WHEN HE returned to Austin in June to take classes in the College of Education, former Longhorns star Kevin Durant needed a partner for his workouts. So the newly minted NBA Rookie of the Year asked junior forward Damion James to go shoot with him—at 6:30 a.m. Word spread quickly to the rest of the Longhorns, who despite the early start, soon joined Durant for his summer schedule of workout, class, workout. "By the end of June, Kevin had the entire team in there working," says Texas coach Rick Barnes. "He is still part of this team."
The seven-man recruiting class that arrived in 2006 included Durant; point guard D.J. Augustin, who led Texas with 19.2 points per game as a sophomore and then followed Durant to the NBA; and James, who is most likely the next Longhorns star—no disrespect to senior A.J. Abrams, the top returning scorer in the Big 12.
Although he played on the perimeter at Nacogdoches ( Texas) High, the 6'7", 222-pound James was asked to play center as a Longhorns freshman and power forward as a sophomore. He more than held his own against bigger players—James is one of only six returning players in the nation who averaged a double double in 2007--08—but he's eager to make the transition from undersized post to oversized wing. "I feel like I'm back at home," says James. "And Kevin coming back elevated my game to another level."
Durant helped him with his shooting technique and tips on defending a slashing wing. "Damion is an athletic guy, so [by] moving out to the three, he's going to bother some guys with his length," says senior center Connor Atchley.
Abrams will also assume a new role this season. He excelled as a shooter in the Longhorns' three-guard offense last season, setting a school record with 284 three-pointers (at 39.9% accuracy), but with Augustin now gone, Abrams will be part of what he calls a "point guard by committee." He'll share the role with junior Justin Mason and sophomore Dogus Balbay, who despite missing last season with a torn right anterior cruciate ligament, is the Longhorns' fastest player with the ball. The basic offensive scheme will remain the same, says Barnes, but "each of those guys is going to run it a little differently."
The top scorer is gone, but the next nine are back, with Atchley, sophomore Gary Johnson, junior Dexter Pittman and sophomore Clint Chapman rotating through the post. "We haven't had this much depth since our Final Four team [in 2003]," says Barnes. With that comes even higher expectations for a team that reached the Elite Eight last March. Says James, "Anything less than the Final Four is a failure for the Texas Longhorns."
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