Final Scouting Report: Joel James

After a thorough evaluation - from high school and AAU through the senior all-star games - Rob Harrington authors the final version of his in-depth scouting report on incoming Tar Heel freshman Joel James ...

    Joel James
    6-11, 260
    Palm Beach Gardens (Fla.) Dwyer
    Class of 2012


    Life as a nationally ranked center began inauspiciously for James. He grew relatively late and didn't begin playing organized basketball until his sophomore season, and during that short span he surpassed many of those whose reputations exploded earlier in the process.

    In short order, James emerged during his junior season as one of the many high-major frontcourt prospects within the Class of 2012. His recruitment gained steam slowly and gradually led to scholarship offers from the in-state and other regional schools, followed by more national programs during the summer and fall.

    Roy Williams watched James during his junior year and the Tar Heels continued to evaluate him during the 2011 July live period, offering him and signing him last fall.


    Size is James' top attribute, followed by his excellent hands. He's not only tall but, unlike many high school big men, won't need to bulk up for college. He also possesses long arms, enabling him to play even taller than his actual height. In a world filled with 6-8 college centers, James is a more traditional five-man in terms of his basic physicality. He also snares nearly every pass or rebound that makes contact with his hands, a valuable tool as defenses tend to focus on bumping and stripping Carolina's big men.

    Another aspect of his game that runs contrary to trend, James himself understands and embraces his role as a dedicated post player. He doesn't float to the three-point line, attempt to put the ball on the floor or harbor ambitions of becoming a face-up shooter in the NBA. He's developing the skills and style of play best suited for what he'll need to be at the highest levels of the sport, and his progress evidences that he has adopted a sound approach to his career.

    And James isn't just big; he actively uses his bulk to create contact and seal off opponents. He isn't a bruiser in the purest sense, but no one will tell you that he's shy of contact, either.

    Clearly, his best days lay ahead. Evaluating James or any other unrefined big man requires one to discuss what he will be or at least can be, rather than what he is presently. Ultimately, he has the excellent size and body type to become a truly powerful interior defender and defensive/positioning rebounder. The southpaw also does hit occasional short-range jump shots, suggesting that his offensive game at least could become more balanced than his current limitations suggest.

    You'll read various criticisms of James' game, but no one questions his work ethic. He has shed 50 pounds and at this point shouldn't lose any additional mass; he now must firm up and become more muscular.


    As a scorer, James definitely must be considered a project. He doesn't yet have the post moves or knack for finishing around the rim that his higher-rated contemporaries possess, and his relative lack of straight-up leaping ability causes him to get more shots blocked and altered than you might expect. He also shot under 60 percent from the foul line as a senior.

    There's also the matter of conditioning. James has dropped excess weight but still must improve his conditioning to run full speed for more than a few minutes at a time. His activity level obviously suffers due to his inability to sustain high exertion for longer stretches, something that he should be able to improve without too much difficulty as he masters UNC's strength and conditioning program.

    Meanwhile, he hasn't yet harnessed the nuances of positioning, either individually or understanding where his teammates and opponents are located. Developing basketball IQ typically requires years of seasoning, and this is an area obviously impacted by his late entrance into the game. Foul problems are likely to surface early in his collegiate career.

    Evaluating James athletically is a difficult task simply because no one knows how he'll respond to changes in his body. As he boils down to a strong and toned physique, the speed, quickness and leaping ability issues that have hurt his production in the past might dissipate entirely. He clearly looked quicker and fresher during his senior season thanks to the dropped weight.

    College Projection

    In a sense, James almost has to be evaluated as a high school freshman or sophomore. Assessing young big men at that early stage requires a great deal of guesswork and tremendous patience with limitations. Scores of very successful frontcourt prospects needed years to refine their craft, and that includes those who'd been playing their entire lives.

    James wasn't overly productive on the travel circuit or a big high school scorer because he's both a hoops neophyte and — a fact that's frequently overlooked — was only 6-6 as a sophomore. He hasn't been playing basketball for long and hasn't been that big for long, either, two realities conspiring against him on the court for the time being.

    So, there's no realistic expectation for how effective he'll be in college because the necessary information about his game doesn't exist. All scouting requires educated guesswork, but the library of evidence normally at our disposal is more of a bookmobile in this instance.

    He unquestionably lacks the skills and track record Roy Williams usually welcomes into his program, but he just as unquestionably has traveled a vast distance as a player — assisted in large part by his admirable work ethic and clear understanding of what he needs to be as a player —during a limited timeframe. Whether his progress rate maintains, slows or hastens will determine how effective he can be in college, and how soon. Again, his season's progress appears promising.

    For the time being, it's probably safest to project him as a low-output scorer during his freshman and sophomore seasons despite the fact that he'll need to play meaningful minutes given UNC's lack of frontcourt experience in 2012-13. My guess is that he'll develop more quickly as a space-eating defender and rebounder, and over time he should be able to utilize his wide body and long arms to solve the shotblockers he struggled against in high school.

    His ranking in the national top 75 makes sense as a hedge. He could become a pleasant surprise who races past a substantial number of peers — as he has done already — or he could become a more modest, four-year player. Either way, from Carolina's perspective he helps address the roster's most critical need and thus is more valuable to the Tar Heels than he would have been to others.

Rob provides basketball recruiting coverage for, including reporting from events throughout the country. Rob is editor of the national basketball recruiting website and the print magazine Recruiter's Handbook. He also covers UNC basketball games for the Independent Weekly and writes a freelance column for He is a member of the Naismith committee honoring the nation's best high school player and votes in the McDonald's All-American Game.

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