June 19, 2012
Upon hearing that Joel James has lost 60 pounds, the natural question is to ask him how he did it. The 6-foot-11 center went from pudgy to powerful during his senior season at Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer High, so there must be a secret. Did he find an infomercial product that really worked? Watch a lot of Richard Simmons DVDs? Totally revamp his diet?
James just chuckles. "It wasn't something I really set out to do," he says. "I didn't look at it as trying to lose weight. I didn't change what I ate. I just had fun working out and playing basketball."
So the incoming Tar Heel freshman, who will begin summer school classes this week, may not have a future as a weight loss guru. Fortunately, he's got lots of other career options, beginning on the hardwood.
James is a fascinating story. He grew up in a family of 11 children. The neighborhood wasn't particularly safe--not the kind where a kid could get outside and shoot baskets in the driveway. He never played basketball competitively until high school, when the Dwyer High coach, Fred Ross, noticed there was a potentially untapped center walking the halls.
"Could you give this a shot?" Ross asked James. It turned out that the big man liked basketball, and the simple question from the coach might have changed the player's life.
Three years later--in an era when many of the nation's top prospects have been playing on AAU and travel basketball teams for a decade by the time they reach college--James is a member of one of the nation's most prestigious college basketball programs.
"It's a very humbling experience for a kid from where I come from to be looked at by a program like North Carolina, and to be wanted by a program like that," James says.
It's not just the Tar Heels that see potential in James. He tried out for the United States U-18 National Team and was one of the last two players cut. The tryout experience in early June in Colorado Springs was an important competitive experience.
Many Carolina recruits are accustomed to playing against the country's best players, having been on the summer circuit and serving as the centerpiece of their prep teams for multiple years. That's not the case with James. Dwyer, which won the state title in James's junior year, had terrific guards that season and didn't need much production from their big man. In one game Roy Williams watched in person, James received only a small handful of post entry passes in scoring position in the paint.
Since then, James has expanded his game, and his national team experience was another step in that progression.
"I was playing against some of the best players you can find at that level," James says. "I'm so glad that I went, because it was a great learning experience. The coaches really pushed you. It showed me how to play at a high intensity rate and the importance of doing every drill as hard as you can, because that's how it is going to be in college basketball."
He's continuing his basketball education in Chapel Hill this week, where the competition will be at an even higher level, because several former Tar Heels now in the pros are back in town. His areas of summer emphasis are the same ones Roy Williams asked him to focus on after his commitment to Carolina.
"Coach Williams wants a big man who can fill the lane and run the floor," James says. "He wants me to be able to hit a hook shot over each shoulder, and to be a good defensive player and rebound the ball."
And how do those goals fit with James's perception of his game?
"My jump hook to the middle of the floor, one dribble and going over either shoulder, was my go-to move in high school," he says. "I want to continue to develop that in college. And I've always felt like I have a defensive mentality. You have to get a stop before you can score, and that's the way I like to play."
That defensive approach should serve him well in Chapel Hill. In fact, he's already made a big impression on some former Tar Heels. On a previous recruiting visit to Carolina, James played pickup basketball with members of the 2011-12 team. In that game, one of his opponents was Tyler Zeller--someone who knows a little bit about the physical nature of ACC play under the basket.
"On his official visit, Tyler told me (Joel) hit him as hard as anyone had hit him in his (then) three-year career," Williams said last week. "He's a load. When he whacks you, you know you've been hit."
Adam Lucas is the publisher of Tar Heel Monthly. He is also the author or co-author of six books on Carolina basketball, including the official chronicle of the first 100 years of Tar Heel hoops, A Century of Excellence, which is available now. Get real-time UNC sports updates from the THM staff on Twitter and Facebook.