“This summer, my mindset was all about business.”
Junior guard Christian James wrote in a Players’ Tribune style story produced by Oklahoma Athletics in October.
He was labeled by some as the next Buddy Hield coming into his sophomore year after his performance late in his freshman season and the work ethic that he had. The expectations rose, but James’ game faltered.
As a sophomore, James scored 7.9 points per game, but was only a 36.3 percent shooter from the field and 37.7% from behind the 3-point line. He was moved to the bench halfway through the season due to his poor performance. James’ minutes were depleted, and his confidence waned.
“It was rough. It was rough for me,” James said about last season. “It was definitely a struggle. My confidence was low, I wasn’t playing as much. I really…I really had to do some soul-searching. I had to go find myself for a minute…”
As Oklahoma prepared for their trip to Australia this summer, he had a different pep in his step.
James was attempting shots in practice he was hesitant to take towards the end of his sophomore season…and was making them. He was flying around on defense–showing a newfound energy that looked to be lost.
“Confidence, that’s the biggest thing. I feel like I was lacking confidence,” he said. “At a point in time, I didn’t really believe in myself that I could play at this level. I had to really go and search and put some work in and show myself that I’m capable, and that I can be a lot more than what people think.”
Consider his soul searched.
On the Sooners’ trip to Australia, James showcased how much progress he made. He was the second leading scorer for Lon Kruger in the land ‘down under’ with 16.3 points per game on a scorching 71 percent shooting from the field, including 12-of-13 shooting from behind the arc. James’ stock soared again, but it was not enough to push him back into the starting lineup…yet.
As preseason practices for the 2017-2018 season began, it was clear that the junior was ready to move on past his sophomore campaign. In Oklahoma’s Hurricane Harvey relief charity exhibition game against Texas-Arlington, James went 8-of-11 from the field and 3-of-5 from three for 28 points–a game high.
He was then inserted into the starting lineup for the second exhibition game, and made the most of his opportunity scoring 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting, including 3-of-8 from the 3-point line. It is not unheard of for a player to have a sophomore slump, but it is rare for a player to come out of it as quick as James did.
“It’s all about getting better, man. I want to get my reps,” he said about the process. “It’s all about the touch and feel on the ball, it’s not about how many shots you put up or how long you stay in the gym–it’s all about the feel. As long as I got that feel, I’m good.”
The junior did not stop there, either.
James scored in double-digits in 12 of Oklahoma’s first 13 games this season, surpassing his total of double-digit outings from his sophomore season (11) before the mid-season point.
He gained his confidence back, but more importantly, he gained the confidence to lead.
During the summer and preseason, Christian James carried his calm, cool demeanor and listened instead of speaking out. But during Oklahoma’s nine losses in 11 games, which included a six-game losing streak, one voice stood out in practice and in games louder and stronger than everyone else.
“When we started losing,” James spoke about when he felt he needed to start leading. “There wasn’t too much vocal talk on the court during huddles and free throws. I just tried to take it upon myself and just be that guy to get everybody right, and keep everybody on the same page…”
Before Oklahoma broke their losing streak with an 86-77 win over Kansas State, James spoke to the media about a team meeting. The meeting did not happen according to him, but it was another sign a new voice had risen in the Sooners’ locker room.
Losing hurts, but after losing and going through the personal endeavors James had to go through a year ago, it came natural to him to try and pick up a team that needed it the most.
“I would say so. It’s really a point in time where I just get tired of losing,” he said about his natural leading ability. “Somebody has to step up and take control. Coming up under Buddy (Hield) and Isaiah (Cousins), they were big vocal leaders on the court. It’s something I picked up on from them, and I thought I would take it into my own hands and try to start something for this squad.”
With a dreadful February behind them, Oklahoma can now look ahead to postseason play with the Big 12 tournament starting today against in-state rival Oklahoma State. The Sooners looked like world-beaters before their slide, and James feels like a nice boost from March can get their swagger back.
“Definitely, we just got to believe in ourselves. We have what we have, I just tell my brothers that everyday,” he said. “We got a chance to win a national championship–I still believe that. Through the struggles, through it all, I still believe this team has a chance of going far. I just tell them keep grinding everyday, stay locked in and focus, let’s go out here and play together.”
James’ rise to 12.5 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting this season shows that his sophomore campaign is old news. With those personal endeavors of a year ago behind him, a new confidence, a new leadership role, and an increase in production, the junior’s future looks brighter than it has ever been, but how much higher can Christian James go?
“Who knows, I’m not even going to lie to you,” he said, and then broke a smile. “I’m just going to keep working everyday, and it’s a surprise for y’all to find out.”