First of all, I'm pleasantly surprised with James' return. I had heard some things early in the process that led me to believe Damion would come back to school especially if he didn't get a first round grade. In recent days, however, it sounded more and more like the junior would settle for a guaranteed contract in the second round. Thankfully for Barnes and the program, James decided to come back and fill a huge need for the squad, and we'll talk about that later in the post. But for James, I really think this will improve his draft stock, despite what a lot of the experts think about James' situation. Here's why.
Look, before I'm flayed for this take, I realize that James will play a hybrid 4 his senior year, when his natural position in the NBA is a small forward and that's fine. Honestly, Damion played a 4 down the stretch his junior year, too, so I struggle to see the distinction. It wasn't like James was leaking out to get into transition and make athletic plays as a wing during the second half of last season. Quite the contrary in fact. Hell, if James wasn't pulling boards on the defensive glass for Texas, it was a 50/50 proposition that Texas would even close out a defensive possession. Given that fact and the fact that James was guarding 4's to begin with, nothing on the defensive end is really going to change for the 6-7 soon to be senior. Sure, he has to get better guarding on the perimeter, but luckily guarding is a function of want-to and training. DJ has the want-to, and Todd Wright has an Eastern European plyometrics program hidden away in his mad-scientist laboratory to hone explosive lateral movement.
For Damion, the real difference is what happens on the offensive end, and it's this area of his game that my opinions differ from a lot of folks. You see, I think Damion will absolutely get better, or at least appear to get better, based on the talent he'll be sharing the floor with. Damion's game as a one power dribble slash to the goal type will seemingly arrive over night. It'll seem as if he's playing on a floor with bigger dimensions now that Texas can deploy 4 perimeter shooters and 5 legit scorers at any given time. In addition, Damion will be the beneficiary of getting the opposing team's 3rd or 4th best defender, usually a plodding power forward, and he'll be going against that defender, in many cases, with that defender coming out of defensive help rotation from one of the other 4 Longhorn scorers. How many times during the course of last season did we see help rotating from another player to Damion James? I'd say south of half a dozen. Shoot, Damion attacking a rotating help defender might happen half a dozen times PER GAME next season. We all know Damion can catch and shoot, but watch out for the Damion who's getting blow by's for dunks and garbage buckets.
As for the argument that Damion will be hurt with fewer opportunities, I'd say that'll be made up with better efficiency stemming from James taking better shots. We can all agree that dunks usually help the old shooting percentage. Plus, and this is the good news for Damion's draft prospects next year, there will be film of James putting the ball on the deck and attacking the rim. Up to this point in his career, that hasn't been the case. Remember when DJ Augustin single handedly created the Connor Atchley 1st round buzz? Mark my words, James will be a first round pick next year if he stays healthy. It's not a popular opinion, but neither was James returning to school in the first place.
As for what this means for the Longhorns as a team, hoo boy, where to begin? On a micro level, the Horns go from what would have been a suspect rebounding team to a superior one. With a combo of Wangmene and Pittman on the strongside and Damion's athletic presence on weakside vs. post-centric teams, the Horns should be able to close out defensive possessions and take advantage of their athletes in transition. Without James coming back, the Horns wouldn't have the luxury of allowing athletic wings like Bradley and Hamilton to leak out and get on the break. It would instead be a team rebounding, all hands on deck situation, which wastes what should be a team strength this year. Sick athletic depth that needs play up tempo. It's tough to be up tempo if you can't pull a board.
Offensively, Damion is a perfect compliment to scorers like Pittman, Bradley, and Hamilton because James doesn't need to dominate the basketball to be an offensive threat. He can get garbage buckets off of the glass when the defense is thoroughly rotated and broken down. James is also adept at catching and shooting as well as finishing dimes by creators. In a word, the senior forward is unselfish. He's a team guy that can and will get his without hunting his.
So, now with the personnel stage 99% set, we can focus on the season at hand which should be a good one. On a macro level, James' return takes the Longhorns from being a final four hopeful to a National Championship contender if the freshmen show as we think they'll show. It's certainly a good time to be hopeful as a Longhorn Basketball fan. Look for the next post to be about the season. A season which is setting up to bring the Title back to the state of Texas after being gone since 1966.