he office door is cracked slightly open giving way to a distraction Josiah James can’t ignore.
A coach of a prominent college basketball program sits across a desk from him. Behind him, the sound of basketballs slapping the hardwood of a nearby court is reverberating down a narrow brick hallway. It’s less than two weeks from the state championship game. His team has started practice without him.
“So, what do you think?” the coach asks toward the end of his recruiting pitch to the coveted prospect.
“Oh, I think that sounds great, Coach. I really do,” Josiah sounds sincere. “But I’m honestly not thinking about any of that stuff right now.”
“I just want to get back in there,” he says pointing toward the practice gym down the hall. “We've got to win another state championship first.”
The coach stares back both puzzled and intrigued but seems pleased nonetheless. It couldn’t have been the answer he was expecting, surely not what he’s used to. But Josiah James is far from what’s expected of teenage superstars these days. He’s an enigma in an era consumed by flashy personas and grandiose social media.
His three state championships at Porter-Gaud School and his five-star prospect rating draw plenty of attention. The gold medal he won with Team USA this summer has attracted even more. And while he appreciates all of it, he prefers to avoid most of it. So if it’s all right with you, he’d rather just get back to practice. Because right now, he’s just trying to win.
It’s not yet 6 a.m. when Josiah steps out of his car into the darkness with a lion’s yawn on the way toward his first training session of the day.
The campus of James Island Charter School rests mostly undisturbed. The gym still has to be unlocked and the lights take a few minutes to flicker on. Josiah warms up underneath a shadowy glow like a boxer preparing to spar. He lofts up a few hundred shots, splashing more than he misses, and glides through a couple ball-handling drills while the sun rises outside. Dawn soon turns to morning and it’s time to rush downtown before the first bell rings for school.
“What’s the plan for later?” asks Davon Gilliard, one of at least three personal trainers James has on call. Gilliard has to ask because Josiah’s been known to lie about how often he’s working out. His trainers urge him to rest more than he does but he still finds ways to practice without the others knowing. They’ve since had to coordinate schedules to keep him honest. He’ll often workout in the morning with Gilliard, then again after school with Travis Smith, a former Porter-Gaud star himself who played a couple years professionally overseas. Josiah then practices for a couple hours with his high school team or, if it's summer, his AAU squad, TMP. He usually tries to stay after too for what ends up being his fourth workout of the day. His father, Kurt, has keys to the Porter-Gaud gym. If they’re ever missing, Josiah probably has them. It’s not unusual to find him working out in there alone at 3 a.m.
“He might be the most dedicated kid I’ve worked with,” Gilliard said. “I vividly remember a couple years ago he was ranked like No. 60 or something. I know he felt like he should’ve been higher. He called me and said, ‘I need to take it to the next level.’ He just went to work and never stopped. I have to lock him out of the gym.”
Josiah’s now ranked as the No. 1 point guard in the nation headed into his senior year. He’s the highest-rated player to ever come out of the Lowcountry and has the second-highest rating of any player from South Carolina in the 23 years that 247Sports has been rating high school prospects.
He was a scrawny fifth-grader holding court against Porter-Gaud’s seventh-grade team when varsity coach John Pearson (who most affectionately refer to as J.P.) first laid eyes on him. Josiah’s played up at least two years all of his life. He wasn’t yet enrolled at Porter-Gaud though it seemed inevitable as his brother, K.J., five years his elder, was a rising star on the private school’s varsity and Kurt coached one of the middle school teams.
“I immediately saw skills that you really try to instill in high school or college guys. He already had it,” J.P. said. “You could see he had a tremendous I.Q. and feel for the game, especially for that age and against guys two years older than him. The flow and the subtle ways he moved throughout the floor, he was so advanced.”
Charleston Southern coach Barclay Radebaugh must’ve noticed it too because he offered Josiah his first scholarship when he was just a sixth-grader. Josiah had just finished seventh grade when J.P. invited him to attend summer camp with Porter-Gaud’s varsity team. He started Josiah with his second string, which ran up against an opposing team’s starters on the first day of camp.
“It literally took me two or three plays to know I was moving him up,” J.P. said. “Just the way he handled himself against the older fellas, he was clearly way ahead of the game. There was no point in wasting anyone’s time.”
Rick Barnes apparently felt the same way. Why waste any time? Josiah had just begun the summer season of his eighth-grade year when TMP coach Antoine Sanders handed him a cell phone. "This is an important call," Sanders warned him. The voice on the other end was Barnes, who said he was taking over as head coach at Tennessee and liked the potential he saw in Josiah, so much so that he wanted to personally extend his first scholarship offer from a major program. If Josiah was ready to commit on the spot, Barnes promised he wouldn’t recruit another point guard in the 2019 class. It was all a little overwhelming for the 14-year-old. He was excited and kind of confused at the same time. It was his first taste of high-stakes recruiting. He played it cool though because Kurt didn’t raise his boys to get rattled.
Josiah collected three scholarship offers before he even reached high school. He now has a stack of more than 30. He thinks. He's actually lost count. Everyone from Duke to Kansas to Arizona is courting him. Recruiters buzz his phone incessantly at all hours so he usually just keeps the ringer on silent now. Fans keep asking him to trim his list down to a final group. Media keeps pestering him about how he’ll commit and if he’s planning some extravagant announcement. Everyone wants a show. He plays along with some of it but really isn’t all that interested. He’s thought about one day committing, just telling his coaches and family and letting everyone else find out for themselves.
“He’s just not like that. He feels like every offer is special but he’s not going to make a big deal of himself. He doesn’t really seek the spotlight,” his mother, Sonya, said. “He’ll have an offer for three days and I’ll know nothing about it. I probably find out about 98 percent of his offers from other people on Twitter.”
Josiah barely makes his way through the entrance of the school cafeteria at lunchtime before a few kids from the lower school flock to him in adoration. It’s like a superhero has entered the room but, to them, maybe even better because this hero is one they can talk to and see for themselves. This is something Josiah does have time for.
“Hey Josiah, Josiah,” a portly boy sporting high-waist khakis wheezes out. His thick-framed lenses slide back on his nose as he arches his neck to look his hero in the eyes. “Hey, where are you gonna play in college?”
“Man, wherever you want me to,” Josiah tosses back with a cool shrug and a high five that leaves the young fan swooning.
Josiah radiates confidence in public. He seems to never worry but he actually analyzes everything in private. He’s constantly observing and listening. He prefers to process and think for himself rather than having others dissect him. In many ways, it’s part of what makes him such a remarkable player. Kurt's always told him to keep his ears and eyes open to absorb as much as he can because “how can you ever listen and learn if you’re always the one talking?”
Offers continue to roll in daily but you wouldn’t know it by the look of Josiah’s Twitter page. He rarely promotes anything that involves himself. He’d rather use Twitter to celebrate the accomplishments of his friends and teammates. Maybe even use his elevated status to help raise theirs. You might catch a brief update on his Instagram story every now and then. He much prefers that method because the short-lived posts soon vanish about the time he’s ready to move on.
Josiah’s rushing out the front door of his house one morning when he realizes he forgot to tell Sonya something. He pops his head back into the kitchen for a moment.
“Oh yeah, Mom. Hey, Coach (Tom) Izzo from Michigan State is going to call today,” he says with his usual nonchalant delivery. “Can you take that call for me?”
It’s a humid midsummer evening in Charleston and a 10-year-old Josiah is battling a 15-year-old K.J. in a game of one-on-one in the front yard.
There will come a time, a few years from now — give or take depending on which brother it is that you ask — that Josiah will hit a growth spurt and become too explosive, his shot too deadly for K.J. to consistently stop. But right now, in this moment, K.J. shoots over Josiah with ease. He’s far too strong and bullies him in the post. Little brother exits the court in tears.
“Josiah hates to lose, man. Hates it. He would cry and hit stuff and run inside to my mom. He always came back though,” K.J. says. “Basketball was therapeutic for us. If anything was ever going wrong, we’d shoot hoops. That’s always been our outlet. That’s how we grew up and became men. The game just runs in the family.”
Often coaching the one-on-one battles would be Kurt, a 6-foot-7 bald-headed, barrel-chested power forward who played at Michigan State in the '80s. Kurt still looks like he’d be a load to handle in the post even now. He was the one who taught Josiah the game. The two would break down NBA film together instead of watching cartoons. When the local recreation department wouldn’t allow Kurt to sign his 3-year-old son up for the 5-year-old team, Kurt became the team’s coach and then added Josiah to the roster anyway. He taught him to refine the fundamentals early, focusing less on jump shooting and more on dribbling and passing. He figured once Josiah hit his growth spurt to the size of the other James men, with an advanced handle and footwork, he’d be impossible to stop. It seems Kurt was on to something because now at 6-foot-6, Josiah slides through defenses with mesmerizing body control and the ball swinging back and forth on a string.
There were times though, Kurt admits, his tough love was probably overbearing. Before Josiah was a teenager, he announced to his family that he was retiring from basketball. He was fed up. He needed more time to devote to Xbox and wanted his dad to realize “this isn’t the Big 10” anymore. Kurt begged for just 20, 30 minutes. Josiah refused time and again. So Kurt backed off for a while. Josiah couldn’t stay away long though and the two eventually reconvened on their court in the front yard with a better understanding of each other.
“I know he can withstand any college coach after the coaching I put on him,” Kurt said. “I raised him with the mentality of a college basketball player. Sometimes I had to back up and let him be a kid too though. It took me a while to realize that. But it’s always been in his heart. He's always wanted to do more. He was always trying to learn. So I did push him. But now he pushes himself. He still has the same mentality. And not a lot of kids have that.”
Sonya is a longtime college basketball referee with a bubbly personality. She owns her own business managing more than 40 officials. Needless to say, Josiah fouling out has always been unacceptable. He was literally on the court before any of his peers as Sonya waited to announce she was pregnant and officiated a few Division I games with him in her belly. Instead of a pacifier or teddy bear, Josiah clutched a ball in his crib. Sonya also points out that her son actually has two first names, both Josiah and Jordan. He’s better known for the first but she hates how often the latter is left out because, to her, Josiah-Jordan has a better ring to it. The name Josiah comes from a king in the Bible. She often uses that to remind her son that he’s destined to lead and not to follow. The second part, well, that comes from Kurt who insisted on naming his son after the great Michael Jordan. Sonya still laughs about that.
It was Sonya who responded to Barnes’ commitment request so many years ago. She wanted to be sure her 14-year-old remained a child and wasn’t being asked to grow up too fast. The family embraced the early attention Josiah received but Sonya sometimes wondered if it was forcing her son to surrender parts of his childhood. She’s still wary of that.
“People have called Josiah special since he was a little kid. You know, ‘Oh he’s so special’ this and that. I’d say, ‘What do you mean? He’s just playing basketball,’” Sonya said. “I always have my antenna up as a mom but I haven’t ever seen a glimmer of him being stressed by it all. Coaches say certain things to try to lock him down but he’s always known how to handle everything. His personality actually helps me not get frustrated with all of this. He just never lets any of it get to him.”
Josiah is a product of the inner circle that surrounds him. That support system explains how he became the way he is. Access into the extended family is exclusive. Few are ever accepted because it’s difficult to know who’s self-serving and who truly has his best interest at heart. This network of advisors, made up of some family and close friends, trusted coaches and mentors, helped Josiah develop the impenetrable shield he puts between himself and much of the outside world. It's how he navigates the recruiting circus and how he knows how to handle himself in the public eye. It taught him how to properly speak to coaches and the media. It’s created his unflappable personality.
“A lot of times you see guys become influenced by these people that latch on to them for the wrong reasons,” J.P. said. “We work pretty hard to keep Josiah’s circle small so that can’t happen. We’re very conscious of it because we’ve seen so many examples of how this can all go wrong.”
Josiah’s learned from those who came before him, guys like K.J. and Travis and a host of others, who've taken lumps in their own journeys through the game and have since taught him how to avoid similar mistakes. He already knows how to handle situations he hasn’t yet encountered. He's living out their second chance.
Then there's the blueprint. Not many have the advantage of a rising NBA star just a call or text away. Josiah’s always been able to depend on Milwaukee Bucks starting forward Khris Middleton, a 2009 Porter-Gaud graduate, for advice on anything. That slick, probably illegal, move Josiah uses to separate from his defender, that’s Khris. And that textbook response you hear Josiah rattle off into the microphones and cameras shoved in his face, a lot of that’s Khris too. Their styles on the court are a little different but their mentality is the same. So every summer and a few times throughout the year, the two get together with their small group of friends and shut themselves in a gym to catch up.
“Josiah’s like my little brother,” Khris said. “I’ve been through a lot of what he’s going through so I just try to be there to help him with whatever he needs. There’s a brotherhood in the game. It’s the same way guys like (Kevin Garnett) and Dwyane Wade preached to me when I was younger. That’s how you learn and progress. He has an advantage though. He's going to already have all that knowledge by the time he’s playing against us in the NBA.”
Sonya had to pull her car to the side of the road to keep from crying when she received the text from Josiah.
“Mom, I made the team!” it read. “Can’t talk right now though. Gotta go.”
She sat speechless for more than a half-hour. She didn’t answer any calls or texts. Then came a picture from her son. He was wearing his official USA national team jersey. The tears flowed.
“I understand these colleges are a big deal. And the NBA would be amazing. But to represent your country, I mean, who thinks that's really ever going to happen?” Sonya said. “You can’t imagine that feeling.”
Josiah helped the USA U18 National Team win gold at the FIBA Americas Championship this summer. He was one of just 12 American players selected to compete in the six-game tournament that serves as a qualifier for next summer’s FIBA World Cup.
He averaged a little more than 16 minutes per night, saving his best performance for the championship game with nine points on 3-of-4 shooting and eight rebounds. In the final minutes of the win over Canada, James snuck baseline and caught an alley-oop thrown well outside of the backboard. He cocked it behind his head and threw it down with a powerful swing. Of course, he showed little reaction as he trotted back down the court but his teammates and the rest of the arena erupted in approval. The highlight placed second on SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays that night.
USA head coach Bill Self designed the lob play for Josiah himself. Self, head coach at Kansas, offered Josiah a scholarship with the Jayhawks in the days that followed the tournament, maybe the most glowing indication of how Josiah's performance.
“You look around and see some of the best players in the world and Josiah is out there hanging right with them, actually playing better than a lot of them,” said Antoine, who was part of a small group that accompanied Josiah to tryouts. “They'd move him around, different positions and he was really good. And you just kind of expect him to be, knowing him.”
Josiah's coaches and family forced him to take a break from basketball once he returned home to Charleston. He’d been devoting nearly all of his time to the game. Months had passed with no reprieve. They urged him to decompress physically first but mentally as well.
“I told him I don’t even want to see him at practice,” J.P. said. “But you know how he is.”
Josiah showed up anyway just to watch. It was a showing of good faith to his teammates who’d gone weeks through the first half of the summer season without him. It was important to Josiah that they knew he was still with them. He never wanted to seem bigger than the team.
He did eventually take some time to himself, though, to regain a sense of balance. He maintains other interests to stay sane in a lifestyle so dominated by one thing. He and K.J. might go to the movies or go shopping to peruse the hottest new sneakers. He's pretty good at ping pong and sometimes even tennis. He likes to go swimming or play NBA 2K with his best friend since sixth grade, C.J. Simmons. C.J. grew up a Lakers fan but plays 2K with the Thunder or the Raptors to try to beat Josiah's 76ers. It rarely works. They play Call of Duty a lot too. Loser has to do pushups and sit-ups. C.J. usually gets a good workout in. The two are a lot alike although C.J. doesn’t play basketball. Actually none of Josiah’s closest friends do.
“He’s just a regular guy, really. He’s cool, he’s humble. To be honest, we don’t even really talk about his offers and stuff like that too much,” C.J. said. “People see how aggressive he is on the court but he’s really not like that when he’s not playing. He’s kind of shy I guess. He just likes to be normal.”
But Josiah’s life is far from normal anymore. Regular guys aren't honored by city council. Josiah hated the idea when he first heard North Charleston wanted to formally recognize him. Another public appearance, this time in front of the mayor and other city dignitaries on stage at City Hall. And, what's worse, he'd probably be asked to make a speech. More than 100 people were scheduled to attend. He tried to avoid it all. He begged his parents to cancel. But he eventually agreed, reluctantly accepting that he now represents more than just himself. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown and he's slowly embracing that responsibility. He's revered for his humility but has become too impactful to remain so bashful.
“Josiah is important to the city, period. It’s more than just basketball now,” J.P. explained. “Kids really look up to him. He’s a role model. They’re going to follow the way they see him act, his humble attitude and his outlook toward life. This is part of it. He’s become the face of something positive for this area and this state to be proud of.”
It's the first day of practice for TMP in the second half of the summer schedule. Josiah appears right at home as he strolls through the gym with a smile. He seems genuinely happy to be reunited with his teammates, several of whom have picked up offers of their own since he’s been gone. And while those offers are certainly warranted, they’re likely to some degree a product of the heightened exposure Josiah's attracted to a team that’s one of the rare major AAU programs not tied to a shoe company. He's smart enough to understand that but would never admit it.
This summer's live period stands to be the busiest of his life. TMP is competing in some of the most prestigious events on the summer circuit. He'll attract attention at every game. Every gym he enters, coaches, scouts, media, they'll all line the walls and cram the bleachers for a glimpse. There's no sneaking up on anybody anymore. His gold medal will be a target for every player gunning to make a name for himself. And somewhere in between the bus trips and the battles, he has to find time to begin sorting through colleges.
"Yeah, I mean it uh ..." Josiah takes a long pause as he thinks to himself. "It might get a little stressful. But this is what I always dreamed about. There's people who would kill to be in this spot. So you can't complain about any of it because I know I'm blessed just to be in this position."
Josiah’s phone rings as practice is about to begin. He checks the number. Somewhere out of town. He tosses his phone back onto his bag. It'll have to wait. Practice is about to start. And that’s all he’s really interested in right now.