"Joel has looked really good,” point guard Marcus Paige told reporters at UNC’s media day. "Obviously you can tell from looking at him that he's transformed; he's a monster now. He's healthy, he's getting the mental aspect - he knows where he's supposed to be - those things are more second nature than they were last year.
“I think he's pretty much the 5-man at this point, but you never know until the first couple weeks of practice.”
That would be significant news, considering there are six players battling for that position – juniors Desmond Hubert and Jackson Simmons, James and fellow sophomore Brice Johnson and freshmen Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks.
When asked to confirm those comments, Paige didn’t back down.
"Joel has the leg up right now - it's definitely not a set-in-stone thing or anything like that,” Paige said. “Just based on what I've seen and how much he's improved, I think he has the best chance at this point."
James averaged 2.3 points and 2.4 rebounds in 30 appearances last season. Despite shooting 51.7 percent from the floor, James struggled to adjust to the rigors and complexity of the college game.
The affable 6-foot-10, 280-pound forward out of West Palm Beach, Fla. did not play organized basketball until his sophomore year of high school, which essentially created an insurmountable learning curve during his rookie campaign.
When told of Paige’s comments, James replied: “Cross my fingers, knock on wood and hope everything’s all well, but I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing to ensure that I earn a starting spot and keep getting better as a player.”
James indicated that while he’s gotten stronger physically this offseason, his emphasis has been on improving his mechanics while learning to move past mistakes and focus on the next play, not the last one.
“I just want to have a solid low post game,” James said. “It’s nothing flashy. It’s a right hook; jump hook. It’s reading the way a man is playing me. It’s nothing flashy, but it gets the job done. That’s what I plan to have.”
Williams agreed that James’s confidence has improved this offseason.
“You’ve heard me say before that a lot of guys make a tremendous leap from their freshman year to their sophomore year and I’m hoping that will be [the case] with the big fella,” Williams said.
Even so, James understands the challenges the 29 practices over the next 42 days will bring.
“Six people for one spot – that’s not good odds,” James said. “If you’re not going 100 percent, you’re not going to play. It’s that simple.”