LARAMIE — Justin James hears it. It’s impossible for him not to.
Wyoming’s all-everything guard tries to brush all the chatter aside, but it’s not easy when you’re the guy. And there’s no mistaking that James is the guy for the Cowboys heading into his final season.
“I don’t really pay it any attention,” James said. “I’ve always had confidence in my abilities. I’m not going to say like I’ve always felt like I was the guy, but I don’t feel like it’s something that’s going to bother me. I just play basketball and whatever comes with it comes with it.”
There’s plenty of attention that comes with being one of the best players in school history.
James is 19th on Wyoming’s all-time scoring list with a senior season still to go. The only way he doesn’t pass Marcus Bailey, whose 1,356 career points from 2000-03 are just one more than what James has right now, in the Cowboys’ season opener against UC Santa Barbara on Nov. 6 is if he doesn’t play for some reason. Other former Wyoming greats in his sights? Cleveland Cavaliers forward and former first-round pick Larry Nance Jr. (1,386) and former Mountain West Player of the Year Josh Adams, who is No. 5 on the list with 1,819 career points.
A preseason All-MW selection, James is the league’s leading returning scorer after averaging 18.9 points last season to lead Wyoming to its second straight 20-win season. He upped that to 20.8 points a game against conference foes while averaging six rebounds and 3.1 assists on his way to first-team all-MW honors.
And it’s not like James needed a bunch of shots to produce those points. He shot 47.2 percent from the field, the highest mark of his career.
“He’s a gamechanger,” Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich said of James. “He’s really talented. He can score 20 on a bad night.”
Filling up the stat sheet isn’t anything new for James, who’s been scoring seemingly at will since signing with the Cowboys as a rangy but lanky three-star prospect out of Oldsmar Christian High in Port St. Lucie, Florida, in 2015. James got up to speed with the college game as a freshman, averaging 5.2 points in 16.4 minutes, before breaking out with a sophomore season in which he averaged 16 points on 46.2-percent shooting, including a 42-percent clip from 3-point range.
But James had help the last two seasons from fellow all-MW first-teamer Hayden Dalton and Alan Herndon, Wyoming’s only other double-figure scorers last season. Both of them are gone from a team that lost three starters and has nobody else returning that averaged more than 5.3 points a season ago.
Add the fact Wyoming will be counting on eight newcomers to help try to replace that production, and James admits he has to fight the urge of feeling like he has to do it all.
“Sometimes I catch myself doing that, but I can’t do this by myself because some teams’ game plan is going to be double teaming me and I have to be able to make that right play,” James said.
That’s one area of James’ game he feels he has to improve, particularly with so many eyes watching at the next level. James declared for this year’s NBA Draft and worked out for the Boston Celtics, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets, but he never hired an agent and withdrew his name from consideration.
James used the process primarily to get feedback from teams on what he needs to do to improve his draft stock for next year. That included gaining weight — James said he’s up to 192 pounds after playing last season at 180 — and making the right reads to get teammates more involved when teams inevitably send more defenders his way in an effort to try to make somebody other than a MW player-of-the-year candidate beat them.
“I kind of got (double teams) a lot last year, but in my mind, if I come off a ball screen and they’re trapping the ball screen, if I read the rotation, then it’s a 4-on-3 scramble,” James said. “So just trusting my teammates and trusting that they’re going to make the right plays whenever I give them the ball because sometimes there will be mismatches when some teams trap and double me.”
It’s something James and coach Allen Edwards have discussed numerous times as opponents continue to make the combo guard the focal point of their scouting report on the Cowboys.
“I almost brought back to when Josh Adams was a senior,” Edwards said. “JJ, we don’t need for you to try to go score 40 points a game. What we need for you to do is just be a complete player. What he’s shown during these eight weeks in the summer leading up to the season is he’s a guy that not only scores the basketball but rebounds the basketball, a guy that also assists because he has to make the game a little bit easier for these guys.”
Like most seniors who’ve never experienced it, James envisions ending his career by getting Wyoming back to the NCAA Tournament, something the Cowboys haven’t been a part of since 2015. Not many are expecting it from Wyoming, which was picked by MW media to finish seventh in the league.
James will need all the help he can get.
“All that does is motivate us,” James said. “Especially me because I’m trying to go with a bang. I’m not going to let us go out with a bad season at all.”