When he entered Montverde Academy, a basketball power near his home in Orlando, James Bell could already dunk. He exhibited athleticism that might have led him to the NBA after an abbreviated college career, like his former AAU teammate Austin Rivers.
But that scenario fell flat. Injuries hounded Bell from late in his junior year at Montverde and continued after he entered Villanova. As a freshman, he needed surgery to repair stress fractures in both legs that could have ended his college career before it began.
The long rehab from the surgeries, which included inserting a metal rod into each leg, and a sprained ankle kept Bell from taking the fast track to the NBA. But rather than sulk or try to rush his comeback to impress scouts, he chose to follow his own path through college. He called it "running the race at my own pace."
While it took time for the results to surface, the reward for Bell, a 6-foot-6 senior, is a season that has generated national attention. His contribution surpasses the 15.7 points, 6.1 rebounds, and outstanding three-point shooting he has provided for the Wildcats (25-3), who have spent eight consecutive weeks in the top 10.
It's also Bell's leadership, the relationship he has built with each teammate, and the admiration he has earned from every member of the coaching staff and support staff that prompts coach Jay Wright to say, "He's got as much respect as any player we've had here." That list covers his 13 seasons and includes Scottie Reynolds, Dante Cunningham, and Randy Foye.
"I can't try to be something I'm not," said the soft-spoken Bell, whom nearly everyone calls by his middle name, Tahj. "Coach always stressed that with me, and that was probably my biggest battle. I've become really comfortable with the player I am, the person I am, and the teammate I am, and I think it's showing on the court."
Bell said he spoke at length with Wright, his assistants, and older players such as Antonio Pena about finding the proper path during his early years at Villanova. Especially the time after his surgery (Sept. 8, 2010), which led to sleepless nights and doubt over whether he'd be able to show signs of his previous explosiveness, or even be able to get on the court.
"It's just understanding that everyone is different," he said. "Everyone's situation is different. I think it came with age, maybe. But it came from Coach Wright. I was comfortable with who I am, but I wasn't ready to accept it last year. This year, it's being confident in who I am and accepting it."
Wright said his initial issue with Bell was the player's frustration and disappointment with the long comeback after the surgery.
"I tried to explain to him, 'Given what you've been through, you're actually in a great spot,' " Wright said. "I said, 'If you were healthy, you might be an NBA player by your junior year, but you weren't. It's not your fault. So you have to take your path and make the best of it.' That's easy to say but hard to do. I'm most proud of the man he has become."
Kevin Sutton, Bell's coach at Montverde Academy, saw the promise in Bell as a player and a young man early on. Sutton said he challenged him to be a good student and a good person, a role model for his two younger brothers. He taught him how to become a complete basketball player, and Bell exhibited the work ethic that his mother, Erika Bell, had shown him.
Sutton said the fact that Bell had to curtail his AAU season between his junior and senior years because of the first stress fracture of his tibia and subsequent surgery actually helped him learn more.
"His time away enabled him to understand the game," said Sutton, now an assistant coach at Georgetown. "Obviously he wasn't as explosive as he was prior to the injury, so he learned the other parts of the game in order to be much more effective. He couldn't rely on his athleticism. He now had to use his mind and outthink his opponent."
Bell has put together the physical and mental parts of the game this season while embracing the leadership role that Wright demands of his seniors. As the Wildcats' only four-year player, Bell accepts a job that comes with a few headaches, such as when his coach doesn't see his team playing well and directs his anger at Bell, even if the player is not to blame.
"I give Tahj a lot of heat," he said. "I'll tell him, 'Yo, get everybody going right now. We're not playing hard enough.' I do it in a real aggressive way so they all see it. They all respect him so much. Then he'll get on them, and they'll respond to him. I don't think he likes it, but he's so smart, and he gets it done."
Wright's method was something Bell didn't appreciate at first.
"Sometimes being a younger player, you don't understand it," Bell said. "Sometimes I let it get to me. But that's what a team is for. When my teammates see me down or they see me not getting what he's trying to say, they help me. That's what our program is about.
"Coach always stresses being a legit person, and that means being accountable for yourself. I might have struggled with it, but as I got older it built more trust. He knows I'll do anything for this team, and I feel like he'll do anything for me. It made us a better team, made our relationship stronger, and made it a joy playing for him."
The feeling is mutual for Wright, who has seen Bell go from injured part-time player to role player to best player, and the top candidate for the Geasey Award as Big Five player of the year.
Bell enters Sunday's game against Marquette at the Wells Fargo Center just six points shy of 1,000. He had a 10-game stretch earlier this season in which he averaged 19.9 points while shooting 52 percent from the field and 48 percent from three-point range. He is known for hitting big shots at crucial moments.
Marquette coach Buzz Williams loves Bell's efficiency and says it's nearly on a par with that of Creighton's Doug McDermott, the likely Big East player of the year.
"If you remove McDermott, I'm not sure there's a more efficient player in the league," Williams said on his weekly radio show. "I'm not sure there's a player on a team that determines winning and losing more than McDermott, and James Bell."
Asked which other players may have matched Bell's sharp rise, Wright mentioned Dante Cunningham and Reggie Redding.
"Dante was a role player when he started and became a pro," Wright said. "I put Tahj in those categories. But Dante played with some other really good seniors. With Tahj being the only [four-year] senior, I don't think anybody has had to take on as much responsibility as he has."
The NBA still could be the path for Bell, or it could be overseas somewhere. But regardless of his next basketball home, he will be remembered by his coaches for the man he has become.
"He's kept it all in perspective," Sutton said. "The accolades that are coming his way are well-deserved because he's worked very, very hard to put himself in a position to earn those accolades. He's humble enough to understand that through that hard work, that's how he's been able to reach his goals."