That incredible potential was apparent during his freshman season. So was his significant inexperience when it came to the details of the game. Running, shooting, dunking and blocking shots are stock standards at the college level. Nuances such as proper defensive angles and absorbing contact take far longer to master.
“You’re always harder on yourself,” James told reporters earlier this week. “I feel like I was frustrated. Just a lot of anger, a lot of frustration upon myself knowing I could do a lot more.”
For James, the primary obstacle in moving from high school to the college ranks was adjusting to the speed of the game, and not necessarily just the pace on the hardwood.
“In high school, there’s someone there holding your hand,” James said. “In college, you’re on a team full of grown men and you’ve got to figure it out. Yeah, your teammates are there to help you along, but they can’t help you that long because they’ve got to go. It’s a game; you’ve got to play.”
Roy Williams provided James with plenty of opportunities early in the season to make the transition. In his first 23 games (including three starts), James averaged 2.7 points and 2.9 rebounds in 11.3 minutes per contest. Once UNC went small, however, his minutes plummeted. James played just 22 minutes over the final 13 games of the season, including one minute in UNC”s two NCAA Tournament games.
The toughest part of his short tenure at UNC thus far has come in elevating his mental game to match his physique.
“I have the physical tools to be a NBA superstar one day,” James said. “Big person, can run the floor, physical. I like contact. But along with those physical skills, you need to have a mental part of the game as well.”
Williams instructed James during their postseason evaluation to calm down, take his time and be the player the 11th-year UNC head coach recruited. A significant part of that process involves carrying a necessary amount of confidence to move past the nervousness that was gripping at times last season.
“Have you ever heard the saying. ‘Confidence is like deodorant; if you don’t have it on, you stink?’” James said. “That’s what it is. The only thing you can do is build confidence… Confidence comes with the amount of work you put in.”
The West Palm Beach, Fla. product’s ability to work in the gym has been limited, however, due to offseason medical procedures to clean out calcification in both knees. The nagging injuries had plagued him even before arriving in Chapel Hill and were present daily as James felt pain whenever running and jumping.
While he’s working his way back into playing shape – he said he had no pain after last Monday’s pickup game – his absence proved to be beneficial for his understanding of the game.
“You get to stop and take a step back and analyze the game from a whole different perspective,” James said, adding that Marvin Williams and Rasheed Wallace have offered insight this summer. “You just see so much you wouldn’t normally see while playing.”
Most freshmen post players encounter an offseason workout regiment intent on increasing strength and size, but that hasn’t been the case for James, who has maintained or possibly even dropped his body fat percentage since enrolling at 260 pounds last summer. Gaining or losing weight hasn’t been a topic of conversations during workouts with strength and conditioning coach Jonas Sahratian.
Building confidence has been the focal point and there’s already evidence that it’s rising.
When asked about battling for playing time in a crowded post next season, James’s response was telling.
“Hopefully I can… well, not hopefully,” he clarified. “I’m going to be a starting center.”