Justin James put together one of the most prolific careers Wyoming basketball has ever seen.
Still, the Sacramento Kings’ decision to take James in the second round of the NBA draft Thursday caught many by surprise.
James, a native of Port St. Lucie, Florida, came to Wyoming as an unheralded recruit with just one high-major offer (Mississippi State) and finished No. 3 on the program’s all-time scoring list by the time he left. He increased his scoring average every year after becoming a full-time contributor as a sophomore, posting career highs in points (22.1 per game) and rebounds (8.5) as a senior despite playing a more unnatural position at the point because Wyoming needed the ball in its best player’s hands as much as possible amid its 8-24 season.
That scoring average was tops in the Mountain West. Yet it wasn’t the most efficient season for James, who posted career-lows in field-goal percentage (40.9) and 3-point field-goal percentage (29.6). And while he averaged a career-high 4.4 assists, James turned it over nearly as much with 4.1 turnovers per game — also a career high.
Questions also linger about James’ defense and whether his 6-foot-7, 190-pound frame will be able to hold up against some of the bigger wing players in the NBA. CBS Sports had James as the 96th-best prospect heading into the draft while The Sporting News and nbadraft.net didn’t have a ranking on him, and most mock drafts didn’t have James getting picked.
But Sacramento liked James enough to spend their first pick — and the 40th overall selection — on him. The Kings were one of the teams that hosted James for a pre-draft workout, but their decision to draft James largely boiled down to the passion and production he showed during his four years in Laramie.
“We followed his college career, and that’s the reason we were so high on him and bringing him here to Sacramento,” general manager Vlade Divac told reporters in Sacramento during a post-draft press conference. “We talked to everybody about his professionalism and his love for the game. We were so excited when we spent time with him in Sacramento.”
James’ versatility didn’t hurt either. He spent most of his career at Wyoming playing off the ball, and Divac referred to James as a combo guard who could get minutes at a number of different spots on the floor.
There’s room for James’ game to improve, but there could also be an opportunity for James sooner rather than later in his new home. According to NBCSports.com, veteran wings Harrison Barnes, Alec Burks and Corey Brewer could all become unrestricted free agents this summer. Barnes reportedly opted out of his contract.
“I think he’s a ready NBA player,” Divac said of James.