident enough in himself to do it. At the beginning of last season I thought he was just uncomfortable in the new roles he was asked to play, but as the season wore and he became more comfortable in the offense, he did not become more confident.
The one sign I always look for in a big man's confidence is what he does after he passes the ball out of the post. A confident offensive player will re-establish position and then call for the basketball. James only did that a handful of times last year, and he needs to do more of it next season. A more confident James in the post means a much better offensive team for the Illini next season.
One thing that has hampered James throughout his Illinois career is foul trouble. Sure, last season he was in less foul trouble than the year before, but he still picked up too many fouls for my taste. When he is on the bench, he obviously cannot help Illinois. It seems that James picks up fouls on the defensive end of the court when he gets out of position and tries to use his hands to swipe at the ball. When you are 6'10, the ref will blow his whistle every time you swipe at the ball. James needs to realize this.
With the new aggressiveness instilled in Bruce Weber's defense, especially double teaming a guard after a screen from a big man, James needs to pick up as few stupid fouls as possible. James' athleticism allows him to do more than show on high screens, and he becomes a bother to the guards trying to get and see around him. James is not able to do this on defense when he picks up the cheap fouls early, and it lessens the defensive pressure Illinois can place on the opposition.
The biggest reason I see why James is not able to score in the post besides his lack of confidence, is a lack of solid post position. Dee Brown and Deron Williams are both solid post passers, but they cannot get the ball into James unless he has position and a target. Throughout his freshman season, James was taught the skills of sealing off a big man and the high post pass, and he does these very well. Last year he was used on the perimeter for the pick and roll and on the box posting up. Unfortunately, his on the box posting up skills are no where near as refined as his ability to seal off his man.
Often, when James would get position, I would scream at my television "get him the ball!" It was not easy for the guards, though. James might have had the position, but he did not have a clear target for a guard. If there is one thing I want James to learn basketball-wise this summer, it would be the ability to post up and provide an entry target for the guards.
This off season will be extremely critical for James. The standard growth progression for a big man is to have a large jump in performance between their sophomore and junior seasons, so this would be the year to see that jump in Augustine's game. This summer will be a summer of work for James as he will be playing pick up games in Ubben against two former Illini and current NBA players (Robert Archibald and Brian Cook who will be back in Champaign) and he will also attend a big man camp to help refine his game on the interior.
The biggest problem the Illini have heading into next season is the lack of an established inside presence. The entire eyes of the Illini Nation will be looking to James to be that man in the middle. He will have a lot of weight to carry on his shoulders at the start of the season. The tuning and practice he will get by playing against players stronger and more seasoned than him this summer will help dramatically. He will be able to play against your classic bruising big man in Robert Archibald, and be able to work on his power post defense and offense. In the next game he plays, he will be able to play against your classic finesse big man in Brian Cook allowing him to work on that aspect of his game. All this seasoning should come in handy as he will have to adjust his game day in and day out to bring the Illini closer to that ever elusive Final Four appearance in St. Louis.
The key to an improved James Augustine on the basketball court next season will not be increased muscle mass or a new post move; it will be whether or not he will play with confidence. Illinois needs an inside presence, and without James playing confident and even going so far as to demanding the ball from the guards at times, Illinois will not live up to their potential. Heading into next season, if I had to pick one player that holds the key to a dominant year for Illinois it is Augustine. Sure, if James plays like he did last year, but just a year improved, Illinois will still be a very good team, but if James comes out more aggressive and confident, Illinois has the chance to be special. We already know what the guards will bring to the table, but the question still remains as to what Illinois will do inside.