Josiah James remembers the first time he met Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes.
It was the summer before his freshman season at Porter-Gaud and James had played “one of the worst games” of his young life during an AAU tournament in Spartanburg. As James was leaving, Barnes approached him in the parking lot outside the gym.
“Because of NCAA rules coach couldn’t call me, so I had to call him on his cell phone and he was right behind me,” James said. “I think I had something like four points, five turnovers, maybe two assists. I played so bad. I knew he couldn’t have been very impressed.”
James couldn’t have been more wrong.
Barnes offered James, 13 years old at the time, a scholarship on the spot. It was James’ first scholarship offer from a Power 5 school and it left a lasting impression.
James, the top high school basketball prospect in South Carolina, verbally committed to play at Tennessee in front of a packed gym at the private school in Charleston Wednesday morning.
James, who is ranked among the nation’s top point guards in the 2019 recruiting class, picked the Volunteers over Duke, Clemson and Michigan State.
“There was no other option for me,” James said. “Tennessee was home for me. From the moment I walked onto campus I just fell in love with the school and coach Barnes. Coach Barnes is a hall of fame coach and the level of care he has for his players and their success on and off the court is unmatched by any coach.”
The fact that Barnes’ scholarship offer was the first from a major school played a large part in James’ final decision.
“That was my first big offer, first time talking to a Power 5 school,” James told The Moultrie News. “I’ll never get that feeling again. I was barely even a teenager. They saw something in me from day one and that really meant a lot to me.”
The 6-6 James had more than 40 scholarship offers, but narrowed his choices to three schools — Clemson, Tennessee and Duke — a few weeks ago. James took an official visit to Clemson this past weekend and visited Tennessee earlier in the month. He was scheduled to make an official visit to Duke this weekend, but canceled that trip on Monday.
James made up his mind Monday night. He called Barnes, a former Clemson coach, to tell him the news.
“He was excited,” James said.
James is the highest ranked basketball prospect to ever come out of the Lowcountry. ESPN, Rivals.com and 24/7 all have James ranked among the top 20 players nationally.
James commitment gives the Volunteers another top prospect from South Carolina. Former York Prep standout D.J. Burns, who was also a top 2019 prospect, reclassified and enrolled at Tennessee in the summer.
“We’ve had Josiah ranked as a five-star prospect for a long time,” said Rivals national recruiting analyst Eric Bossi. “It’s his combination of size and versatility and all-around skill level that make him special."
James’ father, Kurt James, played two seasons at Michigan State during the early 1980s, and had hoped his son would play for the Spartans, but wasn’t surprised by Josiah’s decision.
“Sure, there was a part of me that hoped he would go to Michigan State, but this was his decision and I support him 100 percent,” Kurt James said. “Josiah’s a different kind of kid. He’s really big on loyalty, that means a lot to him and coach Barnes has been there from the very beginning.”
It’s the second straight year that the top high school basketball prospect in South Carolina decided to leave the state to play collegiately elsewhere. A year ago, Spartanburg Day’s Zion Williamson, the nation's second-ranked player in the 2018 recruiting class, shunned Clemson and signed with Duke.
Clemson had been considered the favorite for James until he reached beneath the podium on Wednesday and pulled out a Tennessee hat.
“It’s one thing to see a Zion Williamson go to Duke, that’s a blue blood program, and as a coach or fan you can kind of shrug it off like we wanted him, but he went to Duke, or Kentucky or Kansas or North Carolina,” Bossi said. “But to have him to go to Tennessee, that’s going to sting. Tennessee is a really good program, but it doesn’t have that national brand name that the Dukes, the North Carolinas and the Kentuckys have.”
Clemson coach Brad Brownell took the Tigers to a Sweet 16 appearance this past March, and Frank Martin's South Carolina team is 18 months removed from going to the Final Four in 2017.
The signing of James was a top priority for both programs.
“Clemson, South Carolina didn’t do anything wrong,” said Porter-Gaud coach John Pearson. “South Carolina and Clemson did everything right. They were both great during the whole process. I’m not sure what they could have done differently. It wasn’t what Clemson or South Carolina did wrong, it was everything Tennessee did was right.”
The tug to play closer to home was strong, James admitted.
“I know a lot of people wanted me to stay home. Being able to play for my home state at Clemson would’ve been amazing,” James said. “It was in the back of my head. I admit, I don’t think I can get that same home-state feeling at Tennessee. But that’s not the only thing I was looking for. Players have to do what’s best for them. I know the people who really care for me will follow my journey to Tennessee.”
James averaged 10.6 points and 6.6 assists last season as a junior in leading Porter-Gaud to its third straight SCISA Class AAA state championship. This past summer, James played for Team USA’s U18 National team that won the gold medal in the FIBA Americas U18 Championship. James averaged 5.3 points and six rebounds a game during the tournament.
Verbal commitments are not binding. The early signing period for basketball opens on Nov. 14.