– There’s no room for doubt when you want to be the best.
James Banks has, and always has had, plenty of confidence.
“I knew right away. Even when others didn’t know I knew,” said Banks, a 6-10, 240-pound native of Decatur, Ga., who transferred to Georgia Tech from the University of Texas on April 24. “Honestly, a lot of it was myself and my own mental fortitude, because my freshman year, I wasn’t very good, and not a lot of people believed in me. But my coaches stayed on me. They always encouraged me. The people around me encouraged me, the players around me encouraged me, whether it was light teasing or telling me to get better.”
Banks “sky’s the limit” confidence was necessary as he began his basketball career from the ground up.
He decided his freshman year of high school to transition from the gridiron, where, at 6-7, 290, he had been a center that protects quarterbacks and paves the way for running backs, to the hardwood, where, at 6-10, 240, he’d become a center that protects the rim and runs the floor.
“It’s kind of like a ‘Rocky’ movie,” Banks recalled, with a laugh. “You start off, and I promise you, I wasn’t very good. It’s not like I just picked it up and was Shaquille O’Neal. I was uncoordinated, not very strong, not very fast. I was fat. But when I picked up the ball, I decided. I went home one day, I was sore all over and I was like, ‘I love it. This is what I want to do!’
“I remember they would play pickup and instead of actually playing with them I would just run laps around the gym to get in better shape, do push-ups, stuff like that, because I wasn’t good enough to be on the floor yet,” he added. “I knew that, and I wasn’t going to lie to myself like I was. Just having that tenacity, having that laser-beam focus really helped me.”
Through hard work, he caught on to the game and proved he belonged on the floor.
“It was a lot of early mornings, a lot of late nights, a lot of sore knees, a lot of ice bags and Advil because you’ve got to put in the work,” he said. “That’s what I did. One or two years later, after putting in the work and catching a lot of guys that were in front of me, people were starting to realize, ‘Yeah, this kid can play.’”
James would become a major player on the high school level. As a junior at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta, he averaged 23 points and 14 rebounds. He transferred to powerhouse La Lumiere, in La Porte, Ind., for his senior year and led them to a 27-4 record and the championship game of the 2016 Dick’s Sporting Goods High School Nationals. He would receive a deluge of recruiting letters, including potential suitors from the ACC (Syracuse and N.C. State — Georgia Tech came in late), the SEC (Auburn, Georgia, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, South Carolina, and Tennessee), the Big East (Georgetown), the Big Ten (Purdue), and the Pac-12 (Southern Cal), before choosing to go to with Texas from the Big 12.
As a freshman he stood out as a shot-blocker, swatting away 39 shots, second-most on the team, blocking at least one shot in 20 of the 32 games in which he played, including knocking away five in his debut against Incarnate Word on Nov. 11, the most ever in a debut by a UT freshman.
That summer he took another step up, earning a berth on the U18 National Team for the 2016 FIBA Americas U18 Championship. That roster was loaded, including current NBA players Markelle Fultz and Jarrett Allen, and projected 2018 first-round picks Mohamed Bamba, a Texas teammate, and Oklahoma point guard Trae Young. The U.S. won gold, going 5-0, and Banks led the squad with seven blocked shots, while grabbing 4.5 rebounds, despite playing only 9.8 minutes and in only four of the five games.
“I went in there with a chip on my shoulder,” he remembered. “A lot of guys on that team were guaranteed their spots, guys that were putting their name in the draft and doing things of that nature. I wasn’t one of them. But I know my skills. I know what I bring to the table. I knew I had to go out there and physically dominate, I had to talk, I had to do all the right things and I had to bring those things to the table to where every coach on that team had to say, ‘We need this guy on our team if we want to win.’ That’s the same thing I want to bring here. Bring chemistry, bring toughness, bring leadership and bring a guy that can really play the game.
“I knew I could play with those guys. Hopefully when I put on that Georgia Tech jersey everyone else will know I can play with these guys as well,” he added. “The ACC will know, hopefully the country will know.”
He’s already making believers in Atlanta.
“Everybody loves James. We are really, really excited about James,” said Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner. “He gives us that presence in the middle. Obviously, right now he’s not able to play, but when he is eligible, he really gives us a high-level center. He’s just a phenomenal young man, great personality, he’s really good on the defensive end, shot-blocking, rebounding, love the way he runs the floor.”
He knows he wants to improve his offensive game.
“I’m working on everything — getting my body better physically, becoming more of an athlete, getting faster, stronger, able to compete with anyone and everyone, adding to my offensive game, being able to switch one through five, being able to score from just about anywhere on the court,” he said. “The coaching staff is really excited about what I already offer. We’re working on everyone’s game, getting better. Hopefully I can surprise people with what we’re putting into my game.”
Even though he won’t be able to show what he can do and do better on the floor in 2018-19, Banks is determined to make the most of this year of transition and make those around him better, especially Tech’s other post players like Sylvester Ogbonda and Abdoulaye Gueye.
“I expect to be one of the best players on the floor if not the best player on the floor at all times, so I’m going to challenge these guys at every moment,” he said. “I’ve played with a lot of great players, I’ve play against a lot of great players, I know what they expect at this level, I know what they expect at the next level, at the national level. So I’m going to challenge the guys. I’m not going to let them be mediocre in any way. It’s hard. It’s past hard. It’s having a certain mental toughness. Just teaching them little things that I hope I can bring to the table, and I hope I can convey clearly to them to raise everyone up to the level that we want them to be, the championship standard that we want to set at Tech.
“This off-year is going to be such an advantage. You’re just able to have a clear mind, focus on developing my game, focusing on building a bond with my teammates,” he added. “Building those bonds, building that connection, building that chemistry and that synergy is big. So this off-year for me is going to be becoming the best person I can be and also becoming the best player I can be, becoming the best teammate I can be and becoming someone that is an extension of Coach Pastner so that he can trust me when there are no coaches around, where I can still help the team.”
“I think he can be a leader this year,” said Pastner. “Even though he’s not playing, he can be a leader and be a real positive influence. He’s got that type of mentality. He’s older, he’s already been through two years of college at a high level so he gets it. He understands that.”
Banks will look to continue his academic excellence as well. He’ll major in history, technology and society after studying human dimensions of organizations major with a business minor at Texas, where he was two-time Academic All-Big 12 and Dean’s List.
“The academic staff here is amazing, and they’re helping me and making it a very smooth transition. So far I’m happy,” said Banks, who is taking History of the Vietnam War this summer. “I feel like you can’t be as great as you can be on the court if you’re not handling your business off the court so I try my best to handle my business on and off the court. I want to be the best athlete I can be. I want to make Georgia Tech proud. I want to make my family proud.”
He’s excited about the prospect of having his family, friends and so many others around to come see him play.
“Oh yeah. It’ll be amazing,” he said. “I’m from Decatur. I call Atlanta home and I feel like this is my city. I add the extra burden on my back when it comes to really having pride in Georgia Tech, pride in this gold, what we wear, how we perform. Hopefully we can do well and really make the city proud.”