LARAMIE – It all started about five years ago on Facebook.
Allen Edwards, then an assistant coach for the University of Wyoming men’s basketball team, got a message from a friend in Florida who had a friend who thought his son was being under-recruited.
That player was Justin James.
“I drove up from Miami to watch him play at his high school,” Edwards recalls. “It was a pick-up game on the back end of his junior year. It was (James) and like a bunch of little kids.
"They were high school kids, but they were small. I thought everything looked right with him, but he wasn’t playing against anybody.”
James was a 6-foot-7 guard, so perhaps he did look a lot bigger than the other players.
Edwards said there was talk among James’ family and coaches to move him out of his high school for his senior year so he could play against better competition.
“I agreed, even though we may lose him in the recruiting process, but he wasn’t going to get better at his high school,” Edwards said.
James, who is from Port Saint Lucie, Florida, played his senior season at Oldsmar Christian High in Oldsmar, Florida. He was named the Sunshine Independent Athletic Association player of the year where he averaged 20 points, 11 rebounds and three assists per game.
UW was among the first schools to recruit James, and he signed with the Cowboys in the fall of 2014. He chose UW over Mississippi State and Florida Gulf Coast. The entire Cowboys coaching staff played a role in James’ recruitment, but Edwards was at the forefront of it. Today, James describes his relationship with Edwards like family, not player/coach.
Nearly five years later, James plays his final home game for the Cowboys when they host New Mexico at 4 p.m. today at the Arena-Auditorium. He is one of four players in school history to score more than 2,000-career points, and the only guard in school history to score 2,000 points and pull down 600 rebounds.
“It is definitely going to be emotional,” James said. “It has been a great four years here. I’ve learned a lot and I am grateful for all of the time I spent here. Playing one last game in the A-A is going to be special.”
James averaged 5.2 points and 16.4 minutes per game as a true freshman in 2015-16. UW struggled in his first season coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2014-15.
James’ numbers have increased each season after that. He is on pace to be a first team All-Mountain West pick for the second consecutive year, and also the league’s scoring leader at 21.6 points per game.
Although James’ scoring prowess is well-known and talked about the most, he has evolved into more than just a scorer. Despite a school-record 23 losses this season, James leads UW in rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots. He has also proven to be a solid leader on a team that started the season with eight new players, has endured a rash of injuries, suspensions and attrition.
“He is a guy all the guys look up to, and I look up to him,” said forward Jordan Naughton, the only other senior on the roster. “He is vocal, and he has a great mentality toward basketball.”
That mentality includes an infectious smile, and an always positive attitude – win or lose.
“This season has definitely taught me patience and how to react to certain situations,” James said. “Most of the time, teams game plan to get the ball out of my hands. Sometimes I get frustrated, but I am playing basketball. The ball is in my hands and it is up to me to make the right decisions. I can’t ask for more than that.”
James tested the NBA draft waters last summer, and received good advice from several teams on what he needed to work on in an attempt to play at that level.
James put on about 15 pounds of muscle. He became a better rebounder (James entered this week sixth in the MW with 8.4 rebounds per game). He improved his defense with a league-leading 1.6 steals per game, as well as his passing (4.4 assists per game).
Yes, James also leads UW with 4.1 turnovers per game, and some of those miscues seem to be careless. However, when asked to do so much and how much attention he garners from opposing teams, with the good comes some bad.
“We’ve watched him grow over the years, and what he is right now is light years in terms of a basketball player and a person,” Edwards said. “As a leader he has grown. That warms your heart a little bit. Our staff poured into him for four years, and he sees how it has helped him.
“This has been a rough year for him in what he has had to shoulder. I really can’t take him out of the game. He plays 40 minutes, and I really can’t take him out of games. Yet he comes back ready to practice. He is the right example for the young guys. He is more of a complete basketball player than just a scorer. His future is bright.”
One would expect Edwards and his teammates to say positive things about James. But what about some of the guys who has coached against him the last four years?
“Talking to our players, even going back to last season, he was the toughest guy to guard,” Nevada coach Eric Musselman said. “He has a great demeanor, and he just goes out and plays. We game plan more for him than any other player in our league.”
Added Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich: “Justin is a tremendous basketball talent and a great competitor that plays the game the right way. He has been an unbelievable ambassador for Wyoming basketball on and off the floor.”
When any prolific player in sports has their career wind down, there come comparisons to other great players.
In terms of recent history, there are two good ones to draw to at UW that Edwards coached as an assistant – guard Josh Adams (2013-16) and forward Larry Nance Jr. (2012-15).
James was a freshman when Adams was a senior, and Adams put up similar numbers as James surrounded by a young and inexperienced squad.
Adams is currently in the NBA’s G-League after playing professionally overseas. Nance is in his fourth season in the NBA, and is currently playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers after being a first-round draft pick by the Los Angeles Lakers.
“(James) is up there, and what helps him is he has the size and length,” Edwards said. “Josh was special as a high-wire act and how he was able to do it. (James) had to be a little more complete where Josh (at 6-2) was more like Superman.
"As far as playing at the next level, Nance is the best example because he understood it wasn’t just about offense. He knew he had to defend his position. I would rank (James) with those other two as special players.”