Justin James always exhibited NBA-level talent. The University of Wyoming shooting guard or small forward or power forward or point guard — whatever you want to call him because he could literally play 80 percent of positions on the floor at any given time — had many attractive NBA qualities.
He stood 6-foot-7, could handle the ball, beat players off the dribble, pull up for a jump shot, knock down a 3-pointer, finish at the rim, set teammates up in a position to score, rebound, anticipate passing lanes and switch onto most players. He was also a tremendous leader. Four years in Laramie and zero off-the-court problems.
Even in saying all that, it was still shocking to see James go No. 40 to the Sacramento Kings Thursday night during the 2019 NBA Draft.
James enjoyed an impressive 2019. He averaged 22.1 points per game, which was 19th best in the country. He also led the Pokes in rebounds (8.5), assists (4.4) and steals (1.5).
It was a spectacular individual display from James night in and night out. But that’s what it was, an individual display.
Wyoming suffered through its worst season since the early 1970s, finishing with an 8-24 record. The Pokes were decimated by injuries, but also weren’t that good when fully healthy.
That gave James an unceremonious end to an impressive career. That made Thursday’s unexpected call early in the second round so deserving.
This season wasn’t easy for the Wyoming standout, but it all worked out in the end. Without much help, James was able to put his full skill set on display, and it garnered him a call by the Kings.
Sacramento didn’t have a first-round draft pick, making James its first pick of the 2019 NBA Draft. That shows how much the Kings liked Wyoming’s superstar.
Players such as Bol Bol of Oregon, Kyle Guy of Virginia and Jalen McDaniels of San Diego State were on the board at No. 40, but Sacramento selected James.
That also puts some pressure on James. It’s not the same pressure that Zion Williamson will feel in New Orleans or what Ja Morant will feel in Memphis, but James will be expected to come in and contribute right away.
The Kings vied for a playoff spot in 2019, finishing ninth in the loaded Western Conference, and James could be the piece that pushes Sacramento into the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
James will have to improve his 3-point shooting.
He connected on 44 percent of his shots from deep as a sophomore, but declined his last two seasons, bottoming out at 30 percent as a senior.
Many of his other skills need fine tuning, as well, but everything is there for James to have a long and fruitful NBA career.
The James selection is further proof that Wyoming produces NBA talent. Larry Nance Jr. was a first-round draft pick in 2015 and has embarked on a steady NBA career ever since. Josh Adams, Derek Cooke Jr. and Nathan Sobey are also enjoying successful professional basketball endeavors.
While James won’t have the same impact as Josh Allen has in attracting high school quarterbacks to Laramie, James’ presence at the highest level will prove beneficial for the Pokes’ men’s basketball team.
James was the only thing worth tuning into for Wyoming basketball this past season.
While it would have been nice to see James have a more celebratory senior season, the Kings’ selection gives brown and gold hoops fans something to hang their hat on.