Dwyer 6-11 center Joel James, who's North Carolina-bound, adjusts to mock chants and big expectations
Thursday, January 12, 2012
by Jeff Greer
There's something about the way Joel James walks, his hulking shoulders slumped slightly forward as if he's carrying a heavy load.
High expectations saddle Dwyer's senior center this winter.
His signing a letter of intent to play for North Carolina has as much to do with the "overrated" chants in packed Palm Beach County gyms as his head-and-shoulders advantage on most of his opponents.
At 6-foot-11, he's an easy target, especially playing for Dwyer, the most dominant basketball team in the area. But in the painstaking and frustrating process of becoming Dwyer's go-to guy and best player, James developed a mantra.
"Keep your head down, keep doing your thing," said James, smiling. "People can talk as much as they want; I focus on the game or practice or whatever I'm doing and get it done."
So far this senior season, he's getting it done. James averages a double-double in points and rebounds, and his dominating inside presence is a major reason Dwyer's young and inexperienced team is still 8-5 and a threat to win a district title.
"He's had to carry us," Dwyer coach Fred Ross said. "That's new for him."
James looks nothing like he did when he came to Dwyer as a wide-eyed sophomore with a big waist and gobs of potential.
He's grown 6 inches and shed more than 40 pounds, slimming to a sleek 262.
"I literally tipped the scales - literally," James said with a laugh.
His arms are defined, his body's trim. He's no longer arriving late to defensive and rebounding positions, a frustrating reality that landed him in foul trouble nearly every game as a sophomore and junior. He's even noticeably matured in his demeanor and the way he talks.
Above all, he's a better basketball player.
"A kid like that, it takes a while for their coordination and basketball ability to catch up to their brain," said Jupiter coach John Andersen, who's played against James and Dwyer five times over the past three seasons. "When they get older, it clicks. Joel's a perfect example of that."
The transformation of James became a necessity this off-season for a reloading Dwyer team. The Panthers graduated four of their starters and loads of veteran experience on the bench.
A season removed from their third state championship since 2004 and their first national television appearance, the Panthers look a lot more like a high school team, starting two sophomores and a freshman.
Instead of being the 6-11 anchor of a lineup that featured other players who stood 6-7, 6-4, 6-3 and 6-3 - all of whom are playing college sports - James towers over his current teammates.
He's no longer overshadowed by the likes of Jacoby Brissett, who plays quarterback at Florida, or Greg Louis, a freshman basketball player at Pennsylvania.
Area coaches, echoing Ross and James himself, say James has adjusted well.
"He's a man," Palm Beach Gardens coach Jim Arbogast said. "He's going to get stronger and stronger. Sky's the limit for the kid. I've noticed a lot of improvement in him."
Behind the scenes, Ross sees a far more mature big man. Ross said every now and again James will start allowing the pressures of the outside world to seep in, prompting the big fella to "think too much."
"Then I tell him, 'Remember sophomore year,'" Ross quipped. "That straightens him up real quick."
Former Dwyer players Leemire Goldwire, who now plays in Europe, and Alonzo Gee have spoken to James about the pressures of being a star. And even with his old teammates like Brissett and Louis gone, James said their lessons - whether dictated or simply demonstrated - helped him take over the reins.
"It's been hard," James said. "Whenever you're trying to accomplish something new, it's going to be. Having the pressure to score as many points as you can and stay out of foul trouble and lead a team like this - that's tough."
That's when his mantra kicks in.
"But I'm keeping focused, keeping up the work level. I'm working my way into that role."