LARAMIE – Justin James spent the summer attending NBA camps, toying with the idea of declaring for the NBA draft and skipping his final year at Wyoming.
It was time well spent.
It was time that gave James a look at the skills he needed to develop to play at the next level.
It was time that has been the foundation for James’ strong start to the Cowboys season, which has been marked by key injuries and limited wins, but the emergence of James as a more complete player, and an emerging leader on the court.
“It definitely helped me, “said James. “Just being around the pros, seeing the lifestyle they live, how serious they take the game, and how serious they take their bodies made an impression.
“The main thing I got out of it was how much you have to take care of your body because at the professional level your body is your money. So you continue to do treatment before and after practice. Focusing on the little things was a huge part.”
The Cowboys return to the AA to host Northern Colorado on Saturday, having lost five of their first seven games. In a 86-78 loss at Evansville on Wednesday they welcomed 6-10 redshirt freshman Hunter Thompson back to the court after treatment for a concussion suffered in the season-opening game, Saturday, they are hoping for the return of sophomore Hunter Maldonado, who missed two of the last three games with recurring back spasms.
And they will follow the lead of James, who is coming off career-best efforts with 34 points and 10 rebounds against Evansville. The 6-7, 190-pound James is averaging 24.9 points and 10 rebounds per game. How important has he been to the Cowboys? Well, he is averaging 37.7 minutes in the 40-minute game so far this season.
An All-Mountain West selection as a junior, James feels he is an even better player this year, thanks in part to his experience during the summer.
“At the college level, there are some players where I score because I am more talented than the other players but in the NBA you have to focus on everything you need to do because everybody is just as talented, or more talented, than you are.
“So having an all-round game is necessary. It’s being able to shoot a three-ball, handle the ball, have that floater, finishing around the rim, and guarding the ball. Those are things they look for in guards and those are things I key on every day.”
It is, after all, what James has his sights set on once he completes his career at Wyoming.
“The main thing I got out of (the summer experience) is it is a business,” said James. “They don’t see it as an amateur sport. They see it as a job. Your job is on the line every night so do doing the best you can for your teammates and improving yourself every day is a huge part of what you have to do.”
Those are lessons he is helping his teammates – one of the younger groups in Cowboys history – to understand. There are only three seniors on the roster – James, point guard Ny Redding, and center Jordan Naughton, who suffered a knee injury in the pre-season game and is not expected back until conference play in January.
There are three juniors, but Jake Hendricks, A.J. Banks and Lwal Dung are all junior college transfers, faced with making the transition to the Division I level.
Maldonado and Austin Mueller, both starters, are the only sophomores.
There are six freshmen on the roster, led by Thompson, and TJ Taylor, who has steadily earned more playing time. Taylor played only 40 minutes in the first four games – 31 of those coming against Grambling – but has averaged 26.3 minutes in each of the last three.
That underscores the need for James to take charge, and not only improve his game, but help the inexperienced Cowboys’ roster emerge.
“With all these new guys, you know feeling this obstacle, I wanted to climb and show everybody that I’m the definite pro,” he said. “Deciding to come back was easy. Especially with Coach E (Allen Edwards) it is easy because he has always supported me ad what I do for this team.”
He has welcomed his expanded role, which extends past his personal achievements.
“I’ve pretty much been the leader, but this year I’ve focused on that more, doing the right things on and off the court. That’s the main part of leadership.”
And that includes helping the new players, most of whom came from Southern climates, adapt to Wyoming weather.
“I’m from Florida,” he said with a smile. “I had seen snow twice before coming to Wyoming, so that first winter was definitely big-time, seeing snow every day. It was cool, though, because in this culture, everybody knows each other and it was surprising how much everybody actually cares about you.
“Back where I’m from, you keep your head down, and you do what you need to do. Just coming here and seeing the family-like atmosphere, and how everybody cares about it, is definitely a cool experience.”
It’s an experience James wants to make sure his teammates enjoy as much as he has.