First, the good news for Damion James. As mentioned in the FanShots, Damion James tested extremely well athletically at the NBA Combine held last week, finishing second in the 3/4 court spring with a time of 3.09 seconds, second to only Florida State's Toney Douglas and notably faster than the speedy point guards Ty Lawson, Pat Mills, and Johnny Flynn. James also tied for the seventh-highest max vertical at 37 inches. Though James stands less than 6-8 in his shoes, his greater than 7-0 wingspan may keep open the possibility that he could spend some time at the four in the NBA, though that's still a long shot.
However, the big question about James hasn't ever about his athleticism.
The question is, and has been since the beginning of the process, can he handle, shoot the ball, and defend well enough to play against NBA small forwards?
Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) for James, the nature of the Combine has changed this year, focusing less on scrimmage situations where James could show his toughness, hustle, and ability to pick up cheap buckets by running the baseline, and more on individual skill workouts. To be fair, Trips Right believes that the lack of scrimmaging actually benefits James, since his low basketball IQ and lack of true position won't be exposed. Perhaps the change works both ways.
On the first day, players participated in ball-handling drills and simulated shooting drills. James reportedly struggled early on in the shooting drills before finding more consistency as the day went on. That's not surprising for observers of Texas basketball, as James went through similar struggles last season, albeit without finding any particular consistency throughout the whole season.
One NBA source told Chip Brown ($) that teams still question the ability of James to play good perimeter defense and that his overall identity as a player is still an "enigma," leading Brown to place the odds of James returning to school at 40-60. Jonothan Givony of DraftExpress wrote after Day One that James looked like a strong candidate to return to school, evidently a commentary on his performance compared to other players. David Aldridge later echoed that assessment.
Givony also mentioned in his "Word on the Street" feature that the perception of James has been declining with NBA teams he has spoken with, though he doesn't mention why. A source close to James who spoke with Chip Brown thought that James didn't do anything to change his status. The same source also said that James will participate in group workouts in the days leading up to June 15, when James must decide whether to stay in the draft or return to school.
Today James is finishing up three-day workouts for Denver, Golden State, Indiana, the L.A. Lakers, Memphis, Oklahoma City, Phoenix and Utah with a group of forwards that includes Arizona's Chase Budinger, Omri Casspi of Israel, USC's Taj Gibson, UNC's Tyler Hansbrough, Notre Dame's Luke Harangody, Georgetown's DaJuan Summers and Pitt's Sam Young. Those workouts will be crucial for James because, as Chip Brown mentions, only one team has to fall in love with the Texas forward (think Daniel Gibson) and give him the assurance of being drafted for which James is looking.
Only one of five mock drafts listed on pacers.com has James going in the first round -- nbadraft.net has James joining former teammate Kevin Durant with the Thunder at 25. However, if James does receive an assurance that he will be picked high in the second round and receive a guaranteed contract, he might elect to remain in the draft. As Rick Barnes said recently, it's more about sticking in the NBA than it is about gaining early playing time.
However, Chip Brown now places the odds of James staying in school at 50-50 and Andy Katz wrote last week that James is definitely "on the bubble," and James himself says that he wants a first-round guarantee to stay in the draft. In the same article James says this about the future of Texas basketball:
Though James may want to be a part of that team, he told Katz that he feels like he is ready for the NBA. The major consideration for James in coming back to school may be how much he can help his stock and, therefore, how much money he could make himself by coming back (perhaps as much as $3 million). With Jordan Hamilton coming in, James won't have many opportunities to play small forward and prove that he can take opposing wings off the dribble and play consistent perimeter defense. In other words, it may be difficult for James to vault himself into contention to be a lottery pick by coming back for his senior season. Once again, Trips Right might disagree, believing that going against opposing power forwards would benefit James because it will give him plently of opportunities to blow by the Bryan Davis' of the world, which might be enough to fool NBA general managers into believing that he has truly improved.
His return would, however, help vault the Longhorns into the very top tier of college basketball teams next season. Several years in this decade the Longhorns have seemingly been close to contending for a national championship if they could only keep their top player from jumping early to the NBA -- for the 2009-10 version, it could be Damion James who would put them over the top. His rebounding, toughness, and athleticism would all be extremely difficult to replace, as neither Gary Johnson nor Jordan Hamilton have the ability to rebound out of their area as James does.
For James, the decision will probably come down to the last second (his last work out will be on the 14th), but the best news for Longhorn fans might be that he has kept his options open to return to school by not hiring an agent and finishing out his spring semester -- his academics won't be an issue if he decides to return to school. If he does decide to return, it could be exactly what the Longhorns need to make a deep run next March. And that's plenty of reason for Longhorn fans to keep their fingers crossed.