NBA general managers didn’t pull any punches. They had plenty of questions for Bernard James, and at the top of the list was his age – 27.
The former Florida State power forward participated at the pre-draft camps and has worked out with 12 NBA teams, the most recent being the Orlando Magic on Sunday.
James is projected as a second-round draft pick in Thursday’s NBA draft. And he should be, by far, the oldest player drafted.
James was born in February 1985, and at 27 he is just a few months younger than Miami Heat star LeBron James (who is obviously no relation but just wrapped up his ninth NBA season).
So Bernard James presents something of a dilemma for NBA teams, who must look at his age but also realize that he doesn’t have as much mileage on his legs because he didn’t play basketball in high school.
“The age issue was really in the front of a lot of GMs’ and coaches’ minds,” James said. “They didn’t really know what they were going to get out of me. …
“I’m 27, but I haven’t been playing basketball as long as most of the guys in the draft. I’ve been playing even less time at an elite level. I don’t have all that wear and tear on my body. I’ll be able to play later into my 30s than most of these guys will be able to.”
And he’s also used his military experience as an argument that he’s a person that is prepared for the on-court and off-court demands that the NBA will throw his way. When NBA coaches and front-office staff asked about the military training and how it translates to basketball, James emphasizes his leadership, dedication and professionalism.
They are all traits that he didn’t have in high school but now could help him land a spot on an NBA roster.
“I’ve been in the military and I’m mature,” James said. “I’m not a snot-nosed kid out here that is going to go buck wild as soon as he gets a little bit of money. I’m going to work hard. I’m going to stay disciplined and perfect my craft. …
“My goal will be to move up on the list. Sixth man, starter, all-star. I’m going to keep setting goals, and when I reach them I’m going to set another goal higher.”
Hard work, discipline and goal-setting are fundamentals for the 27-year-old version of James, and it clearly illustrates just how mature he is compared to how he was 10 years ago.
James quit basketball during tryouts his freshman year of high school in Savannah, Ga. And he later dropped out of school. So James’ parents encouraged him to get his GED and sign up for the Air Force. And he was off to basic training at 17.
“You have to look at the big picture here,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. “They have a youngster that is confused and has lost his focus. They recommend that he goes into the service. They have to sign for him to go in at an early age.
“He goes there and he starts to grow up. And he understands that academics are important and getting my education is something that maybe I need to concentrate a little bit more on. And in the meantime, he goes to the service and he admirably serves his country.”
James spent six years in the Air Force and did three tours overseas – in Iraq, Qatar and Afghanistan. He rose to the rank of staff sergeant, and he also rediscovered a passion for basketball.
He was encouraged to play basketball by an intramural coach, and often spent his off-duty time on the courts.
James was discovered in Las Vegas at an all-star tournament for members of the U.S. military. A Division I referee was working one of the games and saw this raw, lanky 6-foot-10 player. The referee later mentioned to Hamilton that the Seminoles coach should look into James.
Hamilton was impressed, but James was not able to academically qualify because he had a GED and also had never taken the SAT or ACT. So Hamilton talked with Tallahassee Community College coach Eddie Barnes, who worked the phones and called referees who had worked the military tournaments. They confirmed that James was every bit of 6-10, athletic and a real prospect.
When he arrived at TCC, Barnes saw that James was raw – a forward who could play defense and rebound but got near the rim and tried to dunk everything. The coaching staff helped him with his footwork and developed a few post moves.
And this time, James responded differently to coaching. Six years in the Air Force had taught him how to work, listen and learn.
“He was like a sponge,” Barnes said. “He just absorbed everything. A lot of the younger kids, you have to get through the distractions and egos. With BJ, it was all about laying it on the table and then he did it.”
James averaged 13.6 points and 9.8 rebounds in two seasons at TCC, earned his associate’s degree and then moved down Pensacola Street to study at FSU.
He had 15 points and 10 rebounds in his first game at FSU, a win over North Florida in November 2010. James soon worked his way into the starting lineup and led the Seminoles in rebounds (201) and blocks (82) in 2010-11, helping FSU reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
James averaged 10.8 points and 8.1 rebounds as a senior, leading the team again in rebounds (283) and blocks (82). He also helped FSU win 25 games – including two wins apiece over Duke and North Carolina – and capture the program’s first Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title.
He also earned his bachelor’s degree in Social Science in April.
And now James is ready for the next step of his basketball career. While not realistically a first-round pick, James is projected as a second-rounder who can provide valuable minutes off the bench while he learns the system and possibly work his way into the starting lineup.
“I anticipate that he is going to latch on to somebody and that he is going to have a good career playing basketball,” Hamilton said. “Probably a lot longer than some people have because he has taken care of his body. …
“He didn’t play high school ball, he didn’t get beat up on the cement jungle. He has some young athleticism. He’s not beat up. Never missed a game because of injuries for us. He’s such a tremendous athlete. He plays so hard and is eager to learn.”
Barnes has watched many of FSU’s games the past two seasons and remains one of James’ biggest fans. He has arranged a draft party for TCC’s players and coaches to watch one of the school’s alums on Thursday.
“BJ is one of my favorites,” Barnes said. “Not only because he’s talented but he’s a high-character kid. You want him to make it. He’s a role model. He projects the type of people you want to be around.
“He’s come a roundabout way of doing this. But because of that, it’s helped him. I don’t think he’s taken as many things for granted because of that.”