The 6-foot-10 freshman has lost more than 50 pounds in the past 18 months and weighs around 260 pounds. That puts him in better position to fill a vacancy along the Tar Heels' front line with the departures of Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes to the NBA.
It also means he'll be better able to handle coach Roy Williams' fast-paced offense.
"That was a big part of motivating me," James said. "Obviously going to a school like Carolina, if you're not in shape and can't run, you don't play. I felt to get the best opportunity to play as a freshman, I have to get in the best shape I can."
James said he weighed around 315 pounds at his heaviest before focusing on eating better and working harder. That commitment impressed his new coach, who said James first focused on improving in the classroom after his freshman year.
Williams called James "a big rascal who's gotten a lot less big." He said James left an impression on Zeller during a pickup game, with the 7-footer telling Williams afterward that James "hit him as hard as anybody had ever hit him in his four years."
"He's got a load, there's no question," Williams said. "When he whacks you, you're going to know you've been hit. And we've got a tremendous need for size. I think he can do some good things for us."
The Tar Heels will need someone to replace the 47 points and 25 rebounds that Zeller, Henson and Barnes combined to average last season before all becoming NBA first-round draft picks last month. While 6-9 sophomore James Michael McAdoo is back and will face big expectations, the rest of the roster is loaded with wings like Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston and freshman point guard Marcus Paige along with the expected returns of Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland from knee injuries.
That leaves an open spot alongside McAdoo up front, one that would seem to fit James' physical presence perfectly. The Tar Heels also have 6-10 sophomore Desmond Hubert, who is unlikely to provide the same kind of physical presence, while fellow freshman Brice Johnson (6-9, 187) will have to bulk up.
Fred Ross, James' coach at Dwyer in West Palm Beach, Fla., said James dunked so powerfully and so often in the gymnasium that Ross had to bring in someone to repair the rim this summer.
He said James can rebound, is developing his jump shot and runs the floor well.
"He's still a work in progress now," Ross said. "He's a big kid, but he's young. ... He's just a hard worker and in high school, he did a lot of power dunks. He's not going to be able to dunk every time at that level."
James, one of 11 kids, believes the opportunity is there for plenty of playing time. At the least, he knows he's physically ready to wrestle in the paint right away.
"I came out at the right time, to be honest," James said. "A lot of players, their bodies aren't fully developed as freshmen and I think mine is. It's going to be good playing against other freshmen when I'm already bigger and stronger than them."
Joel James Profile