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2020-21 Kings Season Preview: Justin James

The Kings have tried to turn James into a long-distance sniper, but he just isn’t making enough shots.

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Golden State Warriors v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our 2020 Kings Season Preview series, where we’ll be looking ahead to what this season will bring for every member of this Sacramento roster and pondering both best and worst-case scenarios. Today, let’s continue with Justin James.

How did he get here?

The Kings drafted James with the 40th pick in the second round of the 2019 NBA Draft. He earned a spot on the 15-man roster instead of a two-way, but Sacramento didn’t really have a role for him during the regular season. He only played 232 NBA minutes and 52 G-League minutes, so it’s still sort of a mystery who James is as a player.

Last month, the Kings attempted to trade James to Milwaukee as part of the Bogdan Bogdanovic sign-and-trade, but that deal didn’t go through. The Kings weren’t punished during the NBA’s investigation, though the Bucks were actually fined a second-round pick for tampering. As a result, James is back in Sacramento for his second season.

What is his best-case scenario for 2020-21?

During the preseason, the Kings almost exclusively utilized James as a catch-and-shoot threat from 3-point range. Most of the shots were standstill but he also came off some screens. At 6’7, James will have the air space to get his shot against anyone, so the best version of James is an unconscious shooter who converts 40 percent of his assisted threes. It’s the role he prepped for last season considering 55 of his 85 shots came after touching the ball for two or fewer seconds, and 40 of them were taken after zero dribbles.

If James can be passable on the defensive end, as he was during 2019-20, that’s just gravy. His 6’11 wingspan suggests that his high block rate this past year doesn’t have to be a fluke, and there are physical tools that can be harnessed to turn him into a good defender, but the primary goal for the Kings appears to be to get James to shoot. A lot. Beyond Buddy Hield, Sacramento doesn’t have any lights-out shooters who have to be guarded from distance. Turning James into a sniper will create more opportunities for him and other Kings on the offensive end.

What is his worst-case scenario?

The shots don’t go in. In his rookie season with the Kings, James converted 9 of 29 threes. Even in college, he only shot 33.7 percent from 3-point range. During the preseason, he was 2-of-8 from beyond the arc. There isn’t exactly strong statistical evidence that James will turn into an above average marksman, despite his form looking pretty good every time the shots go up. That form has to be the reason why the Kings are treating him this way, because the results aren’t a good reason.

Unfortunately, when James tries to put the ball on the floor, the outcomes are even worse. He attempted a couple of straight-line drives from the baseline during the preseason, and both times had colossally awkward — and ineffectual — finishes. He even got hung at the rim on a dunk attempt. This gives defenses multiple ways to guard James. They can hang tight, knowing that his blow-bys aren’t going to test the interior defense, or they can force him to shoot, and live with a 31 percent success rate.

James’ second season in Sacramento isn’t off to a great start. The Kings telegraphed that they were willing to part ways with him to get a different shooting guard prospect in Donte DiVincenzo, and then James had a rough preseason that couldn’t have done much to change that opinion. John Hollinger of The Athletic even theorized that the Kings could cut James instead of Frank Kaminsky or Chimezie Metu in his season preview.

It doesn’t seem like James will get much of a chance in the current rotation with so many Kings ahead of him on the depth chart. Hopefully he just keeps working on that jumper so that it’s effective instead of just aesthetically pleasing.