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June 25, 2012
When immaturity and a lack of focus turned Bernard James into a high school dropout, enlisting in the Air Force in 2003 and serving three tours in the Middle East changed his outlook on life.
When James was discovered as a raw basketball newbie with only promise and the bones (6-foot-10) to make it big, two years of development with FSU coach Leonard Hamilton changed that, too.
Now James, 27, is a legitimate NBA prospect and the oldest with a shot to be picked during Thursday's NBA Draft.
Not that hurdles mean much to James at this point.
"If you would have told me this three years ago, Yeah, I would say this was crazy," James said sternly as he assessed his current stature as a potential NBA draft pick. ESPN.com predicts James will go in the second round to the Denver Nuggets (No. 50 overall).
"This has been my focus for the entire last year once I had a pretty good grasp that I was all set to graduate," James said. "I was able to really get focused on basketball and a year ago I made that decision that this is what I'm working for now and I'm here now. I feel like it's any other goal I've set in my life and I've reached pretty much every goal I've set. So this is just another goal and it doesn't stop here."
Spending two seasons at FSU after transferring in from Tallahassee Community College, James quickly became a staple in FSU's frontcourt, averaging 11 points and 7.9 rebounds per game for the Seminoles in 2011-12. It's his ability has an exceptional college defender - he blocked 164 shots in 69 career games at FSU - that helped him earn pre-draft workouts with 12 NBA teams during the past several weeks. The last workout was with the Orlando Magic on Sunday. James said that the feedback has been both positive and predictable so far; teams are high on his defensive prowess but express concerns about his offensive ability, his playing weight and, of course, his age.
"Just what I thought going in," James said. "What we all knew going in."
Hamilton said he's only heard good things about James' pre-draft efforts from NBA brass to date.
"He's had outstanding workouts, I mean, everywhere he's gone people have been raving about him," Hamilton said. "His interviews have been totally outstanding, obviously he has tremendous character and he's a guy who has been through an awful lot, so from that standpoint I think they realize that he's a class act."
Despite all the hard work to get here, James knows his biggest obstacle in the eyes of NBA decision makers is the one he can do nothing about. Entering the league at age 27, James, considered a developmental prospect, already meets the average age of a current NBA player. James hopes that teams take a different perspective, however, looking at his late start in the game as a plus for his durability and longevity at the next level.
"The age issue was really in the front of a lot of (general managers') and coaches' minds. They didn't really know what they are going to get out of me," James said. "But after seeing me work out and talk to me and making my case - I'm 27 but I haven't been playing basketball for as long as most of the other guys in the draft and I've been playing even less time at an elite level. So I don't have all of that wear and tear on my body I'll be able to play later into my 30's then most of these guys will. My career will be a little bit shorter than theirs, but not as much as my age difference between us now."
An about face from his high school days, James knows that maturity, dedication and professionalism play to his favor. James said that every team he has met with has asked about his military service and how that could help an NBA team.
"I tried to highlight (to NBA teams) the fact that I am 27 so I've been in the military and I am mature, I'm not a snot-nosed kid out here that's going to go buck wild as soon as he gets a little bit of money," James said with a smile. "I'm going to work hard, I'm the person who I'm going to be whether I get paid or not. I'm going to work hard, stay disciplined and perfect my craft."
It's that attitude that has Hamilton convinced that James has a bright professional future.
"He's at a point now where he's ready," Hamilton said. "He's gone through the wars - I don't think that you're going to find anyone else in the draft that had to overcome as many obstacles but has come through with such flying colors as he has. I just think that whoever gets him is going to get a very special individual. They're going to get a guy with tremendous amount of character and a guy who we are going to look back and say we're glad he came our way."
James hopes that when he looks back at this draft, it will be just another goal accomplished, another barricade busted.
"Once I get in, my goal will be to move up on the list. Sixth man, starter, All-Star," James said. "I'm going to keep setting goals, and when I reach them, I'll set another goal higher."