Unable to garner any guarantees in the first-round after declaring for last years draft, Damion James
opted to return for his senior season at Texas, which has been a bit of a roller-coaster thus far.
Starting off the year 17-0 and climbing all the way to the #1 spot in the polls following some impressive victories, Texas has fallen on hard times since, going 5-7 in their next 12 outings and subsequently dropping out of this weeks AP poll.
22-years old and a fairly known commodity at this point, James is having a pretty similar season statistically to last year, particularly when you adjust for the much faster pace (75 possessions compared to 68) Texas is now playing at. Continuing to see nearly all of his minutes at the power forward position (hes more likely to slide to the 5 than he is to the 3), the main difference lies in his efficiency, as hes improved his 2-point and especially his 3-point percentages considerably, and is also getting to the free throw line quite a bit more, which makes a big difference in his overall output.
James biggest strength clearly revolves around how hard he plays, a part of his game we dont seem to have emphasized strongly enough in previous reports, and a skill in its own right. He brings an unbelievable amount of energy to the floor every time he steps out onto the court, being incredibly aggressive in pretty much everything he does.
That manifests itself in a number of areasthe way he runs the floor in transition, crashes the offensive glass, cuts and finishes at the rim, and just the overall toughness he offers. He is the leading rebounder in Big 12 history, averaging over 10 boards per game this season, and regularly is the one coming out of a crowd with a loose ball in traffic when his team needs an extra possession.
Offensively, James appears to have improved his ability to operate off the dribble this season. While hes still not the most skilled guy youll find, he has no problem operating comfortably off the bounce in the half-court or particularly in transition, showing off his aggressive nature as usual. Its good to see the senior show some new parts to his game, especially the ability to beat his defender with his left hand. Hes getting to the free throw line like he never has at any point in his career (8.1 free throws per-40 minutes pace adjusted, up from 6.1 last year), and his improved ball-handling skills have a lot to do with that.
With that said, James is obviously more effective facing up from the elbow than he is starting from the 3-point line, as his advanced ball-handling skills are nothing special, and he doesnt have an amazing first step to begin with. He sometimes gets himself into a bit of trouble when he tries to get too fancy with crossovers and such on the perimeter, which is why Texas staff likes to isolate him 17-18 feet away. From here he can get him to the rim off a single dribble thanks to his long, powerful strides and ability to take contact at the rim.
James jump-shot appears to be back too, after seeing his 3-point percentages regress to a disappointing 33% last year, hes back up to 41% on the season, albeit on a fairly limited (2.5 per game) amount of attempts. Hes far more consistent with his feet set now, making his catch and shoot jumpers regularly now, even if he continues to struggle to hit pull-up jumpers. Texas runs all kinds of pick and pop sets and short staggers for him these days, and James is very effective from the mid-range area in turn. Improving his ability to pull-up off the dribble would clearly be the next stage in his development as he tries to make the conversion to playing out on the wing full time.
James aggressiveness looking for his own shot does come at a price, though, as his assist rate (the percent of possessions that end in an assist) has dropped in each of his four years at Texas, now settling in at a paltry 0.06. Hes never appeared to be a great passer at any point in his career, but at times this year hes seemed to be hunting shots more than usual, possibly feeling the pressure of wanting to increase his NBA standing in his final season of college basketball.
Considering his likely role-player status at the next level, as opposed to the star and go-to guy he is now, there may be an adjustment that James needs to make to his game to fit in playing alongside more talented players. With that said, he already showed the ability to do that earlier in his career, playing alongside the likes of Kevin Durant
and D.J. Augustin
Despite being knocked for most of his career for not being a very good defender, it was difficult to find much evidence of that from the tape we took in. Sporting a terrific 7-1 wingspan, a chiseled frame and standing nearly 6-8 in shoes, James has all the physical tools needed to be an excellent defender, especially when you consider his terrific toughness and aggressiveness.
That clearly manifests itself on the court as well, as he is very active, uses his body extremely effectively, does a good job of utilizing his length to contest shots, and gets his hands on a ton of loose balls. James is a playmaker on the defensive end, getting in the passing lanes on a regular basis, blocking shots at a good rate, and doing a great job on the defensive glass. His lateral quickness on the perimeter may not be stellar, but it looks more than adequate for the NBA level. In fact, he seemed to do a better job guarding the perimeter from the film we saw than in the post, where his lack of size can get exposed at times.
All in all, James is a player that has clearly improved his draft stock by returning for another year, as he appears far more likely to be picked in the first round than he was last year, and may even be taken fairly high depending on how he finishes the season and works out for teams. It may not be easy to immediately identify a clear-cut role for James, as hes a bit of a jack of all trades master of none, and is clearly stuck between the small forward and power forward positions at this point. With that said, NBA teams are always in need of tough, aggressive players who are productive and can contribute in a variety of ways, which is why James will be coveted on draft day.