When Jasmine James returned to Memphis in mid-May, she sensed her WNBA rookie season was all but a distant memory.
A couple of days removed from having her dream of playing professional basketball stalled after being waived by the Seattle Storm, who drafted the former Bartlett High star in the third round of this year’s draft, the 22-year-old James returned home apparently taken aback that she was sent packing from the Pacific Northwest.
“I had never gotten cut before,” James said Monday afternoon in a telephone interview from Phoenix. “Most WNBA rosters have 11 players. They were already heavy. They had two great point guards (eight-year veterans Temeka Johnson and Tanisha Wright) there who had already signed. I had no idea going in that Sue Bird’s spot (out with season-ending knee injury) was already taken. You learn something from every situation.”
Still, James, the former University of Georgia star, seemed unfazed after being cut for the first time in her stellar basketball career. Instead, she took part in what she describes as intense conditioning sessions in hopes of landing back in the WNBA next year, in large part because the league was approaching the midway point of the season.
“I came back home to Memphis and it was nothing but training and basketball every single day,” James said. “There was never a day I had taken off. My motivation had gone to another level.”
As James tells it, she went as far as conducting what she deems “three-a-day” workouts.
“I felt good about my chances of resurfacing back in the WNBA next year,” James said.
To James’ surprise, her chance of resuming her professional career came much sooner.
In early June, James fielded a call from her agent, who informed her the possibility exists that Phoenix could have an opening and that then-Mercury head coach and general manager Corey Gaines expressed interest in bringing her in for a workout. James, it turned out, got the official call from Phoenix July 12 to join the Mercury, who signed her to consecutive seven-day contracts July 21 and July 28. During that two-week stretch, James saw a significant amount of action, in part because starting point guard Diana Taurasi was handed a one-game suspension after picking up her seventh technical foul of the season the day James joined the organization.
Though the Mercury had dropped three of four games after James joined the team, her contributions — a combined 21 points on 10-of-20 (.500) shooting in those four outings and 11.8 minutes — were good enough to persuade the organization to sign her through the remainder of the season.
“I had no idea I’d get a call (from a WNBA team),” said James, explaining her reaction after learning she would be in Phoenix through season’s end. “I knew my chances were good when I came in my first three games and I played quite a bit. I was really confident.”
Still, in what James has labeled a “roller coaster” rookie season, she was faced with yet another challenge in her brief professional tenure when the Mercury last week announced the firing of Gaines as coach and general manager after five seasons.
Phoenix entered the season with lofty expectations after adding No. 1 overall draft pick Brittney Griner to a roster that features Taurasi, Penny Taylor, and Candice Dupree. However, after losing seven of its last nine and falling one game below .500, James sensed days after joining the Mercury that a coaching change would eventually take place.
“I wouldn’t say I was blindsided,” James said. “I could kind of see it coming because of the comments that were being made in the locker room…some of the things that were being said by coach Gaines himself. Just sitting around and hearing some of players, I knew something was up. But I wasn’t expecting it to happen this soon.”
James contacted Gaines Monday and thanked him for the opportunity of allowing her to join the Mercury.
“I think as the head coach and general manager, he made it happen and I appreciate him giving me the opportunity,” James said. “He had a lot of confidence in me.”
Despite what has been a rookie campaign filled with numerous obstacles, James said she is fortunate to have been afforded a second chance to erase the memory of her brief stint in Seattle. Looking ahead, she said her primary focus is to help the Mercury earn a playoff spot. Most importantly, though, James aims to use the rest of the season as an audition, of sorts, for Phoenix or another franchise to sign her next year.
“I would definitely say I’m auditioning,” James said. “It gives the Phoenix Mercury a chance to watch me and see if they like me. But also, it gives other teams a chance to look at me. It goes to show you never know what would happen and that everything in the WNBA works out for a reason.”
So much for a distant memory.