Second-round picks often wind up being footnotes in the NBA draft. But Bernard James — chosen by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the 33rd overall pick in Thursday night's 2012 NBA draft, then flipped to the Dallas Mavericks as part of a draft-night deal — isn't your typical second-round pick.
The 6-foot-10, 230-pound forward/center was not considered a top-flight prospect entering Thursday's draft, despite leading the Florida State Seminoles in rebounding and blocked shots during both of his seasons in Tallahassee, earning a spot on the ACC's All-Defensive Team and an honorable mention for the all-conference team in his final year, and helping FSU to its first ACC conference championship in school history. His second-round status was attributable, in large part, to the fact that he's 27 years old.
See, before turning his attention to basketball, James spent six years in the United States Air Force, rising to the rank of staff sergeant and serving tours of duty in Iraq, Afghanistan and Qatar. The fans in attendance at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., recognized and celebrated James' service on Thursday night, chanting "U-S-A! U-S-A!" as the veteran strode up to the stage to shake hands with NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver, who presides over the second round of the draft. In a draft largely devoid of drama or intrigue, it was, without question, the coolest and most stirring moment of the evening.
The pursuit of a basketball career began relatively late for James, who dropped out of high school at age 16, joined the Air Force at 17, earned his GED and spent two years in community college before an attention-grabbing performance at a 2005 U.S. Armed Forces All-Star tournament caught the eye of Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton. But as James told NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper, the wealth of life experience and maturity he developed in the service means there's not much that's going to shake him up on the court:
"I worked at a detainment facility, guarding 22,000 detainees," James said of his tour in Iraq. "[There were] suspected terrorists awaiting trial over there. It was rough. There were murders every day. We got mortar-attacked a couple times. One landed about 75 feet from me one time. That knocked me on my butt. It was definitely dangerous over there. Scary."
An awful lot scarier, Howard-Cooper notes, than stuff that sends shivers down the spines of most rookies, like having "to put a body on Kevin Love in the fourth quarter on the road."
James' unpolished offensive game — his DraftExpress scouting profile describes his post game as "very raw" and his shooting mechanics as "not pretty to say the least" — will put the kibosh on any comparisons to the the most notable service-member in recent NBA history: David Robinson, nicknamed "The Admiral" but actually a lieutenant, junior grade, in the U.S. Navy. But like Robinson, James credits his pre-basketball career in the armed forces with instilling in him the myriad values that enabled him to hear his name called on Thursday night.
"I think there's a huge difference between me and other players, right down to my mindset and how I approach things every day," James told HOOPSWORLD. "A lot of these kids haven't seen a whole lot in their lives. For many of them, all they know is basketball. They've been playing since they were about eight years old and they don't realize what it's like in the real world, having a real job and working for $30,000 or $40,000 a year. I've definitely learned not to let a single day go to waste.
"I know how to be a professional, I'm disciplined and I'm going to work hard," James said. "I know how to be part of a team. I fill my role for the greater good of the group. I see the big picture. A lot of guys don't really have a grasp on that. [...]"
Right out of the gate, James may find himself with a bigger role to fill and job to do than some may have anticipated, thanks to a trade that saw the Cavaliers ship James, No. 24 pick Jared Cunningham of Oregon State and No. 34 pick Jae Crowder from Marquette to the Mavericks in exchange for North Carolina center Tyler Zeller, the No. 17 overall selection. A look at Dallas' roster and salary commitments reveals the potential for some opportunity in the middle.
Starting center Brendan Haywood, slated to make a guaranteed $27.2 million over the next three seasons and destined not to live up to that contract, seems like a prime amnesty candidate. Backup center Ian Mahinmi is set to become an unrestricted free agent on Saturday, and could draw interest from teams willing to offer him enough to outbid a Dallas team carefully counting its pennies and clearing up space to make a run at coveted point guard Deron Williams. The 2012-13 deal for reserve big Brandan Wright, who was a pleasant surprise in limited minutes off the Mavs' bench last season, is unguaranteed.
It's unlikely that all three will return to sop up all Dallas' minutes at the five; if he shows he can rebound and protect the rim at the next level, James could see floor time a lot sooner than most rookies. And the expectation is that his primary skills will carry over to the NBA game; one team executive told Howard-Cooper before the draft that James would make his team as a defensive big right now.
The fact that he's a grown man who chooses to highlight his "advanced" age rather than de-emphasize it probably doesn't hurt, either. From Coley Harvey at the Orlando Sentinel:
"I'm 27, but I haven't been playing basketball as long as some guys in the draft, and I've been playing even less time at an elite level. I don't have all that wear and tear on my body. I'll be able to play later into my 30s than most of these guys will be able to. [...]
"I've been in the military and I'm mature," he said. "I'm not a snot-nosed kid out here who's going to go buckwild as soon as he gets a little money. I'm going to work hard. I'm the person I'm going to be, whether I'm getting paid or not."
Yeah, that sounds like the kind of attitude with which Dallas coach Rick Carlisle can do some things.
It's also worth noting that there's some precedent for James' case that his age ain't nothin' but a number that won't have any bearing on how long he'll be able to compete at an elite level. Dikembe Mutombo turned 25 years old the day before he was chosen with the fourth overall pick in the 1991 NBA draft by the Denver Nuggets; he went on to appear in 1,297 NBA games over the next 18 years before retiring in April 2009 at age 42.
Obviously, no one's expecting Bernard James to be the second coming of Dikembe Mutombo. But with hard work, disciplined work on his game and a little bit of luck, this 27-year-old Air Force veteran could write a longer NBA story than anyone could have anticipated. If nothing else, he's already more than a mere second-round footnote. The moment took care of that.
Is the clip above not working for you? Feel free to check out the chant elsewhere, thanks to longtime ace @Jose3030.