Mike James does not consider himself the best basketball player in EuroLeague history. For that, he needs to win at least one title. Source: Michele Nucci/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images
Mike James does not consider himself the best basketball player in EuroLeague history. For that, he needs to win at least one title. Source: Michele Nucci/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images

King of scoring, Mike James’ tortuous and strife-filled European career

Basketball OlyBet 27.03.2024

Unlike most of his compatriots, Mike James did not start his journey as a professional basketball player in a top European club, but in the now defunct Croatian team KK Zagreb. Despite the modest beginning, he is now the greatest scorer in the history of the strongest club series of the Old World, the EuroLeague.

James, 33, has a combined 4,594 points, already 139 more than three-time EuroLeague winner Vassilis Spanoulis. At the same time, it is important to note that although the American played 87 fewer games after passing the Greek, the EuroLeague format was constantly changing under Spanoulis and he also spent a season in the NBA.

Darius Garuolis, a basketball-loving Lithuanian statistics enthusiast, calculated that if all EuroLeague seasons were played according to the current format, James would be sixth in the points table. In front of him would stand Juan Carlos Navarro (6732 points), Spanoulis (6352), Nando de Colo (5168), Paulius Jankunas (5064) and Sergio Llull (5048). According to Garuolis, the current star of Monaco would have 4912 points and among active players de Colo and Llull would be ahead of him.

Sure, James deserves credit for dethroning Spanoulis, but looking at his journey to the EuroLeague, it’s pretty incredible that he’s emerged as the best player in the series individually for many players and coaches.

A rough start

Growing up in Portland, USA, James made good statistics when he was young, but the schools of the strongest division of the NCAA student league did not want him. This is how the American started his student career at a much lower NJCAA level.

Monaco head coach Saša Obradović recently noted that James is reminiscent of the late Croatian legend Dražen Petrović in terms of his work ethic, who was practically training from dawn to midnight. Also, almost 15 years ago, James was not lazying around either, but worked hard and played his way into NCAA Division I.

Lamar University is not Duke, Kentucky or North Carolina in terms of basketball, but being in the strongest division showed some quality. The 183 cm tall James averaged 15.1 points per game over two seasons and was largely used as a scoring machine. Rightly so, as he scored 52 points in a 114-62 win against Louisiana in early 2011!

James’ highlights at Lamar:

Although in the end, James’ college career was decent with very bright flashes, he had no option to enter the NBA. So he had to glance abroad, and thanks to the Italian agent Federico Paci, the American got on the radar of KK Zagreb.

Back in the 2011-12 season, the team that was crowned Croatian champion once played in the EuroLeague, but then the club began to decline, which ended with its disappearance from the map in 2018. Just a season earlier, James could have played in Zagreb with Dario Šarić, who is currently earning his keep in the NBA, and two-time EuroLeague champion Krunoslav Simon, but he had to settle for a much more modest company.

Serbian media asked Danijel Jusup, who coached Zagreb at the time, to recall what James was like. “I immediately understood that he is a special player. Mike came to us for a pittance, but I felt like he expected a little more.

We played in a school hall and he didn’t like it very much. He knew that I was a demanding trainer and that my training routines were difficult. We had to work hard and talk to him a lot,” Jusup indicated that adapting to Zagreb was not easy for James.

James did not give himself any slack in Europe. He worked and worked, and according to Jusup, he did not go to any cafes or restaurants but only walked from his apartment to the training hall. Fortunately for James, they were only 50 meters apart, which meant that even in winter he got to wear shorts.

Earlier this season, James’ teammate at the time, Miralem Halilović, told how the EuroLeague star fell asleep during a video conference and was fired as a result. Jusup denied the Bosnian’s story, but only that part that James left the club because of a nap he took at the wrong time – he left because the club didn’t pay him.

What makes James special?

The Greek press asked European basketball coaches to characterize James and explain why he is such a good player and why he is so difficult to stop. One of the respondents was Sergio Scariolo, who led the Spanish national team to be a one-time world champion and four-time European champion.

He said: “James’ real strength is that he doesn’t give you any room. He can go for a shot off the bounce, meaning you have to push him away from the basket when he’s with the ball. At the same time, he can break through the defense or hit a long three. In addition, he can play well with both right and left hand.

Of course, James is a fourth-quarter guy. He can turn the game upside down, and it doesn’t matter to him whether he has played well before in the match or not. Undoubtedly, a lot of mistakes will be made against him as he has to be covered very closely.”

Finally, the coach, who was fired from Bologna Virtus at the start of this season, pointed out that James is quite a good defender, especially at the end of the game, which is not characteristic of a great offensive player like him.

James’ best bits in the EuroLeague:

Lots of glitter, lots of trouble

James made his EuroLeague debut on December 12, 2014, in a Baskonia shirt, helping them beat Valencia 93:89. The American, who played 13 minutes, scored eight points with good shooting and helped Baskonia to the intermediate group.

At the same time, James’ journey in the EuroLeague has not been an easy one. Many characterize him as a snarky man with a very complicated character, with whom getting along is not guaranteed. There are also top coaches in Europe for whom James is not suitable for one reason or another.

In the 2018-19 season, James averaged 19.8 points and 6.4 assists for Olimpia Milano in the EuroLeague. However, the brilliant James did not bring team success, because the Italian championship was limited to the semi-finals, the cup was dropped in the top eight, and only 12th place was obtained in the EuroLeague.

So it was no surprise that head coach Simone Pianigiani got the sack. In his place, Ettore Messina, who was practically enjoying the status of a god in Italy, was hired. At the end of July 2019, he announced that there was no playing time for James in his team.

The American was picked up by an even bigger club – CSKA Moscow. James continued to score, but in 2021 he fell out with head coach Dimitrios Itoudis. The Greek first removed him from the team in January, then at the end of March. At the end of April, he left Russia.

“Some stuff happened in my private life and I felt that the reaction to it was not what I thought it should have been. We had a little fight. It was not related to me as a basketball player, but I had a clash with Itoudis on a personal level,” Eurohoops told James.

It seems that James has found his right European home in Monaco, where he has stayed for almost three seasons, although he has also been removed from the team there at one point. At the same time, he is the cornerstone of the team there, and the bright individual statistics have not remained just nice numbers – with James, Monaco has reached the EuroLeague finals once and been very close to it once as well.

Maybe the current is the one when it is James’ turn to lift the EuroLeague trophy. His career deserves the title, that’s for sure.


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