LARAMIE — Justin James has entertained himself as much as he has the thousands of fans that have poured into the Arena-Auditorium over the last four years.
There was Wyoming’s game against Cal his freshman season when James, sharing the floor with two future NBA draft picks in Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, knocked down a 3-pointer to make things interesting late in a 78-72 overtime loss.
Last season, on his 21st birthday, James went off for a career-high 33 points to lead the Cowboys to their first home win over a ranked team in four years in a 104-103 double-overtime win over eventual Mountain West regular-season champion Nevada. This season, James set a new career-high with 36 points against the Cowboys’ biggest rival in a comfortable win over Colorado State on Feb. 9.
“I’ve had a lot of fun games in my career,” he said.
James will get one more game in front of the home fans. Whether he will classify it as fun amid Wyoming’s trying season remains to be seen, but in a building where James has made some of the fondest memories of his prolific career, it will certainly run the gamut of emotions.
James and fellow senior Jordan Naughton will be recognized before the Cowboys’ regular-season finale against New Mexico on Saturday as part of Senior Day festivities, where the program will honor a career that ranks among the best in its history. James is fourth on Wyoming’s all-time scoring list, surpassing the likes of Reggie Slater, Eric Leckner, Larry Nance Jr. and Josh Adams this season to get there.
James is just the fourth player in program history and the sixth in league history to score 2,000 career points. His 2,002 points are the fifth-most in MW history. Should he score at least 30 points Saturday — something he’s done twice already this season — he’ll pass former Fresno State standout Marvelle Harris for No. 4 on that list.
“It’s going to be emotional for sure,” James said. “It’s been a great four years here at the university. I’ve learned a lot. I’m grateful for all the time I spent here.”
For everybody involved, it’s hard to believe it’s almost over.
“It flies by,” Wyoming coach Allen Edwards said. “It really does.”
Edwards had never heard of James until he received a Facebook message five years ago.
It was from a friend, who informed Edwards that one of his old college buddies had a son who was putting up big numbers in the Florida prep ranks but wasn’t getting much attention from Division I schools. The message included a highlight video of James, but Edwards, then an assistant on Larry Shyatt’s staff who recruited his native Florida for the Cowboys, needed to see him in person.
“OK, cool,” Edwards recalled thinking. “The next time I get down that way, I’ll make sure I stop in and get a chance to see him.”
Edwards got his first live look at James after his junior season at St. Lucie West Centennial High, where James averaged 21.1 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.6 assists that season. Edwards watched James play a pick-up game at the school’s gym and saw a lanky, skilled wing that stuck out almost too easily from the rest of the competition.
“It was JJ and like a bunch of little kids,” Edwards said. “They were high-school kids, but everybody was little. I’m looking at it and saying, ‘Everything looks right, but he ain’t really playing against nobody.’ You can get fooled sometimes by that.”
Seeking more exposure and more interest from high-major programs, James played on the AAU circuit in Florida and was already entertaining the idea of making the move from public-school ball to a private school, a higher level of competition in Florida.
James transferred from St. Lucie West Centennial to Oldsmar Christian School just outside of Tampa for his senior season. Playing with and against a bevy of Division I signees that have gone on to play at Florida and Kansas just to name a couple schools, James received numerous mid-major offers during his lone season at Oldsmar. Mississippi State eventually offered while in-state Southeastern Conference power Florida ramped up its interest.
But most of that attention came after James had already committed to Wyoming, which offered James a scholarship before his senior season. James thought long and hard about the opportunity Mississippi State gave him to play in the SEC (Florida didn’t offer him a scholarship), but he stuck with his pledge and signed with the Cowboys.
“Coach Edwards, when he was an assistant coach when he was recruiting me, I was the main priority,” James said. “We had a great relationship from the start. Them having their eyes on me before everybody else did, I kind of took that as they were attracted.”
It’s been a gradual progression ever since.
James immediately joined the Cowboys’ rotation during the 2015-16 season, averaging 5.2 points in 15.6 minutes per game. He led Wyoming in scoring at 16 points per game as a sophomore before upping that to 18.9 points a game last season on his way to first-team all-MW honors. He also posted career-highs at the time in field-goal percentage (47.2), rebounding (6.0) and assists (3.1).
“He’s a better decision maker,” Edwards said. “Last year, it was more about scoring for him. Actually the last two years. He defends a lot better and rebounds a whole lot better. That was my thing to him going into the year, and that was even the feedback he got from the NBA level: You have to be more complete.”
James grew into a bonafide NBA prospect with the numbers he put up last season along with his 6-foot-7, 190-pound frame. He tested the waters last summer by putting his name in the draft without hiring an agent, but he ultimately withdrew it in favor of one last season with the Cowboys, though this isn’t how he envisioned it playing out.
Personally, it’s arguably the best of James’ career. He’s the MW’s leading scorer at 21.6 points per game and is on pace for career-highs in rebounding (8.5) and assists (4.5), but he’s been one of the few bright spots amid a season for Wyoming that’s been marred by mass attrition and futility.
The Cowboys lost fellow all-league performers Hayden Dalton and Alan Herndon to graduation after last season while five players that started this season as part of the rotation were lost by mid-December to injuries, suspensions or personal decisions to leave the team, leaving James to do most of the heavy lifting. James, who’s led Wyoming in scoring in all but five games, has accounted for 33.1 percent of the Cowboys’ points this season.
That’s despite being the overwhelming focus of every team’s scouting report. James routinely draws double teams in the opposition’s effort to get the ball out of his hands and make someone else in Wyoming’s eight-man rotation beat them, but James is often able to avoid those traps. He’s also taken 33.1 percent of the Cowboys’ shots and 41.3 percent of their free-throw attempts.
Those percentages could be higher considering how often James handles the ball, and there are times he’s forced the issue. His 40.7 field-goal percentage is on pace to be the lowest of his career while his 123 turnovers are already a career-high, but James said the season has been a lesson in patience to continue to try to get his teammates involved.
“Sometimes I do get frustrated because most of the time, there’s a hand in my face, but I’m playing basketball,” James said. “The ball is my hands a lot to make decisions for this team, so I really can’t ask for more than that.”
It’d be hard to imagine where Wyoming would be without James’ production. Without a win over UNM (13-16, 7-10 MW) and a couple more in next week’s MW tournament, the Cowboys (7-23, 3-14), who’ve already lost more games than any team in program history, will finish with their lowest win total since the 1973-74 team won just four games.
Yet James has pushed through to do about all he can do, ranking in the top 7 in the MW in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals while playing more minutes than anyone in the league on a nightly basis (38.1).
“Not only has it (surprised me), but for him to come back ready to go the next time,” Edwards said. “At some point, you’re saying that he’s got to be saying, ‘I just … I don’t know, Coach.’ And within all of this, he still practices. That’s why I say he’s passing something down to these younger guys. Even though he’s playing 40 minutes basically a night, he still wins sprints. He’s still the hardest-working player on our team and yet he’s carrying the heaviest load.”
But there’s not much about the last four years James would change.
“I’ve grown as a man and given myself an opportunity to play at the next level. I’ve also won a (CBI) championship,” James said. “I’m grateful for this university, and I’m happy with the decision I made.”