CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- Joel James had played organized basketball, the first of any sport he had played competitively, for two years when he committed to North Carolina in October 2011. A raw recruit that fit the classic risk-reward mold, the West Palm Beach, Fla. native possessed the size, athleticism and attitude that proved tempting to college coaches looking for untapped potential. During his official visit to UNC, Roy Williams offered a tempered slate of expectations to James, saying, “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."
The transition to the college game has been challenging at times for James. While his physique and mindset match the demands, the instinctive play required to succeed at an elite level, which often comes naturally for players that grew up with a basketball in hand, has been a work in progress due in part to limited minutes. Those instinctual elements are evident in James’s rebounding statistics, which declined last season (1.9 rpg from 2.7 rpg in ’13-14) despite an uptick in minutes (10.1 mpg). His defensive rebounding percentage (12.8) was sixth-best on UNC’s roster in 2014-15, according to kenpom.com.
While his statistics last season might suggest minimal improvement from his first two years at UNC, James played with a greater comfort level. He embraced the defensive mindset required in the post while showing confidence in his offensive skillset. For the first time in his collegiate career, James seemed to understand and thereby excel in his specific role. Continued growth and improvement in that area will help determine his contribution level backing up Kennedy Meeks this season.
By Eric Montross
A lot of people want Joel to make more dramatic improvements, but he still needs more time on the court. He needs more time to make mistakes and improve.
The team has not been good enough the last few seasons to allow for the luxury of on-the-court improvement. There haven't been enough extra minutes to go around. Joel is a great team player and everyone wants to see him succeed. This year the team will be good enough to help him and give him that time. He has some things that no one else has - he's bigger and stronger than anyone else in the ACC - can he take that intangible and make strides? He has a nice, soft shot. He simply needs more minutes to continue improving.
By Rob Harrington
Stats sometimes do lie. Despite modest numbers across the board, James made impressive progress a season ago. He provided valuable minutes off the bench as a defender, rebounder and enforcer, and the southpaw also improved as a short-range jump shooter. Now a senior, he’ll take on an enhanced leadership role and — unlike the case in the past — appears to have guaranteed minutes as a backup center to Kennedy Meeks. His goal must be to convert more accurately at close-range and to work hard defensively to compensate for average lateral quickness in screen and roll situations.
Xs & Os INSIDER
By Tyler Brooks
James provides a uniquely alternative skill in UNC’s scheme. He is more effective offensively as a face-up big man than a typical back-to-the basket Tar Heel post player. He has learned to catch, pivot, and shoot effectively from limited distances, which as an added benefit helps to create additional spacing in UNC’s occasionally space-constrained two-post offense. James’s greatest contribution offensively in the coming season will be that of a screener, a task that he is both fully willing and physically equipped to execute. It is a seemingly marginal role but one that is critical given the need for constant ball and off-ball screening in Carolina’s freelance scheme.
By Adrian Atkinson
James, who is becoming more and more polished with his turnaround jumper, actually led the Heels by converting 43.6% (24-55) of his non-close two-pointers. That’s a promising statistic. The downside of that number is hidden in James’s shot distribution. Only 40% of his FGAs were at the rim, while 60% were in his preferred mid-range spots. In contrast, Meeks had a 65-35 close/non-close distribution. Even more troubling, the 6-10, 280-pound James was only able to convert 47% (17-36) of his close attempts last year. After dunking three times in the second half of his second collegiate game against FAU in 2012, James has added only two more dunks in his next 96 games (he has five total dunks in a 98-game career at UNC). Whether via the dunk or a simple lay-up, a more efficient James would bode well for the Carolina second unit.
Speaking of the UNC bench, the Heels will need to be more effective when Johnson and Meeks are on the bench this season. Last year, Carolina had a net efficiency of just +1.5 (ORtg: 107.1, DRtg: 105.6) in 316 minutes with both starting bigs on the bench. Most of those minutes were played by the Hicks-James combination, which, while adequate offensively, struggled on the defensive end. Specifically, UNC corralled just 59.1% of available defensive rebounds with Hicks-James on the court together (vs. 71.8% with the Johnson-Meeks frontcourt). Likewise, the Carolina defense was far too foul-prone in minutes when both Johnson and Meeks rested (FTA Allowed Rate of 48.4), primarily due to the foul-related issues of Hicks (6.8 fouls / 40) and James (5.5).
“They just have so much depth at the post position you can’t really focus in on any one of them. Obviously you want to keep him from getting you on his right shoulder. He’s just a big body and a strong kid in the post. You have to do your work early and not let him get good post position.” – ACC Coach
“Big, physical post presence. He’s lefty-dominant. He’s mostly all left hand and hasn’t moved well laterally. Since he can’t move that well and has been foul prone you really need to try and attack him on the defensive end.” – ACC Coach
(J.B. Cissell, Evan Daniels, Sherrell McMillan, Jack Morton, Ben Sherman contributed to this feature.)