February 9, 2010 9:36:00 AM
STEENS -- New role, no problem.
A year ago, Justin James was the young gun in an Immanuel Christian boys basketball starting lineup with four seniors.
It was natural for James to defer to his more experienced teammates and let them take the leadership role.
This season, without any seniors, James has stepped into a bigger -- and louder -- role. He has done so well in his position as go-to player that he it''s common for the junior pot player to lose his voice exhorting his teammates.
The other parts of James'' game are equally strong.
On Saturday, James had a team-high 18 points and grabbed six rebounds to lead Immanuel to a 40-37 victory against Winona Christian in the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class A, District 3 championship.
For his effort, James is The Commercial Dispatch Prep Player of the Week.
James added 15 points in a semifinal round victory to help push Immanuel (18-13) into the North Central State playoffs, where it will play at 6 p.m. Friday against the winner of the Kemper Academy-Humphreys Academy game at Benton Academy.
The North Central State title game will be at 7:15 p.m. Saturday. The top three teams from the tournament will advance to the state tournament at Delta Academy in Marks.
Immanuel Christian coach Billy Thomas said James, who is 6-foot-4, has transitioned nicely into his role. He said his forward/center has improved his shooting range and has done a little bit of everything to help the Rams get to this point.
"It''s a little different when you go from following to leading," Thomas said. "He has stepped up going into districts on the court and as a leader, which has made a difference in his play and the team''s play."
Thomas said James can shoot the 3-pointer or take the ball inside, which opens scoring opportunities for his teammates. That versatility has given James confidence to feel comfortable as a leader.
"When you have one guy coming back from a team that went to the second round of North State, you know you''re going to be a little inexperienced," Thomas said. "We have two juniors and three sophomores starting this year. We have had to take our time getting there mentally, and we have peaked at the right time. All of the guys have stepped up and assumed the roles they need to play.
"JJ, we usually have to drag him off the court. He plays four quarters and very seldom gets a breather."
James, who is averaging about 16 points, 11 rebounds, and four blocked shots a game, credits his teammates for helping to improve. He said he is proud the team has come together in a short amount of time. After going through a reality check to advance to the district tournament, he feels the Rams are clicking and will be a tough team to beat later this week.
"I am looking forward to going to State and seeing if we can get it done," James said. "
James said hard work in the offseason and being a member of the football team in the fall helped prepare him for his junior season on the basketball team.
James plays a key role in the back of the Rams'' defense and acts like a watchman who directs traffic and helps control the boards. He said his ability to become more of a vocal leader has helped set the tone on defense.
"I just let the teammates know what it going on," James said. "After every game I am losing my voice screaming at everybody trying to tell them what is going on. I never did do that last year. That is one of the big changes from last year to this year. We talk a lot more, and that helps us."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
1. Starkville Academy beats Heritage Academy to reach title game HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS
3. MSU baseball team focused on moving forward COLLEGE SPORTS
4. MSU baseball team bounces back, beats Jackson State COLLEGE SPORTS
5. Ranked tests await MSU softball team COLLEGE SPORTS