Bernard James has had a season that is quite different from that of his colleagues. This week he signed a deal with the Dallas Mavericks for the rest of the 2014-2015 season in what will be his second stint with the team. The deal was a follow up to two consecutive ten-day deals with the team, which is pretty standard procedure and not particularly notable in and of itself.
You can be forgiven if you missed the news of the rather mundane signing that took place a couple days ago. Bernard James was not a heavily sought after piece by other teams in the league. He is a familiar name, but not a particularly sexy one. And the only reason that Dallas decided to bring him back on board to shore up the front court depth is because all the talk and rumors that swirled around for months about potentially bringing in local resident and former Rick Carlisle pupil, Jermaine O’Neal, amounted to nothing.
As Stephen Stills sang, “If you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with,” Bernard James is no Jermaine O’Neal, but maybe that’s for the best. While I am sure that O’Neal was working hard to get into shape, there’s a big difference between working out alone in a gym and playing in an NBA game – both mentally and physically. There’s a reason why the Mavericks limited Amar’e Stoudamire’s minutes in his first few games as a Maverick. It was in part because of injury concerns, yes, but it was also due to the fact that you can’t just throw someone into a completely foreign situation and expect them to perform right away.
Bernard James is familiar with Dallas’ system and he’s been playing basketball nonstop since they waived him back in October. That’s two significant advantages he has over Jermaine O’Neal. Coming into a team with only a little over a month left in the season requires a pretty steep learning curve. Never mind having to worry about how a new player will affect the locker room. “Sarge” is a known commodity, and that has to be comforting to a franchise that is frantically trying to get all of its new pieces to fit.
Another advantage that James has is the extra playing time and confidence he accumulated while playing overseas in China this year. James was able to post big minutes in Shanghai, minutes he certainly never would have seen if he had made the final cut for the Mavericks. James played over 770 minutes for the Sharks. Compare that to Greg Smith and Charlie Villanueva, the two big men who beat out James for the final roster spots, who have only played 811 minutes combined the entire season.
But the biggest boost, even over all of the extra court action Bernard was able to see, is the confidence that it brought. Like many sports, basketball is a game where confidence is key. You have to believe that you’re going to make every shot you take. There’s a reason that players heat up offensively after getting a few easy layups. How many times have you heard a guy in a post game interview talk about how great it felt to see their first shot fall?
Sarge himself told Eddie Sefko right after rejoining the Mavericks that, “[My time in China] was huge. It got me back to feeling like myself again. I’m not hesitating. I’m believing in my game. It was good to play major minutes and having a team really rely on me.”
Hassan Whiteside went to China in 2013 after bouncing in and out of the D-League. He played 27 games for the Sichuan Blue Whales and averaged 25.7 points, 16.6 rebounds, 5.1 blocks, and 1.4 steals a game. Then he spent another year splitting time between Lebanon, China, and the D-League, during which span the Grizzlies waived him twice. Now he’s averaging 10.8 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks a game for the Heat. He’s already had multiple 20 plus rebounding games and even posted a rare point-rebound-block triple double when he went for 14-13-12 against the Bulls.
In his 26 games with Shanghai, Bernard James averaged 19.1 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 1.0 steal per game. I’m not saying that Bernard James is or ever will be Hassan Whiteside. But what I am saying is that players go overseas for a reason. Yes, that reason often involves acquiring a paycheck and staying in shape, but it also allows room for them to develop and build their game.
Big men just take a lot longer to develop than guards, and Bernard James didn’t play competitive basketball until he was 17 years old. He didn’t play his first division one game at Florida State until he was 25 years old. His path to the NBA is unconventional and one that can only be bolstered by an unconventional pit stop in the CBL.
Sarge has already started twice for the Mavericks in lieu of Tyson Chandler’s injured state. In his first start against Atlanta, he had 7 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocks. In his second start, Rick Carlisle singled him out as a big part of Dallas’ win against New Orleans Monday night.
Sarge is going to see his minutes reduced significantly when everyone’s healthy again, but he’ll still be relied on as a situational defender and rebounder. While that doesn’t sound like a big deal, remember that Troy Daniels was a situational bench player who had only appeared in 5 games before he came in knocked down the game winner for the Rockets in game three of their series against Portland. The Trailblazers wound up winning the series anyhow, but the point is that unheralded late additions can become heroes in the postseason.
Bernard James has worked hard to get where he is. The Mavericks have waived Sarge twice in past, but now they’ll have to rely on him down what’s shaping up to be the most crucial portion of their season schedule. They can only hope that James’ time in Shanghai molded him into the player that they need him to be.