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James tackles crucial summer

The following article appears in the August issue of Carolina Blue Magazine. Please visit www.magazine.carolinablue.com for more information.

Joel James is focusing primarily on the mental side of the game to prepare for his sophomore season.

By Chris Moore
Editor, Carolina Blue Magzine

There’s no questioning the size of North Carolina freshman center Joel James, who bangs his knees while trying to slide into the press conference table for his mid-June interview, quipping about how the desk is too small.

There’s also no questioning the size of Joel James’ personality. That became evident last season, when the seldom-used James became a celebration mogul on UNC’s bench. First came the Three-Antlers – created by Reggie Bullock, perfected by James – following 3-pointers. Then he introduced the Flexed-Arm Scream, the Three Dance (holding three fingers to his side while he high-stepped along the bench) and the Googly Eyes, among others.

It’s easy to become enamored with James’ personality and take him merely as a 6-10, 280-pound entertainer. Nearly every answer he has for questions lobbed his way include some sort of joke, always accompanied by a smile stretched across his face. But, underneath that jovial shell is an emerging basketball talent facing the same sort of problems as his classmates. Underneath, there’s a player desperately trying to get better, if only because he’s so hard on himself and spent his entire freshman season frustrated with his play.

James is one of the favorites to land the starting center spot, and he’s made it his mission to get there. To do so, a big summer lies ahead for the big man. He needs to improve his all-around game while tremendously improving his mental approach to basketball. That’s something he’s taken in stride so far.

“I’m focusing just on the mental part of the game. I’d say just having confidence in myself and my game ... confidence is like deodorant. If you don’t have it on, you stink,” James said. “I have the physical tools to be an NBA superstar – big person, runs the floor, physical, I like contact. But, along with those physical skills, you’ve got to have the mental game, as well. That’s one of the things coach Williams told me. Just to calm down, not be so nervous.”

There’s a two-pronged process to improving the mental aspect of the game for James. The first doesn’t have much to do with actual knowledge of the game but that aforementioned confidence.

James was never able to develop confidence when playing limited minutes last year. When he was in the game, he often found himself in early foul trouble or unable to keep up with the nuances of the game, resulting in a quick pull off the court. He would let his frustrations mount, and eventually his anger at his own play would override any progress he made. As the season pushed forward at a torrid pace, he realized that he was mostly on his own to get his mind straight.

“In high school, there’s someone there holding your hand,” James said. “In college, you’re on a team with grown men, and you’ve got to figure it out. Your teammates are there to help you along, but they can’t help you that long. You’ve got to play. You’ve got to figure it out on your own.”

James said sometimes he wanted to spend afternoons playing against students just to rebuild his confidence and reaffirm his ability.

The best way for James to improve his confidence, he says, is by simple repetition. He knows that if he spends 12 hours a day working on a jumpshot, he can hit that jumpshot when the game rolls around. It’s with that approach that James has found himself in the Smith Center for hours each day, working on his post moves, shooting and positioning.

The second way James is trying to improve his mental approach is by increasing his basketball acumen. He never started playing basketball until high school, so the learning curve has been severely steeper for him as compared to most of his peers.

This part of the process was actually aided by a minor injury he dealt with at the beginning of summer. He had nagging knee injuries and calcification on his kneecaps during his freshman year, so he underwent a procedure in early summer to clean out the junk. While rehabbing, James was able to take a step away from the court and think about the game for the first time since he arrived in Chapel Hill. When he watched pick-up games from a different perspective, he would notice things he previously hadn’t seen, and then he would figure out how the situation unfolded and make mental notes to apply to his own game.

Talking to the NBA players who come back to Chapel Hill for summer workouts has paid marvelous dividends for James, as well.

“Not being able to play, you get to sit down and talk with them and pick their brains about basketball and life, and they help you with so much just about the mental aspect of the game and life situations,” James said. “Marvin Williams works out with me in the morning. He’s a great person to talk to, and he gives you insight about how he defends players in the NBA and the little plays and schemes they run in the NBA. And, even Rasheed Wallace comes back sometimes. As crazy as he is, he’s a very, very wise man. It’s a great little treat to talk to them.”

With their help, James said he’s already seen an improvement in his defense. He’s learned how to better position himself to make a play, how to use his big frame effectively and, most importantly, different tricks and maneuvers to avoid fouls.

James’ hard-hat approach to summer in part comes from a series of conversations he’s had with Wallace.

“He was just talking to me about if I do develop fast enough and well enough, I can go to the NBA. He just said it’s all on me,” James said. “At the end of the day, it comes down to how much work I put in and how much I want it, and that’s the truth. Pretty soon, life hits you. You can either sit around and live in this la-la world, or you can get your butt in the gym.”

If James can accomplish his mental goals this summer, he’ll be at the forefront of the starting center conversation. Roy Williams has said before how great he believes James’ potential to be, but the center just had to come around on the non-physical side of the game.

James is excited by the prospect of being the big man in the middle. He knows it comes with a lot of expectations, but those are something he actually looks forward to living up to now.

The results of his summer-long efforts to retool his confidence are already paying off, too. When asked about the competition throughout the frontcourt, James let that confidence show.

“Hopefully,” James began his answer. “No, not hopefully. I’m going to be the starting center.”

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