Dwyer coach Fred Ross, who has coached a handful of Division I prospects in his career and has built Dwyer into a Florida powerhouse program, said that the mental part of James' game is where he has improved dramatically.
"It's not about his averages, it's about playing a complete game," Ross said this week in assessing James' progress. "It was a mental adjustment for him. When he first came here (two years ago), all he heard was you're 6-7, 6-8, you've got to dominate. He got a little twisted there. It's all part of the learning experience."
Considering that James never had played competitive basketball until his sophomore year of high school, his rise to a Division I signee is nothing short of remarkable. Ross said that his first challenge was to teach James how to become part of a team.
"He wasn't a team guy at first. Not really an outcast, but not really a teammate, a part of something," Ross said. "He started grasping that and then we got him on an AAU team in the summer and he had some success. He started believing, ‘Maybe I can do this.' He just took off with it."
James is the only returning Dwyer player who saw significant playing time last season, so he has had to assume a leadership role for the first time this season. Ross said that has been a work in progress, too, but that James finally seems to be grasping the concept. During one recent practice over Christmas break, Ross said that James became frustrated with his teammates and yelled at them, causing a sudden silence to engulf the gym.
"I said, ‘Joel, we've been waiting for that all year,'" Ross said. "All this stuff he's kind of learning on the run. I told him, ‘You've got to make the little people respect you, and for you, most people are little people.' . . . He's a great kid, almost too nice."
UNC was among the D-I programs that recruited James, but James became a little disturbed last summer that the Tar Heels seemed to be dragging their feet in offering him a scholarship despite the need to bolster their frontcourt for the 2012-13 roster. He was quoted as saying he was "tired of waiting" on head coach Roy Williams to offer him. James did not shy away from responding when recently asked about his comments back in August.
"I ultimately regret saying that, because Coach Williams gave a good reason why he did that," said James, who has a 3.3 GPA and has qualified. "He didn't see me play as much (as other recruits). I didn't mean to come off like that in any type of negative way."
James fouled out or got into early foul trouble in almost every game last season. He's improved considerably in that department, too, and in fact has not fouled out of any game so far this season despite opponents often double- and triple-teaming him with zone defensive schemes.
"His thing last year was, ‘You're not going to dunk on me.' I told him if you play this game long enough, everybody's going to get dunked on," Ross said. "I said, ‘Joel, what's more important? For you to satisfy that ego right there or for you to be in the game and help your team?' That hit home for him. He's learning about altering shots instead of trying to block every shot. . . . . He's shooting better, his touch is better, and he's actually a pretty good free-throw shooter now. Everything's improving, but he's still got some bad habits in him. He's still not even close to where he should be."
"People say you're always your worst critic, so I'd give myself a 5 on a 10 scale," he said of his progress to this point. "I feel there's so much more I can be doing, so much more I can be accomplishing, but I can only try to do my best each day and get better."
Check back tomorrow for Part II ...