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Building an American Comeback: Mike James

The last season featured a handful of professional basketball players born in the USA play abroad after having being part of the NBA or the G League in the prior two seasons. We review their 2019-20 seasons in the Chinese CBA and/or Euroleague in this series of articles, to know what they did and the chances they have to making it back to America.

Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz v CSKA Moscow - Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Photo by Frank Lovicario/NurPhoto via Getty Images

There is no room at the top-tier of American professional basketball—the NBA and the G League, by extension—for everyone to be part of it. Every year we have a plethora of undrafted free agents luckily signed to contracts from NBA/G League franchises to become part of their squads. Every year, too, we see a lot of kids and veterans finding no place in the best hoop leagues in the world, thus looking for chances abroad.

That is not the most common path to building a sustainable career in the NBA, for sure, but for athletes that have worked their whole lives around basketball, it surely is one way to try to reach the pinnacle of the sport in the country where the best hoopers happen to play in.

In this series, we will explore the 2019-20 season of some American players that played basketball either in the CBA (top Asian league, and a place for ex-NBA veterans and young undrafted players) or the EuroLeague (the best-combined league in Europe and the consensus second-best league in the world only behind the NBA). All of these players also played in the NBA or the G League during the 2017-18 or 2018-19 seasons, so they are not too separated from their playing days in American soil and could still be re-called by an NBA franchise soon if they keep their level of play up.

Mike James - CSKA Moscow (Russia - Euroleague)

Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz v CSKA Moscow - Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Photo by Frank Lovicario/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Michael Perry James, aka Mike James, played 36 games in the NBA during the 2017-18 season. That, truth be told, is more than 99.9% of pro basketball players have done, so don’t get this man achievements wrong. It’s been a while since James went undrafted all the way back in 2012, so it makes sense to go back in time and review his basketball history to put it in context.

Before we move forward, though, let me clarify that yes, you read that draft year right. It was 2012 when James turned pro, and James is no basketball newcomer these days. James just turned 30 years old this past August, and is quite a veteran already playing his way through the European ranks for years before and after his NBA stint.

James wasn’t a thing coming off high school as a senior in 2008. He played HS ball at Grant in Portland, OR, but he was mostly unranked on national recruiting boards and it’s hard to find his profile listed in any website covering prospects. Only MaxPreps lists him as the no. 3 player from Oregon state and the 184th overall in his class. Even then, the best James could do was enrolling in Eastern Arizona College, a JUCO where he spent the 2008-09 season before transferring to Lamar University (TX) in time for the 2010 year and available to play in the 2010-11 season, thus entering the NCAA D-I circuit.

Mike would spend a couple of years at Lamar, when he had a tough start to his amateur D1 career starting just 2 of 24 games in his first year in town, to then start 27 of 32 in his second and already-senior season. He developed his shooting in those seasons, though, going from 12.5 points per game to 17.1 points per game, and reaching a 17-3-2 average line with 1.6 steals per gameadded to it in his last season there. Perhaps the most incredible thing about James’ collegiate career, though, is the fact that he was part of the Lamar squad that made it to the Tourney as a no. 16 seed, even though it fell eliminated in the very first round. That had not happened for Lamar since the 1999-00 season.

With lower-than-low chances of getting drafted, and after indeed going undrafted in the 2012 NBA event, James lost no time in buying a flight ticket to Europe to join Zagreb (Croatia) for the 2012-13 season. That first step and jump out of the USA wasn’t very solid, though, and between that August and August 2014, James played for Zagreb, Hapoel Galil (Israel), and Paffoni Omegna (Italy). Neither of those situations was great for James, who didn’t truly find his place until the 2014-15 season when he signed with Greece’s Kolossus Rodu and moved to Spain’s Laboral Kutxa in the middle of the season. That marked the first time James would experience Euroleague basketball.

James landed in Spain after averaging 21 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game in Greece and carrying the label of “walking bucket”. Against much tougher competition in both Spanish and European competition, though, James put up a much more tamed 12-2-3 line in around 20 minutes of playing time per game.

It was after he left Spain and signed with Greek Panathinaikos in 2016 when James found his best level of play and reached his peak to that date. Playing for the Greens, Mike improved his averages in points, dimes, and steals, and raised his shooting percentages to a .490/.340/.890, his best through his pro days and something he wouldn’t replicate after last season. Although he couldn’t add the Euroleague to his resume, he helped Panathinaikos lift both the Greek League and Cup in 2017.

And after that, it was time for his American Comeback.

The Phoenix Suns came calling in the summer of 2017 and James was able to join them for the NBA Summer League, where he landed a two-way contract—the first ever signed to such deal in NBA history. He never played in the G League, though, spending all of his time in the NBA instead and logging 32 games as the team point guard before being waived and then signed by New Orleans, where he would play four more games for the Pelicans. The last cut came for him in February 2018, when he left the Pels organization and opted to return to the place where he’s played his best basketball: Greece, with Panathinaikos.

Although he arrived late in the season, James was an incredibly improved player during his 14 games in Europe to close the 2017-18 season. His exploits were enough to catch the attention of Olimpia Milano, who signed him to a one-year deal for the upcoming season and made him their no. 1 player: James completed the 2019 season to the tune of a near 18-4-6-1 line committing just 2.3 turnovers per game and .400/.318/.804 shooting splits.

With Olimpia Milano’s head coach—renowned Ettore Messina—opposed to keeping James in his squad for the next season (last season, that is; 2019-20), Mike found himself looking for a new partner. Not that that was new for him, though. Lucky him, and most of all CSKA Moscow as time would prove, James quickly found a new home in Russia and he’s still balling in Moscow.

Just a few months ago, James inked a three-year deal with CSKA starting in July 2020 and potentially expanding up to July 2023. The deal couldn’t make more sense.

Playing for CSKA during the 2019-20 season, James put up his best numbers ever. He was able to average 21.1 points per game on 28.6 mpg during 28 games of Euroleague competition. Not only that, but he kept his rebounding up to 3.3 rebounds per game, and dished out 4.3 assists per game.

James (28.6) was one of 10 players to log more than 28 minutes per game, and he did so playing the most possible games at 28 too. The only player to finish the Euroleague campaign with a better overall line than James was fellow American Shane Larkin playing for Turkish side Efes. Only those two reached a 21-3-4 baseline, with Alexey Shved joining them at just 2.7 assists per game.

At 30 years of age, it might look hard to see James getting back to the NBA and playing a heavy role for any team. It is possible, though. The likes of Jeremy Lin and Lance Stephenson were part of championship teams (Raptors) or perennial postseason squads (Pacers) at the same ages. Sure, they both had much better resumes and had proven their talents at the NBA-level already, but James hasn’t stopped improving year after year while hooping in the second-best basketball competition in the world, the Euroleague.

While Chinese CBA’s contracts often remove NBA-out clauses—and players are happy to make money there without the chance of getting out—European contracts usually include those NBA-related clauses and there is a chance Mike James’ three-year deal has one in it.

The time for James to come back to the L and play a somewhat important role, even coming off the bench, seems to be now or never. But given how he’s been exploiting defenses in Europe and how he’s been able to put on steady improvement, it doesn’t really seem too late to wow some NBA franchise and make his way back to the Association.