"For someone who didn't know the game (three years ago), without a doubt I'm pleased," Ross said. "For all the doubters and the haters, I mean, he didn't give in to them."
Ross, who has coached a handful of D-I players during his career, acknowledged that James' game still needs work to become a force at the college level. As he was speaking, however, James was little more than a length-of-the-court pass away at Dwyer High in the middle of a multi-faceted workout that has become his daily routine since his senior season ended about a month ago.
At the end of each school day, James heads to the track to run. Then it's off to the weight room for some lifting, followed by a session in the gym with one of Ross' assistants. Ross said that James hits the pool for swimming on weekends and also includes aerobics in his weekly workout routine.
"His body is so much better now than it was at the end of the year," Ross said, adding that James knows he is not going to be able to just show up at UNC and be an instant star. "That's why he's working 3-to-4 hours every day now. He understands that it's a big task that lies ahead and he's got to get better."
James averaged 15.0 points a game this season and shot 63 percent from the floor. He averaged 12.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocked shots a game and made 57 percent of his free throws. Unlike the 2010-11 season when Dwyer won the state title in its classification, James did not have nearly as talented of a supporting cast his senior season. In fact, he was the only player to average in double figures scoring for the Panthers.
"If Joel was where he is now with the group we had last year, he would have made the McDonald's All-America team," said Ross, whose team lost in the first round of the regional playoffs this season. "He improved that much. But the supporting cast around him wasn't up to par. It was a struggle for him, but for him not to give up on his teammates, to remain a total team player, that's what's going to really help him at North Carolina. He was able to deal with adversity and not quit, not give up."
James had his share of critics last year when he was being recruited by Williams, many of them saying that James was a "project" and that his size was the only reason he was receiving attention from UNC. James diligently worked on his game last summer and all season. Opponents consistently double- and triple-teamed him during games, and Ross said that James showed improvement each week.
"His numbers aren't great, but the affect he had on the court was unheard of, it really was," Ross said. "He got better as the season went along. He affected the game in so many different ways, like changing shots. Players had second thoughts about going inside against him."
Ross said the most significant improvement that James made, however, was actually mental.
"He was trying to be too perfect," Ross said. "He was afraid to make mistakes, and he just thought too much. As the season went along, he kind of figured it out. Once he got his confidence level up, his game improved."
That was especially evident in the Class 8A regional quarterfinals, James' last official high school game. James was held scoreless in the first half by a swarming zone defense, but he began taking control in the paint in the second half when he muscled his way inside for 17 points.
"That's what we were trying to get him to do all year," Ross said. "Just play, and he did."
Bottom line, according to Ross, is that the Tar Heels made a good move taking a chance on James.
"They've got a winner," Ross said.