LARAMIE — Early in the second half of Wyoming’s Mountain West opener against Boise State last week, Justin James committed back-to-back turnovers — uncharacteristic of the Cowboys’ all-everything guard.
At least for most of the season.
Both of them turned into points for Boise State, the latter rather emphatically when RJ Williams caught Zach Haney’s miss off the rim for a putback slam that gave the Broncos a 37-25 lead — an advantage that ballooned to as many as 22 points in what turned into a 69-55 win for the visitors. Wyoming coach Allen Edwards belted out a question from the bench toward his star player as James walked the ball up the court to begin the Cowboys’ next possession.
“You tired?” Edwards asked.
It might as well have been rhetorical.
Whether James is the best overall player in the league can be debated, but it’s hard to argue there’s a more valuable one with what he means to Wyoming. James, the top scorer in the MW, is leading Wyoming in scoring (20.9 points per game), rebounds (9.5) and assists (4.3) while also leading the league with 139 free-throw attempts.
He’s doing it all while rarely getting a breather. James, whose 38 minutes per game are easily tops in the MW and fourth-most among Division I players, has led Wyoming in scoring in all but two games and has played the entire game five times, including all 45 minutes in the Cowboys’ 90-87 overtime loss to Denver back on Dec. 11.
Which makes it hard to imagine where Wyoming would be without James, who ranks eighth on the program’s all-time scoring list. The Cowboys, who had 10 wins at this point last season, have just four wins despite James’ production, putting them on track for what would be just their second losing season in the last eight years barring a significant turnaround in league play.
With 26 points on 9-of-21 shooting against Denver, James’ performance supported his notion afterward that all the minutes he’d been logging weren’t wearing on him physically. He was shooting 44 percent from the field at the time.
In the five games since, James is shooting it at just a 22-percent clip and has made just 15 percent (4 of 27) of his 3-pointers. He had his worst shooting performance of the season against Boise State, going just 1 of 14 from the field on his way to a season-low seven points.
“I don’t think anybody is doing anything special,” Edwards said of how teams are defending James. “Even if I was going up against JJ, I would say put guys on the ball and make him pass the basketball or shrink the floor, and I think that’s what teams are doing.”
Not coincidentally, Wyoming has found the going tough offensively with James struggling. The Cowboys, who averaged nearly 75 points through their first 10 games, haven’t scored more than 65 since the loss to the Pioneers.
James still didn’t want to blame his recent funk on fatigue after playing every minute against Boise State. Yet his workload isn’t likely to lessen with Wyoming needing its best player on the floor as much as possible in order to be competitive at this point.
“I don’t think it is (affecting my play),” said James, whose 38-percent shooting clip on the season is the lowest of his career. “Coach is doing a good job of changing our style of play to where we can exert the right energy at the right time. I’d be lying if I were to say minutes don’t matter, but I feel like when I’m out there, I feel like I have energy.”
Not that being the guy is anything new for James, who tested the NBA Draft waters without hiring an agent after averaging 18.9 points last season on his way to first-team all-MW honors. He became the focal point of every opponent’s scouting report when he ultimately decided to put off the next level for one final season at Wyoming.
But the Cowboys’ mass attrition has meant even more minutes and attention for James. Six players that began the season in the rotation have missed multiple games this season because of injuries or suspensions. Second-leading scorer Hunter Maldonado (nerve injury) is still weeks away from returning while Jake Hendricks, Wyoming’s third-leading scorer, has a torn LCL that Edwards said could “possibly” cost him the rest of the season.
It’s pared the rotation down to seven available scholarship players, which has forced the Cowboys to play more zone on defense and a more methodical half-court game on offense to try to stay as fresh as possible over the course of a game. After ranking in the top 15 nationally in adjusted offensive tempo in Edwards’ first two seasons at the helm, Wyoming is 88th this season in that category, which, according to kenpom.com, tracks possessions per 40 minutes.
And there aren’t many players left that have emerged as consistent secondary scoring options. Freshman big Hunter Thompson is the only other one in the current rotation averaging in double figures. The Cowboys’ leading scorer in two of the last three games? Freshman Trace Young, who was going to redshirt before all the injuries piled up.
Senior forward Jordan Naughton, who continues to work his way back from a partially torn LCL that sidelined him for the season’s first six weeks, reached double figures for the first time this season against Boise State. Edwards said he’s also been pointed with A.J. Banks and freshmen TJ Taylor and Brandon Porter about needing more consistent offensive contributions to help take some of the pressure off James, who’s moved almost exclusively to the point and routinely deals with double teams, particularly when teams trap ball screens and force James to give it up.
“We have to be more content with playing in the low 60s or high 50s to be honest with you,” Edwards said. “Understand that it might be a night of 20-something (points) but a consistent 12 or 16 between a few guys. If we get that, it opens up a little bit more for JJ to do some things.”
It’s led to Wyoming having a numbers advantage more times than not, but the Cowboys have rarely been able to take advantage of it with their less-experienced options. James admitted it’s made him press at times with his shot selection, and he’s occasionally forced the issue while feeling like he needs to make a play. James has committed 31 of his 63 turnovers over the last five games.
“He has to pass the basketball and allow a kid like Trace to continue to grow, a kid like A.J., BP and TJ but importantly Naughton and Thompson,” Edwards said. “And I’m not saying he doesn’t trust our guys to make plays. I’m not saying that. I think given the situation he’s in, he gets a little frustrated as well because he feels like he’s capable of doing it.”
Edwards said Young could run the point at times in an effort to try to get James more involved in the flow of the offense off the ball, but the reality is opponents are likely to live with letting Wyoming’s other players get their points if it means not letting James beat them. Wyoming will go as James goes, but he’ll need some help along the way if the Cowboys are going to get their season turned around.
“I think he just has to have a little bit more of a LeBron James mentality,” Edwards said. “Understand that you’re the best player on the floor, but how can I get these guys to be better? And then when the game is close down the stretch, that’s when you kind of put on your Superman cape and try to take the game over.”
The question is how patient will James be toeing that line?
“For me to be the leader of this team, I’ll pick it up,” James said. “I don’t have a choice.”