The road back to the NBA from playing professional basketball overseas is never easy, but after signing his first NBA contract this morning with the Suns, it looks like Mike James’s bet on himself was the perfect call.
After a championship season in the Greek League with Panathinaikos, James took advantage of the new two-way contract system in the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, signing a deal with the team that originally gave him an opportunity at Las Vegas Summer League in 2015. Officially, it would give him 45 days from the start of NBA G-League training camp to prove himself worthy of a regular roster spot. But James’ timeline was accelerated from the start.
James played so well during training camp and preseason that when Eric Bledsoe was sent away from the Suns on Oct. 23, interim coach Jay Triano decided to start him at point guard. His response was decisive -- an 18-point, 7-assist performance against the Kings in the team’s first victory of the year. From that point, it’s been obvious that James had a place in the league and on this roster.
He leads the Suns in assist percentage (27.8%) and assists per 36 minutes (6.6), and has maintained that play-making despite being turning the ball over least often among Suns ball-handlers. His shooting split sits at .387/.275/.765 through 26 games, but that puts into perspective the Suns struggles on offense more than a deficiency in James’s game. The point guard is shooting 54 percent in the restricted area this year and has dazzled with Steph Curry-style finger rolls high off the glass.
Without the 27-year-old rookie, the Suns would have been lost on offense in a number of games. He’s a better spot-up option than Tyler Ulis when Devin Booker has the ball, shooting 5-10 on corner threes so far, according to NBA.com tracking data. His chemistry with all of the big men, most notably Dragan Bender on kickouts, has been sweet.
James has probably been the Suns’ third-most important offensive player a quarter of the way through the season, an outcome both parties should be proud of. James played better than expected and will be eligible for another contract next summer, while the Suns found a point guard in the rough when they needed one desperately.
This rosy relationship comes at the cost of Derrick Jones Jr., who was waived today to make room for James. Fine. Jones had ample opportunity to earn playing time as an unproven NBA player, just as James did, but was unable to capitalize. He will wind up in a good G-League program either on a NBA deal with team that has room for him or on a G-League contract that will buy the 20-year-old some time.
James’s bet paid off. He is set up for success now, running the second unit for the Suns expertly, and in the future, with the ability to squeeze NBA money out of the final years of his athletic prime.