Considering the player I gave this award to last year ended up being my “Bust of the Year” after this season I should probably proceed with caution. But I’m sincerely intrigued to watch Damion James in a Nets uniform next season – primarily because I didn’t see enough of him this season to know exactly what the Nets have here.
What makes James rookie season odd is that he was promoted from the get-go as a finished product. The Nets were praised for trading up to get an NBA-ready player in James though the caveat was that he may have already hit his ceiling. Now, after an injury-plagued season that only saw James play in 10 percent of the team’s total minutes, his potential for next year is as much as an unknown as the rawer, more unpolished Derrick Favors, who is obviously Utah’s concern going forward.
In the glimpses I got of James, what I saw was an intriguing two-way player who doesn’t have an overwhelming offensive skillset, but has the capacity to be a strong rebounder and lockdown defender – a total defensive package the Nets were missing from the SF slot all season. Is James actually a SF? That’s where Avery Johnson played him most of the season and his 6’7” body would seem to indicate yes, but he also has added length that could match up him up against some PFs, though at 220 lbs, he probably doesn’t have the bulk and strength to defend that position.
This is worth bringing up because of some of the names being brandied about as possible free agent targets for the Nets, two of them are similar hybrid frontcourt players, the veteran Andrei Kirilenko, and the younger (but restricted free agent) Thaddeus Young. Something to note, if you go by advanced metrics like rebound rate and assist ratio, James was better than Young at both, and a better rebounder than Kirilenko. As for defense, James, in his small sample, did an admirable job against opposing SFs, holding them to a Player Efficiency Rating of 9.7. This is probably unsustainable over the course of an entire season, but AK-47, who has earned praise as a defender, held opposing SFs to a PER of 12.2. So there’s some comparability here.
But where James’ game declines from Young and Kirilenko is the offensive side. He does not have the long-range shooting of AK-47, at least he hasn’t show it yet, and he’s not the explosive finisher that Young is. James shot a disappointing 52.8 percent on all shots at the rim according to HoopData, though as he moved away from the rim, Damion demonstrated some consistency – shooting 44 percent from 3-9 feet, 42 percent from 10-15 feet and 41 percent from 16-23 feet. So if James could just find a way to finish more regularly, he would could actually end up being a more dynamic offensive player than Young whose game declines the further away he gets from the rim.
But again, we all need to see James actually on the court this season to get a sense if he can do this, and with their being options to upgrade the SF available this summer, he may not get an opportunity to prove himself as a starter. He’s already been determined as part of the “core” going forward, which is a great sign, but we don’t know the role. But given his small sample, he’s without question the player to watch for next season.