When I attended the 2012 NBA Draft, one of the best moments of the night was the standing ovation given when Dallas drafted Florida State center and former Air Force Staff Sergeant Bernard James. James was a fantastic story and, if you asked draft pundits, a bit of a surprise to go as early as he did.
This, of course, led some to believe that the selection was little more than a publicity stunt by notorious attention-mongerer Mark Cuban, and that the 27-year old rookie James would spend most of his time in the D-League helping boost attendance and engendering goodwill toward the franchise as a whole.
Then the Summer League came, and James acquitted himself fairly well. The preseason followed a bit later, and James continued to, at very least, not completely embarrass himself. In between these two events, the Mavericks jettisoned high-priced center Brendan Haywood from their ranks, ostensibly opening up some bit of room in the center rotation.
While many considered James' advanced age a detriment to his prospect status, James himself retorted during the draft combine that the fact that he didn't start playing basketball until he was 18, and didn't play much collegiate ball, meant not only that he had room to improve his game, but that physically he had less mileage on his legs than most of his younger draft peers.
Dallas' interest in James beyond a feel-good story was warranted: the man nicknamed "Sarge" was the anchor of the top ranked Florida State defense, and the analytically minded Cuban cited evidence in his possession that James graded out very well guarding bigger players. While Bernard may be somewhat undersized at 6'10, his long arms, intelligence, and hustle were assets that the Mavericks liked. Certainly, as a man who had been deployed in Iraq, Qatar, and Afghanistan, James would be difficult to intimidate and was quite familiar with hard work and grueling physical regimentation.
As you can see, Sarge's rookie season was certainly a success, relative to the typical second round draft pick. Depending on your perspective, this may be all the more remarkable when he consider his playing time was -- as is the case with many inexperienced players on a Rick Carlisle team -- extremely sporadic.
James did not play on opening night against the Lakers, but logged 16 minutes the following night in Utah, and managed 8 points-6 rebounds. He seemed to have won Carlisle's favor in mid-November, when he received double-digit minutes in five consecutive games, but that was more of an oasis in a sea of DNP's. In early February, when Dallas began to get on a roll and had an interesting stretch of being on either end of a blowout, James was given consistent mop-up duty, but by March James was banished to obscurity and barely played over the final month and a half of the season.
For what it was worth, James was, statistically, the team's most effective rebounder, leading the club in total rebound percentage and by a wide margin in offensive rebound percentage(an area the Mavericks as a team were below average and perhaps just outside the level of completely terrible). James also led the team in block percentage, and was second on the club to Elton Brand in defensive rating. A quick aside: given Brand's good standing in all those categories, as well, it is a bit of a curiosity Dallas didn't make more of an effort to keep him around.
All in all, Dallas would appear to have a pretty solid third center, who can competently do most of the things we associate with a traditional center. He rebounds, block shots, and plays adequate team defense. Nothing spectacular, but a decent enough investment for a second round player.
The problem is: it doesn't appear Rick Carlisle has much interest in making Bernard the third center. As most know, the team signed Samuel Dalembert and DeJuan Blair in the offseason, and retained the services of fan favorite Brandan Wright. Bernard James has seen six minutes of game action or fewer in four of the Mavericks' seven preseason games so far. This coming despite Dalembert looking "out of shape" according to the head coach, and Brandan Wright missing all but one game after a shoulder injury.
It's difficult to know what, if any, role Bernard James is to have on the Dallas Mavericks going forward. He can't post up or space the floor; something Dallas asks its centers to do, whether it's Chris Kaman, Samuel Dalembert, or Brandan Wright. But this is undoubtedly something Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson knew when they took him with the 33rd pick. Is there a lack of progress on James' part? Is he not doing something they want him to do, or expected he could eventually do? Is that even a factor in his playing time?
It is pretty easy to wonder aloud if there is a unity of thought when it comes to the evaluation of draft prospects and their NBA implementation. Roddy's sporadic playtime can be partially attributed to injury and skill regression, but you question if everyone is on the same page with the now wasted picks of Dominique Jones and Jared Cunningham(who looked pretty decent last night against his former team).
Bernard James may be a slightly different case: as a second round pick, he had a small, non-guaranteed contract, and thus allowed Dallas to use or discard a cheap roster spot at their discretion, and maybe because of this they regarded him as a fungible cap/roster-adjusting asset and little more. If he was good, bad...who cares? If that is close to accurate, then who Dallas drafted was practically arbitrary, in which case perhaps media types weren't so far off when they opined this was all a publicity stunt.
To be honest, I think that's probably not exactly true, and calling Dallas' drafts arbitrary is certainly a little unfair. That being said, the evidence that Dallas so completely undervalues the draft as a tool is reaching overwhelming proportions. I am sure when Dallas evaluates prospects, they do have a process of determining rank, and of identifying solid traits. But, it seems pretty clear that for this club, a draft pick working out is more added bonus than desired result. I mean this not to put forward the theory that Bernard James is a star being suppressed or that Dallas should play him 25 minutes a night. In all likelihood, he's little more than a third big. Still, until further notice I'm adding James to the pile of draft picks the Mavericks put little effort into viewing as anything other than cheap cap holds.