October 4, 2007

James returns with something to prove

NBA scouts judged Dominic James this summer as though he were Mark Cuban on Dancing With The Stars.

The book on James was he had NBA potential, but it wasn't ready to translate to NBA draft pick. He was ultra-quick and solidly built, could handle the ball and get in the lane at will. But could he make good decisions? Would he take good shots? Could he lead a team at the next level?

James had declared for the NBA Draft after his sophomore season at Marquette, a season in which he averaged 14.9 points, 4.9 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.9 steals. He also shot just 38.4 percent from the floor, 27.2 percent from 3-point range and 65.1 percent from the free-throw line. Not great numbers for anybody, but particularly alarming for a point guard.

The Golden Eagles went 24-10 but fizzled down the stretch, losing six of their final nine games. They were eliminated by Michigan State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, 61-49.

James received an invitation to the NBA's Orlando Pre-Draft Camp, but the reviews of his play there were Britney-at-the-VMAs bad. DraftExpress.com said "his lack of a formidable outside shot and his lack of impactful point guard plays are very troubling." NBADraft.net said James' "half-court offense needs much work, as he often rushes shots and sometimes is overaggressive driving." And an NBA scout told Rivals.com there simply was no buzz about James, that he "had lots to work on."

As painful as it was to hear, James listened. He's back for his junior year at Marquette, ready to prove to the pros that he can do what's necessary to be a first-round pick.

"I wouldn't say there are any lingering effects from the evaluations," James said. "I knew I had to get better, and this gives me the perspective of a true point guard. I think it was a positive experience and will help my game in a tremendous way. It will make me change things in my game."

Such as?

"I have to show the things I can do on a consistent basis on the college level," he said. "I've been called on to be more of a scorer here, but the NBA wants to see me lead my team. They want me to make the simple play rather than the spectacular play. They want me to be more consistent with my shot, have better shot selection."

None of which is a bad idea. Even James admitted that things had come a little easier his freshman season, when he averaged 15.3 points, 5.4 assists and 4.5 rebounds and shot 43.1 percent from the floor. Note that each of those stats was better than his sophomore numbers.

"I feel like I can (do the things NBA scouts want), and I have shown that, especially my freshman year," James said. "Steve Novak took some pressure off me scoring the ball, and I was able to play more of a point-guard role."

Dominic James admits to some struggles last season that he didn't encounter as a freshman. The numbers bear him out:
2005-06 15.3 5.4 4.5 1.6 43.1 30.1 64.1
2006-07 14.9 4.9 3.1 1.9 38.4 27.2 65.1
Alas, Novak was a senior in 2005-06. He led Marquette in scoring that season at 17.5 ppg, including 121 3-pointers. He shouldered much of the scoring burden, and his outside shooting created more driving lanes for James.

The Golden Eagles made 263 3-pointers in Novak's senior season; they made 217 last season. Dan Fitzgerald was the leader with 52. James had 50, and freshman David Cubillan had 48.

James says the Golden Eagles will have plenty of scoring options this season. He doesn't believe he'll have to score 20 a game for the team to win.

"The best thing about this team is the balance in scoring," James said. "Wesley (Matthews) and Jerel (McNeal) you know will handle their business. Lazar Hayward is a guy who can do more. He was a freshman making the adjustment last year. He's a guy with a lot on his shoulders. He'll have to pick it up in the scoring column."

Hayward is a 6-6 small forward who showed flashes of helping out what is one of the nation's best three-guard lineups in James, McNeal (14.7 ppg, and the Big East defensive player of the year) and Matthews (12.6 ppg). Hayward averaged 9.3 ppg over his final eight games, including 18 against Villanova and 14 against Georgetown. The former four-star prospect averaged 6.6 points and 3.6 rebounds for the season, not bad for just 16.3 minutes per game.

Expectations are high for a James-led Marquette team. The Golden Eagles were in Rivals.com's first preseason top 25 poll, dropped out with the news of James entering the NBA Draft, then re-entered at No. 15 when he announced he was staying in school.

"I'm thrilled about it (James' return)," McNeal said. "It's one of those things where either way I'd be happy for him. He's one of my best friends, and it's his lifelong dream (to play in the NBA). He'll get to live out his dream one day.

"But now that he's back, our team doesn't take a step back. We basically return everybody. We've got our core guards and some new additions. I'm just excited. I think we'll be a team to contend with. We're so much more mature. We'll be sticking around the top 10 for most of the year."

The team did nothing to temper expectations on a Labor Day weekend exhibition trip to Canada, going 4-0 with James averaging 17.8 ppg and posting two double-digit assist games. James said the trip north of the border worked out well.

"It was unbelievable," he said. "It was time just for us. It wasn't about playing other teams but getting our chemistry down. It was nice to go 4-0, but we got better and spent quality time with each other away from school. We got to get the young guys involved in our style and coach's style, subbing guys in and out. They got to get a feel for how we are, especially in game mode."

Now it's game on for James. The Golden Eagles fully expect to play deep into March, and if they do it's a safe bet James again will test the NBA waters.

"There's a difference between 'NBA ready' and 'NBA potential,' especially for guards," James said. "Guards have to come out NBA ready. Big men can take time to develop, but guards - especially points - have to prove themselves right away."

Marquette and James can start proving things Nov. 10, when IUPUI visits for the season opener.

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.


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