"No, no, nothing like that," James said. "I felt like I wanted to gain more muscle, so I hit the weight room hard. But once school started, Coach (Fred) Ross said we're going to do a lot of running this year, so I didn't hit the weight room as much."
Ross, who has guided Dwyer to three state championships in the past eight years, said the extra weight that James put on last summer might have sent up a red flag for some college coaches who were recruiting him, which in turn was a sort of wakeup call for James.
"Guys saw it, and I think some college coaches told him he had to be a certain weight," Ross said. "And when he kept hearing that, he realized, ‘I need to lose some weight so I can play at the pace of the next level.' He did aerobics, yoga, swimming in the pool. He's running every day now."
Dropping 40-50 pounds in a few months mirrors, in a way, James' young career. He didn't play competitive basketball – or any sport, for that matter – before his sophomore year of high school but has shown remarkable progress. Ross did not ask too much of James the first two years, but has pushed him enough in his development to make James a Division I prospect.
Ross has produced a handful of players who went on to excel in college, including Leemire Goldwire (Charlotte), Alonzo Gee (Alabama) and Ramon Galloway (now at LaSalle). Ross said that James has improved more than anybody he's had in his program at Dwyer, partly due to the fact that James had such a late start picking up the game.
"To go from where he was to where he is now, it's . . . wow, off the chart, and it speaks volumes about him," Ross said.
James agrees with his coach that much work remains and areas of his game need to improve for him to be ready for his future in the ACC. Consistency is one of those areas. For instance, James has had a 28-point, 20-rebound game this season and a couple others where he only scored in single digits.
"At times he plays 6-11, and at times he plays like he's 6-5," Ross said, adding that part of the problem is that Dwyer's roster this season is much younger and less experienced than the last two years. "Right now, if we had the talent around him that we had last year, he'd be a 20-20 guy, easily."
Ross said that James has been on the floor for most games this season, an improvement from last season when he was plagued with foul trouble almost every game. Ross said James also is getting up and down the court much better, suggesting that his stamina and agility have improved.
James said he has maintained regular contact with Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams, who has told James what he expects of him once he arrives in Chapel Hill.
"When I went on my visit, Coach Williams told me, ‘Joel, I want you to run the floor, rebound the basketball as best you can, and when we throw it inside, finish. That's it," James said. "He wants me to have three moves. A drop-step middle hook, a drop-step baseline hook and a turnaround jump shot. My jump hook is rapidly improving and changing. I'm putting more arc on my jump shot because Coach Ross told me I need to shoot higher."
James, a self-proclaimed history buff who is contemplating a major in history at UNC, said he has watched film of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Sam Perkins – "the old-school guys," as he put it – to help him in his development as a center. He also had an opportunity to meet and play some with Brendan Haywood and Rasheed Wallace during his recruiting visit. James, who is left-handed, said he also has been working on dropping his left shoulder and finishing with his right hand when he gets the ball in the paint.
"I'm not even close to where I want to be," James said of his progress. "The sky is the limit, and I'm not even halfway there. The game of basketball, there's always something to get better at. At the high school stage, I'd say I've progressed pretty well."
Ross believes the Tar Heels are getting a potential standout who is easy to coach.
"Once he gets (to UNC) and starts playing against that level of competition every day, I think it's really going to elevate him," Ross said. "If he can stay injury-free, there's no doubt in my mind he can be successful at the next level and be a contributor next year."