K.J. James could feel his phone buzzing in his pocket. He couldn’t answer right away.
He was still on the clock at Innovation Station, a tech store in MUSC. He was ringing up a couple Apple watches for a customer as his phone rang below the counter.
James won’t be selling tech much longer. It was his agent on the line with news he’d been waiting all year — all of his life, really — to hear.
“They pulled the trigger,” he told James. “It’s official.”
James signed his first professional contract with Maia Basketball Club in Porto, Portugal on Monday. Porter-Gaud’s all-time leading scorer will fly out in roughly a month to join his new team.
“It’s really an incredible feeling,” James said. “Every kid grows up wanting to play professional basketball. I’m just thankful, for everything.”
James’ winding journey the past five years is one of growth and development, both athletically and personally. He’s fallen from the highest of highs and been challenged in multiple ways only to rise through whatever adversity time and again.
He was unstoppable in high school at Porter-Gaud. He scored more than 2,400 points as a four-time all-conference selection. He averaged 27 points and 13 rebounds per game during an all-state senior season in which he also set the Cyclones’ single-game scoring record with a seemingly effortless 46-point outing.
“You feel like you can do whatever you want in high school and get away with it,” James said. “Then you get to college and realize this isn’t just a game anymore. You can get humbled quick. Some of these guys have families. Some of them, this is their only way out. It’s really eye opening. You have to realize quickly that basketball is a job and you will get fired.”
James spent his first two years of college at High Point, where he helped the Panthers to the Big South regular season championship in limited minutes as a freshman.
He transferred to Armstrong State ahead of his junior year and averaged 15 points and six rebounds in his only season before the school shut down their athletic programs.
He had to scramble quickly to find a new team to finish his career. He landed at Valdosta State where he averaged 15 points, seven rebounds and two assists, shooting 49 percent from behind the three-point arc as a senior. He scored 20 points or more six times for the Blazers, including a career-high 32-point effort in his final season of college eligibility.
“Going from Division I to Division II was probably the most humbling wakeup call,” James said. “There are D2 guys that you’ll never hear about on ESPN. But they’re better than some of the D1 guys and way hungrier. But going through all that helped me develop a better work ethic, something I think I really needed at the time. It all made me better.”
James took the past year off from basketball to finish his degree. He worked part time and scratched together enough money to pay his own way into a couple overseas scouting camps and summer leagues in Las Vegas. A few teams showed interest but no one bit immediately.
He popped up again as a guest member of the Clemson alumni team in The Basketball Tournament, a nationally televised 64-team bracket with a $2 million prize. He scored nine points in just 12 minutes on 3-of-3 shooting with three rebounds in the second round. It wasn’t long after he began to once again gain traction with a few professional organizations in Europe.
“It’s definitely been a roller coaster of a process the past few years,” he said. “You just handle it as best you can and try to represent yourself well and take advantage of whatever opportunities you have.”
James comes from a strong basketball bloodline that includes his father, Kurt, who played at Michigan State in the 80s, his brother, Josiah, an incoming freshman at Tennessee and four uncles who played collegiately. His inner circle of friends is lined with several overseas pros, guys like Tre McLean and Travis Smith, that he’s leaned on for advice and guidance through the professional process.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is that everyone’s process is different,” he said. “You can’t put a timeline on it. I was anxious every day wondering when or if something was going to happen. But you have to just stay patient and be ready when the time comes.”
James has already told his manager at Innovation Station that he’ll be leaving in September. She’s happy for him, even promising to come see him play.
It’ll be James’ first time leaving the United States. He’s traveling a long way but, in a sense, already has.