Experience rewarding for Texas senior

AUSTIN, Texas -- Damion James is a 6-foot-7, 225-pound package of power, athleticism, all-out hustle, desire and ... unequivocal leadership?

"He is the captain of the team," Texas freshman guard Avery Bradley said. "We all come to him when we have our problems. When we want to say something to coach, we go to him. He helps the younger guys so much that our team has no problems at all because we're brothers and he makes it like that."

Fresh off an offseason of NBA tryouts and critique, James surprised even coach Rick Barnes when he decided to return to Texas for his senior season.

"Most guys, and I believe this, when they put their name in the draft, they're leaving," Barnes said. "I really believe that."

James says coming to Texas four years ago was the smartest decision of his life, and coming back for his senior season is a close second. It's hard to blame him for having NBA stars in eyes. As a senior at Nacogdoches High School, James watched potential UT teammates Daniel Gibson and LaMarcus Aldridge leave the Longhorns after two years each.

As a freshman, fellow newcomer Kevin Durant hogged coast-to-coast headlines. The national player of the year and now Oklahoma City Thunder star was one-and-done. Point guard D.J. Augustin stuck around one more season before bolting as a sophomore.

A starter since his first game at Texas, James watched, frustrated, as the NBA took his teammates. And, as he'd return to a younger and more inexperienced team, he couldn't help but wonder when his turn would come to take his game to the next level and pass on the spoils of an NBA contract to his struggling family back in Nacogdoches.

He could have gone this year but there were no promises of being drafted in the first round, where the money is guaranteed. Still, plenty of second-round picks make rosters and earn a better wage than most ever dream of.

Instead, James will wait and dominate. He returned with a mission to make this Texas team -- finally seasoned with upperclassmen, bench depth and talented freshmen -- his own.

"Leading this team, being the heart and soul of this team, it really motivates me to come out and perform every game," James said. "For coach to say, 'Damion James, this is your team. You have a chance to be the best team in the country. You lead them.' He gave me that role. I took it on, point blank.

"I took that role on like my family. I embraced it. It's great, man. You don't know how much this team means to me personally and just being able to play with them. I wouldn't trade it for the world."

James' breathtaking play through the first 14 nonconference games has him on the short list of player of the year candidates. Earlier in the week, he was among the 30 midseason candidates for the John R. Wooden Award, given to the nation's top player. He leads Texas in scoring (16.7), rebounds (10.8), double-doubles (seven) and minutes (26.9). He's second in steals (23) and blocks (13).

He's led the No. 2 Longhorns to a 14-0 start. Texas is averaging 87.0 points a game and winning by an average margin of just under 26 points as it gets set to open conference play Saturday at home against Colorado (9-5).

For all his success, James' teammates gush over his commitment to the team.

"He's put the NBA behind him," junior forward Gary Johnson said. "Coming into his sophomore year and his junior year, he got kind of caught up in the hype. But it seems like he's put everything behind him and he realizes that his time here is up. ... After he put it all behind him, you could see the difference."

James pounded then-No. 10 North Carolina for 25 points and 15 rebounds. Three nights later, he piled up 23 points and 13 rebounds in a win over then-No. 9 Michigan State. He became Texas' all-time rebounder in the process.

His four-game double-double streak ended Tuesday night in a 96-85 win at Arkansas. James finished with 20 points and nine rebounds.

That James would stick around long enough to be a career leader in any category is a surprise in itself.

"Maybe I shouldn't say this, but I will," Barnes said. "I think that when Damion came here, I think Damion thought he would be one-and-done. And I don't think any of the players we've ever recruited thought that. I really don't."

Not Durant, Barnes said. Not Augustin.

"Absolutely not. Regardless of what anybody says, they didn't know," Barnes said. "Now Damion, I think, came in for a different reason because you know Damion has one thing in mind. He wants to take care of his family. He's always said that from day one. It's always been the most important thing. I think he even said this year, at some point in time, his biggest disappointment was he hasn't been able to take care of his mother. So there's no doubt he thought that."

James still isn't a household name outside of Texas, but that will surely change if he continues to dominate in conference play and leads Texas back to its first Final Four since 2003. James has given Longhorns' opponents fair warning.

"A lot of people still understate us, still don't respect us, so we're just going to go out and prove it every day," James said. "And I feel bad for our opponents because, for the people that say we're not that good of a team, our opponents got to suffer. Every day we're going to come out and try to punish them."

Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.