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‘Can he get here tomorrow?’ How Mike James went from castoff to the biggest game of his life

2021 NBA Playoffs - Milwaukee Bucks v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Sean Marks needed a point guard. James Harden was out with a strained hamstring, Chris Chiozza with a broken wrist. Spencer Dinwiddie was in L.A. rehabbing a torn ACL. Moreover, the point guard cupboard was bare. There were no obvious choices ... in the NBA ... anyway.

Mike James, on the other hand, needed a job, an opportunity. The 30-year-old had been suspended indefinitely by CSKA Moscow’s temperamental head coach Dimitris Itoudis after an “altercation” of some sort. His camp was calling around the league, hoping to convince a team, basically any team, to give their guy a chance.

Then, as Mike Mazzeo writes for Forbes Sports Money, this happened...

All their persistence paid off when Marks called back with an offer.

“‘Can he get here tomorrow?’” Marks said, according to (Anthony) Walton (part of James camp.)

“I couldn’t believe it,” Walton said. “I was like, ‘We’ll walk there if we have to.’”

Marks wasn’t flying blind (does he ever?) James was a known quantity around the HSS Training Center. He had worked out in the summer with the “Big Three” in L.A. (“Mike James is a bucket,” Kevin Durant had said), was friendly with KD’s older brother Tony. He also was close to Ime Udoka who like James had grown up in Portland. J.R. Holden, the Nets player personnel director, had played at CSKA for a decade and knew the Moscow scene.

To call what happened next a whirlwind would do tornados an injustice. It was wilder than any cyclone. James quarantined at the Gansevoort Hotel downtown and was signed to the first of two ten-day deals on April 23. He first met Steve Nash during warm-ups that night!

Marks liked him enough that he signed him to a second 10-day and just before the end of regular season signed him through the end of the playoffs (and in the process made him a restricted free agent this summer.)

Then, after playing nine minutes and scoring four points in the Boston series, James got another opportunity. Mazzeo writes...

[O]n Saturday night, after James Harden re-injured his right hamstring, Mike James had one of the best games of his life, finishing with 12 points and seven rebounds in 30 minutes as the Nets beat the Milwaukee Bucks, 115-107, in Game 1 of their second-round, Eastern Conference playoff series.

“It’s just basketball,” James said over the phone on Sunday. “I always try to stay ready, because anything can happen. You never want to see a teammate get hurt, but when you get that opportunity, you need to be ready to seize it.”

Storybook, much? Sure, but it wasn’t the first time.

Coming out of Grant High School in Portland, James was a not a top recruit. He wound up at a junior college, then Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, a small Division 1 school where he set scoring records but didn’t get a single NBA workout.

Undrafted, the 6’1” combo guard took his talent to Croatia, then Israel, then Italy, then Greece, then Spain, then Greece again, before the Suns took a chance on him. He had a more than a respectable year with the Suns and Pelicans, but decided to return to Europe through Greece for third time, Italy for a second before finally landing in Moscow, where he became one of Europe’s highest paid players and MVP candidate.

“Everybody has their own truth,” James told Mazzeo when asked about his exit from CSKA. “I don’t have to explain myself to anybody. I’m just thankful to be in Brooklyn.”

Right now, he’s prepared for whatever role Nash has for him tonight. Ironically, he’ll likely to be going up against his best friend and top defender Jrue Holiday. Funny how things work out.

“It’s dope, to be honest,” James said. “We’ve played against each other in the summer a lot. It’s a good test — he’s one of the elite defenders in this league.”

As for the future beyond the playoffs, the Nets have some advantages. As noted, he’s an RFA and so the Nets can sign him outside the cap and match any offers he recieves from elsewhere.

“He’s grown up, he’s matured,” Walton told Mazzeo. “He’s not taking anything for granted. He’s relishing the moment. He’s got a great support system — his mom (Lisa Behrndt) comes to a lot of his games. And he’s got a great group of friends who travel with us. For an NBA player to get this chance at his age — you can’t make it up.”

It does happen, of course. Castoffs can find new homes in Brooklyn. Ask Dinwiddie, Joe Harris or D’Angelo Russell. They know.