It’s about time we all recognized Mike James.
In an early season landscape where Giannis Antetokounmpo has ascended, the Cleveland Cavaliers have stumbled and the league is as topsy-turvy as ever, the Phoenix Suns’ newest point guard may be one of the nicest surprises of all. Following the firing of former head coach Earl Watson and subsequent dismissal of Eric Bledsoe, James has exploded onto the NBA scene in the Suns’ revamped backcourt. As Phoenix has trended upward since the major change in personnel — 3-1 record, now rank 2nd in pace — it’s hard to ignore the steadying presence and injection of life that James has given the Suns.
Thanks to a perfect storm of crazy events just two weeks into the season, people are eagerly taking note of James, the NBA’s 27-year-old rookie.
Currently, James sports a nightly average of 13 points, 2.4 rebounds and 3.7 assists — statistics that one might incorrectly corroborate with a recent first-round selection. However, this well-aged rookie took a less than an ordinary path to the NBA after he went undrafted back in 2012. In fact, his journey has been a turbulent affair since his freshman year at Eastern Arizona, a national junior college. With two dominant seasons in the NJCAA’s Division I under his belt, where he averaged 25.9 points, 3.8 assists and 1.8 steals per contest during his sophomore year, James made the leap to Lamar University in hopes of continuing his strong momentum.
His final two collegiate seasons were successful, particularly so for somebody that was only recruited by Division III programs out of high school, but James was still left with little chance of being drafted. That summer, James would sign with Croatia’s KK Zagreb, a club whose youth squads once featured Dario Saric and Mario Hezonja, thus kicking off a European globetrotting adventure for the ages. Over the next four years, James would play in Israel, Italy, Spain and Greece, including a brief stop back stateside for summer league in 2015 with the Suns.
Panathinaikos, the last overseas team James played for in 2016-17, helped bring out the best in the seasoned scorer. By the time James rejoined the Suns for another summer league audition, the point guard had won the Greek League championship and was given the award for Most Spectacular — an honor, notably, that is different from MVP. David Pick, one of most highly-regarded overseas basketball reporters, even called James “Euroleague’s most electrifying combo guard” in late July. Out in Las Vegas, James led the young Suns with a 20/5/5 line on 53.8 percent shooting — performances that would ultimately earn him one of the franchise’s newly minted two-way contracts.
In a recent article by Scott Bordow of AZCentral, James talked about why it took him so long to reach the NBA, despite many successful stints overseas.
“A lot of summers, I didn’t even take a chance. I got some offers and just said no off the bat,” James said. “I wasn’t ready to pass up on some money to come here yet. I wanted to make some more money and be more financially secure before I came back. Now I have a chance to take a pay cut for a year and possibly make more money.”
So far, the gamble seems to have paid off.
Bouncing between the Northern Arizona Suns, Phoenix’s G-League affiliate, and the NBA, James could theoretically showcase his nuanced scoring ability and adjust to a style of play he’d not yet experienced. Well, that was likely the plan before Watson’s early season ousting and Bledsoe’s dismissal — suddenly, everything for James had changed.
Under interim head coach Jay Triano, James was immediately placed in the starting lineup for the 0-3 Suns. After last night’s victory over the Brooklyn Nets — in which James tallied 24 points, five assists and four steals in 29 minutes — the Suns are now winners in three of their last four games. Although the Nets have been anything but defensively sound in 2017-18, James made scoring look easy time and time again. From anticipating weakly telegraphed passes to finding open space behind the three-point line during a fast break, James has rapidly become a key piece of this Suns team moving toward.
James’ relentless energy and knack for hitting tough buckets have even been a natural fit next to Devin Booker, creating a formidable backcourt pair that is more than happy to fire away from anywhere on the floor. In his very first game as a starter, James finished with 18 points and seven assists, a performance that culminated with the Suns’ point guard taking fellow rookie De’Aaron Fox off the dribble before delicately scooping the ball up and over Willie Cauley-Stein’s massive block attempt to break the tie with only 14.8 seconds remaining.
Already, James’ basketball IQ is obvious, a trait that should be invaluable to this raw, inexperienced Suns team in 2017-18 and beyond. Outside of stalwart veterans Tyson Chandler, 35, and Jared Dudley, 32, James is the Suns’ oldest player, narrowly beating out Troy Daniels and the aforementioned Bledsoe. With the new opportunity, James can be an important piece for the franchise, both on and off the court, as the Suns dive headfirst into another rebuilding period.
Bledsoe, in all likelihood, has played his final game in a Suns uniform and Brandon Knight, the team’s other expensive guard, will miss the entire season after tearing his ACL in July. Tyler Ulis impressed last season as a 5-foot-10 second-round rookie, but his minutes have stayed exactly the same (18) despite Phoenix’s dearth of healthy backcourt options. Not only is James seemingly here to stay — remember, that two-way contract is only good for 45 days — but there’s no competition to usurp his heavy role as a starter as well.
Of course, the Suns could receive a guard in return for Bledsoe when he’s eventually moved — although there’s no timetable on such a trade. But at this rate, however, there’s little reason to replace James at all — he’s been that good.
A cursory glance at James’ highlights through the first seven games provide a look at the scoring prowess he possesses. Take, for example, any number of his buckets from that win over Sacramento — like this beauty of a pump-fake on Fox — and it’s clear that James is making the most of his big moment. With a confident and diverse arsenal of offensive moves, it almost feels as if we’ve been watching James do this for years.
After dominating high school basketball, James just wanted a shot to play collegiately. After dominating junior college, he just wanted to play Division I. After he went undrafted, he just wanted to keep playing basketball, wherever the game happened to take him. After joining six teams in five different countries, James has finally made his NBA debut and it has been well worth the wait.
Due to an early coaching change, James went from a G-League prospect to a starter in the span of ten days — certainly not a bad way to start your NBA career. Given his truckload of big-game experience and smooth-looking jump shot, everybody’s favorite 27-year-old rookie has officially put the league on notice.
And if his extensive overseas resume is any indication, the best from James is still to come.
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