The Overlooked Player: Damion James

Going into the 2010 NBA Draft the Nets looked to be set up well -- they owned their own first-round (the 3rd overall pick), the Dallas Mavericks' first-rounder (the 27th overall pick) and their own second-round pick (31st overall). Although the team needed plenty of upgrades -- as they had just completed one of the worst seasons in recent NBA history, finishing with 12 wins --  the Nets appeared to have two pressing needs: they needed to acquire a power-forward to pair with Brook Lopez in an attempt to create one the league's more formidable front-lines; they also coveted a wing-player who could provide the team with athleticism, toughness, leadership ability and defensive potential.  

There was much debate about who the Nets should select -- assuming that John Wall and Evan Turner would be off the board -- with the third overall pick; the overwhelming majority called for Derrick Favors to be the pick because he fit all of the Nets' needs, but there was a minority that argued DeMarcus Cousins would provide the team with the toughness and rebounding that it required.  After all the debate, speculation, one-on-one workouts, mulling over of scouting reports and game-tape, the Nets selected Favors with the third overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft.  Favors showed some flashes throughout his rookie season with the Nets, but ultimately proved to be what many had projected him to be -- a project.  He was ultimately served as the main piece of the trade that brought Deron Williams to the Nets, along with Devin Harris and two first-round picks.

Although Favors received the bulk of attention (both from the media and from Nets fans), the Nets also selected another player that they deemed to be "a steal."  The Nets traded the 27th overall pick and 31st overall pick to move up to the 24th slot and select Damion James with the Atlanta Hawks' first-round pick.  Many fans were baffled by the move; arguing that the Nets should have looked to select a player who could contribute more on the offensive end (Jordan Crawford was the name that was thrown around the most).  James hadn't even been on the majority of Nets fans' radar, but he had garnered a lot of attention from the likes of Avery Johnson and Rod Thorn.  Johnson threw praise James' way, saying: "we think Damion is a steal; we expected him to be picked in the thirteen to fifteen range, for us to be able to move up and get him was great."

James wasn't the offensive juggernaut that many Nets fans were looking for, but he provided the Nets with exactly what they needed -- toughness and defense.  Here's a scouting report on James:

James’ biggest strength clearly revolves around how hard he plays, a part of his game we don’t seem to have emphasized strongly enough in previous reports, and a skill in its own right. He brings an unbelievable amount of energy to the floor every time he steps out onto the court, being incredibly aggressive in pretty much everything he does.

That manifests itself in a number of areas—the way he runs the floor in transition, crashes the offensive glass, cuts and finishes at the rim, and just the overall toughness he offers. He is the leading rebounder in Big 12 history, averaging over 10 boards per game this season, and regularly is the one coming out of a crowd with a loose ball in traffic when his team needs an extra possession.

Offensively, James appears to have improved his ability to operate off the dribble this season. While he’s still not the most skilled guy you’ll find, he has no problem operating comfortably off the bounce in the half-court or particularly in transition, showing off his aggressive nature as usual. It’s good to see the senior show some new parts to his game, especially the ability to beat his defender with his left hand. He’s getting to the free throw line like he never has at any point in his career (8.1 free throws per-40 minutes pace adjusted, up from 6.1 last year), and his improved ball-handling skills have a lot to do with that.

With that said, James is obviously more effective facing up from the elbow than he is starting from the 3-point line, as his advanced ball-handling skills are nothing special, and he doesn’t have an amazing first step to begin with. He sometimes gets himself into a bit of trouble when he tries to get too fancy with crossovers and such on the perimeter, which is why Texas’ staff likes to isolate him 17-18 feet away. From here he can get him to the rim off a single dribble thanks to his long, powerful strides and ability to take contact at the rim.

James’ jump-shot appears to be back too, after seeing his 3-point percentages regress to a disappointing 33% last year, he’s back up to 41% on the season, albeit on a fairly limited (2.5 per game) amount of attempts. He’s far more consistent with his feet set now, making his catch and shoot jumpers regularly now, even if he continues to struggle to hit pull-up jumpers. Texas runs all kinds of pick and pop sets and short staggers for him these days, and James is very effective from the mid-range area in turn. Improving his ability to pull-up off the dribble would clearly be the next stage in his development as he tries to make the conversion to playing out on the wing full time.

James’ aggressiveness looking for his own shot does come at a price, though, as his assist rate (the percent of possessions that end in an assist) has dropped in each of his four years at Texas, now settling in at a paltry 0.06. He’s never appeared to be a great passer at any point in his career, but at times this year he’s seemed to be hunting shots more than usual, possibly feeling the pressure of wanting to increase his NBA standing in his final season of college basketball.

Considering his likely role-player status at the next level, as opposed to the star and go-to guy he is now, there may be an adjustment that James needs to make to his game to fit in playing alongside more talented players. With that said, he already showed the ability to do that earlier in his career, playing alongside the likes of Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin.

Despite being knocked for most of his career for not being a very good defender, it was difficult to find much evidence of that from the tape we took in. Sporting a terrific 7-1 wingspan, a chiseled frame and standing nearly 6-8 in shoes, James has all the physical tools needed to be an excellent defender, especially when you consider his terrific toughness and aggressiveness.

That clearly manifests itself on the court as well, as he is very active, uses his body extremely effectively, does a good job of utilizing his length to contest shots, and gets his hands on a ton of loose balls. James is a playmaker on the defensive end, getting in the passing lanes on a regular basis, blocking shots at a good rate, and doing a great job on the defensive glass. His lateral quickness on the perimeter may not be stellar, but it looks more than adequate for the NBA level. In fact, he seemed to do a better job guarding the perimeter from the film we saw than in the post, where his lack of size can get exposed at times.

All in all, James is a player that has clearly improved his draft stock by returning for another year, as he appears far more likely to be picked in the first round than he was last year, and may even be taken fairly high depending on how he finishes the season and works out for teams. It may not be easy to immediately identify a clear-cut role for James, as he’s a bit of a jack of all trades master of none, and is clearly stuck between the small forward and power forward positions at this point. With that said, NBA teams are always in need of tough, aggressive players who are productive and can contribute in a variety of ways, which is why James will be coveted on draft day.

 Source: DraftExpress

And here's a mix of Damion James' college career: Damion James Highlights

James seemed to project as a solid-to-good starter at small-forward; he brought toughness, athleticism, leadership, defense, great rebounding for his size and the ability to score at a relatively good clip.  He showed the ability to put the ball in the basketball during the Summer League, when he averaged close to twenty points scoring in a wide variety of ways. 

James didn't have the best of rookie seasons, though.  At the beginning of the season, he was surprisingly dressed in street clothes as Avery Johnson -- the guy who had thrown a lofty amount of praise towards James -- decided to play the likes of Stephen Graham and Quinton Ross above him.  It was perplexing and many fans were left with raised eyebrows.  Finally, James began to receive adequate playing-time and appeared to be the player that Avery Johnson had raved about.  He looked good on both sides of the floor and displayed a great combination of athleticism and strength.  James played so well that he was moved into the starting lineup -- although, there may have been other factors at play as Travis Outlaw continued to have a negative effect on the team -- and looked to have his first NBA start only 200 miles from where he grew up.

From that point on, James' season went downhill.  In his first NBA start, James broke the fifth metatarsal in his right foot.  He required surgery and look to be out for almost two months.  It was the first time that James had been injured in his basketball playing career and he didn't know what expect -- "I've never really been hurt before, it's scary." James attempted to come back from his injury, but was never really able to get back to 100%.  The Nets subsequently shut him down for the season, as it appeared that he had not fully recovered from his foot injury.

Despite seeing so little of James, he displayed why the Nets had moved up to get him.  He has a good feel for the game; provides the team with the tenacity they so sorely lack; has a surprisingly good scoring touch; is a very good rebounder for a player of his size; can run the floor very well; and displays toughness and intensity on the defensive end.

The majority of Nets fans seem to think that the Nets are in dire need of a small-forward and I find myself scratching my head.  There are no small-forward options available in free-agency that would provide the Nets with elite level production and those that are available would need to be overpaid in order to draw them away from their teams.  

I'm of the opinion that the Nets are fine with Damion James as the starting small-forward, next season.  He may not be a spectacular player, but he looks to be a solid starter.  He fills a lot of the Nets' needs and brings the emotion and toughness that they seem to lack.

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