CHAMPAIGN – It was the first day of basketball practice, and as James Kinney scanned Centennial's gym, he found few familiar faces.
"We lost a lot of people," the Chargers junior said. "We had a lot of seniors last year, six or seven. And then we lost Mikel (Leshoure) to football, so we're real young."
Good thing for Centennial that the lanky 6-foot-1 combo guard is still around. For a team in reconstruction mode – particularly since Illinois running back recruit Leshoure decided to bypass his final season of basketball – Kinney provides a rock-solid cornerstone.
"He just looks better and better every day," Centennial coach Tim Lavin said. "Hopefully, he'll step up and take more of a leadership role even though he's only a junior. He's the only (returnee) that really got significant playing time last year."
Kinney made the most of that court time during a breakout sophomore season. A lineup fixture from the opening game, he led a veteran-laden Charger team in scoring (13.9 points) and connected on more three-pointers (46) than any Class 2A player in the area.
There was far more to Kinney's game, however, than putting the ball in the hoop. On a team that included News-Gazette All-Area first-teamer Leshoure and Special Mention choice Mike Locksley, Kinney finished second in steals, tied for second in assists and ranked fourth in rebounds.
It was an all-around performance worthy of selection to the All-Area first team – a 10-player group with one sophomore: Kinney.
Given that the Centennial guard took his lumps as a freshman during sporadic varsity appearances – he shot 29.7 percent on 101 attempts from the field and under 16 percent from the three-point arc – Kinney's meteoric improvement was an eye opener to plenty of folks. Including the player himself.
"Last year, it was a big surprise to everybody because I had a bad freshman year and I kind of shocked people sophomore year," he said. "I really wasn't expecting a year like last year, but I hope I can keep that up and have an even better season this year."
If he does, it likely will be in the face of defensive schemes specifically designed to slow Kinney. Considering how well he played as a sophomore, he was sure to be a defensive focal point anyway this season. But because he'll be surrounded, at least initially, by teammates unproven at the varsity level, opponents figure to put Kinney that much more in their defensive cross hairs.
"He's going to have a target on his back," Danville coach Gary Tidwell said. "I think everybody in the (Big 12) conference knows about his capabilities. That's just a process every player with tremendous talent and ability has to go through. It will be interesting to see how he handles it throughout the course of the year."
It's a topic Lavin brought to Kinney's attention as early as last March.
"Coach Lavin told me at the end of last year I was going to see a lot more double-teams now that Mikel most likely wasn't going to be playing," Kinney said. "He told me to just be ready for putting in a lot of hard work.
"I think I'm ready for the challenge I have to face. I like taking on a challenge."
Kinney received a taste of that challenge during the first half of his sophomore season. With Locksley serving a season-opening six-game suspension and Leshoure still acclimating to basketball after Centennial's extended run in the football playoffs, the heavy lifting in the Charger offense fell to Kinney. He responded like a veteran, leading Centennial in scoring in 11 of its first 16 games. In that span, Kinney scored 20 or more points four times.
When Locksley and Leshoure hit their own strides, Kinney blended into a more balanced attack.
"Earlier in the season, when we didn't have Mike, I knew that I was going to have to do a lot more scoring from the perimeter," he said. "But when Mike and Mikel got going, it made it a lot easier for me. I didn't have to shoot as many shots, and I still scored about the same amount of points."
Kinney's profile took another leap last summer through his play with the Illinois Stars AAU club. One of his Stars teammates, fellow junior D.J. Richardson of Peoria Central, committed to Illinois last month. Kinney, too, is attracting interest from college recruiters.
He's taken unofficial visits to Iowa and Xavier and has similar trips planned to Southern Illinois and Illinois State. Illinois, Indiana, George Mason and Loyola are among other schools staying in contact.
Lavin has been fielding plenty of calls, too, about his prized guard.
"If he makes the improvements he did from freshman to sophomore year, I think they'll keep coming," the Charger coach said. "And probably more."
Tidwell can see why.
"His ability to hit the spot-up three, especially at that young an age, is going to bode well for him as far as playing at the next level. His penetration game is outstanding, and he just makes it hard to guard him when he has the ability to throw down that three."
Not that Kinney isn't a work in progress in some areas. He attempted 69 free throws last season, a modest total for someone with his playing minutes, and sank as many three-pointers as free throws.
"I settled for a lot of jump shots last year," he said. "I didn't attack the basket as much. So that's one thing I want to do more this year is go to the rim and try to get more free throws."
Lavin also continues to work with Kinney on moving without the ball and decision-making with it.
"Sometimes last year he tried to jam the ball into situations that weren't there," the Charger coach said. "He's making better decisions so far."
Given the defensive pressure he's likely to face, Kinney figures to be forced into making plenty of decisions with the ball. If his teammates respond as Lavin hopes, they'll make opponents pay for their focus on the Centennial sharpshooter.
"As the year goes on, hopefully some other guys will step up and take a little bit of the pressure off James," Lavin said.