VANCOUVER — Deep down in his basketball soul, James Woods has always been Boy Wonder.
It’s the nickname he picked up before he was old enough to shave, before he even started to play high school basketball for Langley’s Walnut Grove Gators.
And on Friday night (7:30 p.m.), when he pulls on his No. 11 UBC jersey and takes to the floor in front of an expected sell-out crowd at War Memorial Gymnasium for the 2022 Buchanan Cup crosstown hoops clash with the visiting Simon Fraser Red Leafs, the kid who was seemingly doubted and second-guessed through every step of his journey now holds courtside audiences in rapt anticipation of what will happen next.
A few years ago, Woods’ club coach at Drive Basketball, the former Simon Fraser and UBC guard Pasha Bains, perfectly summed up the 6-foot Woods.
“We live in such a critical age when kids are smaller, but James always believed in himself,” Bains said. “The best thing about his career is that he wasn’t supposed to be good enough in Grade 8, then the same thing in Grade 9, and then again in Grade 10. But nickname, it stuck, and in the end, Boy Wonder never went away.”
That much seems clear as Woods has put together a hoops resume which seemingly leaves no boxes unchecked, beginning in 2016-17 as the Grade 11 who was named the Quad-A MVP at the B.C. championships, and re-affirmed this past August when he dropped six threes and scored a game-high 33 points in the ‘Birds season-opening win over the visiting UNLV Runnin’ Rebels.
Arriving at UBC but remaining under wraps during the COVID-cancelled 2020-21 Canada West campaign, Woods debuted with the ‘Birds last season and promptly led the team in scoring at 18.8 ppg.
Over the team’s perfect 6-0 start this preseason, he’s pushed those numbers to 20.3 ppg.
“Definitely being a smaller guard at the U SPORTS level, and also playing in the states, my compete level and my heart had to be twice as hard and twice as big,” said Woods.
“Every time I step on the court, I want to play as hard as I can, and get my teammates involved,” adds Woods, who starts opposite Jack Cruz-Dumont, his longtime former club teammate at Drive, in the Thunderbirds’ backcourt. “I do what my coaches ask. I play my role.”
Yet to tell the full story of James Woods, it’s important to note that while he clearly embraces his given role within the team framework, there are at least a few moments each game when his intrinsic ability to score the basketball in times of duress is such that he has what can best be called an unspoken permission to simply be Boy Wonder.
ON THE MEANING OF 95-AND-5
If there was one game during his high school career at Walnut Grove which seemed to define James Woods’ uncanny ability to score, it came in the opening round of the 2018 B.C. Quad-A championships at the Langley Events Centre.
In a contest in which he helped carry his No. 10-seeded Gators to an 89-76 upset of Vancouver’s No. 7 St. George’s Saints, Woods poured home 44 points, including 21 in the fourth quarter.
After the game, WGSS head coach Reid Taylor spoke openly of the understanding he and his high-octane senior guard had that season.
Taylor said that 95 per cent of the time, Woods plays within the structure of the team. But for the other five per cent of the time, when the opportunities presented, he was free to have at it.
“And that was a five-percent game,” Taylor said after the win over Saints. “Just get out of his way and let him do his thing. That’s why he was the MVP (in 2017). No coaching involved with that one. Just give him the ball and let him do his thing.”
A few weeks later, Woods capped his career by not only being named the MVP of the B.C. high school all-star game, but also in rising above his competition to win the event’s slam-dunk contest to boot.
Yet while others were weighing university and college offers for the next season, Woods felt lucky to have the one that he did, and was ready to make the most of it at NCAA Div. 2 Montana State-Billings, a foe locally for Simon Fraser in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference.
Unfortunately for him, however, the coaching staff that had been recruiting him was collectively shown the door following the season.
Without another option, Woods accepted an offer from deposed Billings’ assistant Brad Schmit to come with him and play in what must have seemed like the middle of nowhere, at Central Wyoming, a junior college in the tiny town of Riverton (pop. 12,000).
Instead of cursing his fortune, however, Woods embraced it wholeheartedly, despite the fact he was going to one of the smaller towns in the state with the lowest population density in the U.S. outside of Alaska.
“It was great because I got to focus on basketball and school,” Woods said. “I matured over my two years there and I expanded my game. My teammates were from Brazil, Florida, everywhere. And our conference was super-legit, one of the toughest in the country. There was always a ton of Div. 1 players coming in and out of that league and so you had to be on your toes.”
It was a transformational time for Woods, who learned the ropes and quickly grew into a starter who averaged 9.5 ppg his first season, before blossoming into the team’s second-leading scorer at 14.7 ppg in 2019-20.
That season, the 95-and-5 Boy Wonder of Walnut Grove vintage began to reveal itself at the U.S. junior college level.
In a game in early February, against Gillette College, Woods hit five threes, grabbed eight boards, went 9-of-10 from the stripe and scored 38 points.
And the best part of all for him?
As he began to plot his next move, the kid who got just one offer coming out of high school in 2018, wound up getting 30-plus, including four from Div. 1 programs.
“The best part of that story is that I had no idea he had those offers, he never told me,” said UBC head coach Kevin Hanson of that fact that Woods picked UBC despite attention from Davidson, South Carolina, UC-Riverside and Coastal Carolina.
In hindsight, after he scored 33 against them in August, you’d have to think UNLV would have also been interested.
“I knew he had a lot of offers but I didn’t now the names and I didn’t care,” said Hanson. “I just talked to him about how he’d be a perfect fit and I am glad it worked out… that he got a chance to come home and play in front of his family and friends.”
J.W. AND J.D., HARD WORK EARNS PRAISE FOR BOY WONDER
Want to get UBC’s Hanson to scratch his head?
Ask him if he’s ever seen James Woods take a bad shot over his 30-game career with the Thunderbirds.
“Off the top of my head, I can’t think of one, and that’s in all honesty,” said Hanson. “He has been blocked because of the sheer height of some players, but I think that if he keeps on doing what he is doing, he is going to go down as one of our all-time best.”
So who does he remind Hanson of?
“He is a different player, but also similar in ways… and I know it’s a bold statement, but in a lot of ways except for his height, J.D. Jackson,” Hanson says of one of the greatest ‘Birds of all time.
“J.D. was 6-foot-4, and he was that crafty player who could get a shot off against anybody, fill it up from range, finish in traffic” continued Hanson, who as UBC’s senior point guard in 1986-87, has first-hand experience after playing alongside the mop-topped freshman from Vernon that season.
“That is just the first name that popped into my head when you asked,” Hanson continued. “J.D. was that Steady Eddie. Nothing phased him. And J.D. was shooting floaters before there were floaters going on in basketball. I can say that there are not many players that I have coached that I let or trust shooting floaters. But James… he can shoot them from 10 feet, and that’s because he’s had to because of his height.”
Develop your game at UBC to the point where even one facet of it re-kindles memories of J.D. Jackson and you’re doing something right.
Yet as Hanson stresses, Woods is also very much his own player, and a large part of his make-up is built around his unspoken grit.
Prior to the UNLV game, and unbeknownst to most everyone outside the team, Woods had undergone jaw surgery and was not even expected to be ready to face the Runnin’ Rebels.
“They had to re-break his jaw and it was wired,” says Hanson. “He recovered so well that he had even started to play at some outdoor tournaments. Most guys would shy away from playing, but James figured out a way to play while still protecting himself.
“Then, he was cleared for the (UNLV) game, and his performance that night, that was a unique, career-style game for him.”
For his part, Woods is playing the best basketball of his life and says he has built a brotherhood with his UBC teammates in just the same way he did with his ex-teammates over his two years at Central Wyoming.
And now, once he’s finished up at UBC, he’s determined to springboard from his career in blue and gold to a professional career in Europe beginning in 2023.
“I want to go overseas and play, and my mom was born in Italy, so I would love to get my Italian passport,” said Woods.
“I know Kev has a lot of connections and UBC sends more players overseas than any U SPORTS program. I already knew some of the guys here, too, so I knew it was going to be a perfect fit for me.”
So perfect, in fact, that as he returned home to the Greater Vancouver area during the start of the COVID pandemic to reunite with his family and make new basketball connections at UBC, Boy Wonder decided it was time to get a new tattoo.
You can see it on the photo above as it encircles his right upper thigh.
To outsiders it’s pretty much illegible but Woods is happy to translate.
“It says ‘Family’ going one way, and when you look at it from the other way it says ‘Forever’. So it’s a two-in-one type of word.”
An affirmation, perhaps, that however you choose look at James Woods, his message is always clear.
Off the court, the kid is all grown up.
But put a basketball in his hands, and before you know it, he’s right back in touch with his inner Boy Wonder all over again.
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