Joel James: Big opportunity for UNC’s big man

acarter@newsobserver.comNovember 2, 2012 


UNC freshman Joel James (0) dunks for two points of his 13 points in the second half against Shaw on Friday October 26, 2012 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.


— The question drew a laugh and a smile from James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina’s sophomore forward. Could Joel James, the 6-foot-10 freshman, serve as a kind of enforcer for the Tar Heels this season?

“Have you seen him lately?” McAdoo said, looking through a crowd of reporters and at James, who was taking a few shots on the Smith Center court at North Carolina’s media day. “He can. He has been. Joel’s just big, honestly.

“That’s all I can say.”

At 6-foot-10 and about 270 pounds, James, whose first name is pronounced “Joe-el,” is indeed big. But so, too, is the void in the Tar Heels’ frontcourt. Tyler Zeller and John Henson, both of whom led the Tar Heels’ on the interior in each of the past two seasons, are now in the NBA.

Zeller, a 7-footer whom coach Roy Williams has described as the hardest-running big man he’s coached, earned ACC Player of the Year honors a season ago. Henson, a 6-foot-11 shot-blocking specialist, was among the nation’s best defensive players for two seasons.

James, meanwhile, didn’t start playing organized basketball until his sophomore year at Dwyer High in West Palm Beach, Fla. Despite his inexperience, he’ll have a chance to contribute immediately – likely as a member of the starting five.

“He’s had less basketball instruction than maybe any player I’ve ever coached,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said at his team’s media day last month. “But man is he a fun kid. You guys are going to enjoy him. I keep telling him, Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

The first time Williams watched James play, he weighed 315 pounds. Leading into his senior season of high school, though, James lost about 60 pounds. He re-gained about 10 and, despite the total weight loss, arrived on campus and instantly became UNC’s most physically imposing player.

“People are going to be afraid of him right off the bat,” McAdoo said.

Williams prefers for his offenses to rely on effective post players. And his best teams at North Carolina have done that, thanks to the likes of Sean May, Tyler Hansbrough and Zeller.

But entering this season, the Tar Heels lack a proven scoring option on the interior. The versatile 6-foot-9 McAdoo, who emerged last March to become a key contributor during the ACC and NCAA tournaments, isn’t a traditional back-to-the-basket power forward.

Desmond Hubert and Jackson Simmons, the team’s other returning forwards, played sparingly a season ago. So that leaves James and fellow freshman Brice Johnson, who at 6-9 and 187 pounds spent some time playing on the perimeter in high school.

Both in terms of size and natural skill set, James might be the Tar Heels’ best option for consistent points in the paint.

“He definitely is” ready to play a significant role, junior guard Reggie Bullock said. “He was highly recruited coming out of high school. He’s a big man – he can run the floor well. He’s got a nice soft touch around the basket.”

It’s clear that Williams likes James’ demeanor. In a span of about 10 seconds during media day, Williams described James as “marvelous,” “funny,” “fun.” And, Williams told reporters, “You’re going to like him.”

More important, Williams likes what he sees, too, and said James “has no idea how big and strong he is.”

Given what the Tar Heels lost from last season, James should have no shortage of chances to show how big and strong he is early in his freshman season. It’s clear already, at least, how big he is.

How good he is, meanwhile, could determine whether the Tar Heels’ void in the frontcourt remains as large as it seems entering the season.

Carter: 919-829-8944

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