Justin James Can’t Wait to Get to Work with Kings
As he waited, the hours ticking away and pick after pick sliding off the board in the NBA Draft, Justin James anxiously fidgeted on a couch inside his South Florida home, his mind racing and his enthusiasm slowly waning.
And then, shortly past 11:30 p.m. on the East Coast, James finally heard the words he’d long envisioned in his head, before being wrapped in joyous embraces from family members who saw his name, adjacent to a Kings logo, flash across the screen.
By the time he looked down at his phone and exhaled, the realization of being an NBA player still sinking in, the Sacramento draftee had a missed call from his agent and countless Twitter notifications from fans welcoming him to the team.
“It’s just a surreal feeling,” James said. “Me and my family, we were jumping and screaming at the TV, just thanking God for this opportunity. The excitement level was through the roof. We couldn’t even get to sleep that night!”
Even though he didn’t walk across the Barclays Center stage to shake hands with the commissioner on Draft night, the No. 40 pick wore a special Kings cap to commemorate the milestone – thanks to his father’s intuition.
Unbeknownst to Justin, John James purchased hats of the three teams he thought might draft the Wyoming senior; the investment proved fortuitous.
“Thankfully, when the Kings called my name, he surprised me and brought the hat out,” Justin said. “I was super stoked.”
Reaching the NBA seemed improbable five years ago, when James, a native of Port St. Lucie, Fla., was lightly recruited by Division I programs despite flourishing in the prep ranks. His public high school wasn’t a basketball powerhouse, and were it not for a Facebook message to then-Wyoming Assistant Coach Allen Edwards through a mutual friend, James may have faced an even more uphill climb to the pros.
An impressive highlight reel brought Edwards, a Miami native, to St. Lucie West Centennial High to get an in-person look at “J.J.” – who averaged 21.1 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.6 assists as a junior. After observing multiple open-gym scrimmages, Edwards consulted with Head Coach Larry Shyatt, and offered the lanky standout a full scholarship.
“Coach Edwards came into my gym many times. He was at my grandmama’s house for Thanksgiving,” James said. “He just showed that he was really interested in me, and he really wanted me to be the best player I can be, on and off the court. I (felt) a lot of loyalty to him for that.”
When James transferred to Oldsmar Christian School for his senior campaign and earned Player of the Year honors against higher-level competition, another half-dozen offers from high- and mid-majors stuffed his mailbox, including letters from Mississippi State, Georgia Southern and Murray State.
Playing in the SEC was tempting, but by then, he’d verbally committed to Wyoming and wouldn’t renege on his promise. For the three-star recruit, early interest from the Edwards, who prioritized signing him before any other school sent scouts to his games, made a lasting impression.
“Coach Edwards, that’s my role model right there,” James said. “I owe him the world.”
Within the next three years, the 6-foot-7 guard rose from an under-the-radar backup (5.1 points in 16.6 minutes as a freshman) to a scoring threat from anywhere on the court (18.9 points on 47.2 percent from the field) and a legitimate NBA prospect. He tested the Draft waters in 2018 and worked out with the Celtics, Rockets and Spurs, but withdrew his name after listening to feedback from coaches and executives.
As Wyoming’s do-everything senior, James elevated his Draft stock by setting career-highs in nearly every offensive category, becoming the first NCAA player since Penny Hardaway in 1992-93 to average over 22 points (22.1), eight rebounds (8.5), four assists (4.4) and one steal (1.5) per game.
The Second-Team All-Conference selection increased his scoring average for the fourth straight season and finished his career with the fourth-most points (2,061) in conference history.
James concluded his stay in Laramie on a high note, with seven straight games of 20-plus points, including 31 points against New Mexico in the MW Tournament on March 13. Earlier in the year, he scored a career-high 36 points on 10-of-14 from the field and 11-of-12 from the free throw line, to go along with seven assists and six rebounds, in a win against the Cowboys’ main rival, Colorado State.
That all-around production and evident improvement, in addition to his maturity and hunger to get better, factored heavily in the Kings decision to select the 22-year-old early in the second round.
“We followed his college career, and that’s the reason why we were so high on him and brought him here to Sacramento,” said Kings General Manager Vlade Divac. “We talked to everybody about his professionalism and his love for the game. We were so excited when we spent time with him in Sacramento.”
Divac and the Kings staff, who hosted James for a pre-Draft workout and then accompanied him to dinner, view him as a “combo guard” who’ll see playing time at both backcourt spots, as well as slide to small forward to help spread the floor.
“He’s very strong and (has) a very smart basketball IQ,” Divac said. “He can definitely keep up with the way we want to play. I think he’s a ready NBA player.”
With opposing coaches game-planning to keep the ball out of his hands last season, James was consumed by incessant double-teams, which contributed to a decline in his field goal percentage (40.9) and uptick in turnovers (4.1 per game).
James isn’t using that as an excuse – “I just need to get in the gym and keep shooting my shot,” he said – but in Sacramento, where De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic will serve as the primary playmakers, he expects to operate more off the ball and see the kinds of open perimeter looks he could only dream of in college.
“It was definitely a year where I grew a lot, just by the different coverages that I was going up against every night, seeing multiple people guarding me and always having a hand in my face,” he said. “I feel like it helped me in the long run … I’m just super excited to play with some high-level NBA pros who are the best in the world.”
Playing the bulk of his minutes at point guard, James thrived in the pick-and-roll, ranking in the 64th percentile with 0.812 points per possession (PPP) and generating 13.4 points per game when accounting for passes to teammates, according to Synergy Sports. He also ranked in the 71st percentile (1.263 PPP) on cuts and in the 66th percentile (0.986 PPP) on hand-offs.
“I take pride in my versatility, just being able to do multiple things on the floor and doing whatever the coach asks me to do,” he said. “Having my eyes up, seeing the floor and making the right reads are huge parts of (my game). I can play one to three offensively, and I can be a tremendous defender in the League, to potentially guard one through four.”
James, who recorded the fastest times in the three-quarter sprint (3.088 seconds) and lane agility drill (10.095) at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, said he’ll have no problem keeping pace in the Kings accelerated offense and scoring in transition.
“Playing with De’Aaron, you know he loves to run the floor, and Buddy loves to run the floor, too, and get shots up,” he said. “Those players are going to be respected so much, so I know there’s going to be a lot of space on the floor for me to run and make plays for the team.”
His first opportunity to showcase his skill set on the next level will come on July 1, when Sacramento will tip-off the second annual California Classic, a three-day Summer League event. With a Kings hat already tucked away in his closet, James is eager to add a matching purple-and-black uniform.
“I can’t wait to finally put on a Sacramento Kings jersey and put on for the city,” he said. “(The fans) will see a hard-working, passionate player who’s going to do whatever the coach needs me to do to help us win games.”