GW Basketball Royalty? James Bishop’s Journey and Legacy

Photo credit: GW Athletics

By Liam O’Murchu (@Liam_0__)

If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you may not be able to recognize one of the greatest basketball players in GW history walking around the streets of Foggy Bottom. By all accounts, James Bishop IV is a normal 24 year old student at George Washington University. He studies Sociology, watches anime, hangs out with his girlfriend, and crochets in his free time.

He’s also one of three players in GW men’s basketball history to score over 2,000 career points, the first GW player in 23 years to lead the league in scoring, and the first since 2006 to be named to the All-Conference First Team. But despite all the accolades, none of the GW teams he’s been on have been to the NCAA Tournament or gotten particularly close. None of them have even had a winning record. This begs the question of how to evaluate the legacy of a basketball player who’s demonstrated he’s incredibly skilled but has never been able to lead his team to meaningful success.

But before any of those accolades and talk about legacies, he was just a 6-year old running up and down the courts of a recreational basketball league in West Baltimore. That was where Bishop developed a passion for basketball, a game he grew to love the more he played it. Around the age of nine, he caught the eye of Jarvis Thomas, who ran a travel basketball (or AAU) program in nearby Catonsville, Maryland. Once he burst onto the AAU scene and realized he was one of the best players on the floor, he never looked back.

“When I went from playing rec league to travel basketball, I did really well the first couple games against better competition.” Bishop said. “So I was just like ‘oh wow, I’m actually pretty good at this.’”

The more time he spent playing basketball, the more he realized he could turn it into something bigger than just a hobby. Bishop credits much of his success to his older brother, Jevaun, who he spent countless hours learning the craft of basketball from in his childhood through intense training sessions. That relationship has continued to this day, and Javon drives down from Baltimore for every practice and every game that his younger brother plays in.

“It’s a way that they’ve bonded throughout their lives.” GW head coach Chris Caputo said. “In a lot of ways it’s a family story. They’ve just put so many hours in together.”

As Bishop grew older it became clear that he was a highly sought after prospect, even as a middle schooler. He needed to decide where to attend high school and one school quickly became a frontrunner: Mount Saint Joseph. He’d grown up attending MSJ camps and knew of many other talented basketball players who’d gone there such as current Indiana Pacer Jalen Smith and 2022 NBL MVP Jalen Adams. But most importantly, he developed a strong relationship with basketball coach Pat Clatchy, who pulled out all the stops for Bishop by sending him letters, calling him on the phone. As overwhelming as this may sound for a 14-year old, Bishop wasn’t fazed and knew that the attention meant he was on a path to success.

“It felt good!” Bishop said with a smile. “It let me know that I was doing something right and that my hard work was paying off.”

Once he got to MSJ, he cemented his legacy as one of the best players to ever put on the uniform, scoring over 2,100 points and winning more games than any other player (126) in program history. He helped his team win the Baltimore Catholic League his freshman and sophomore years before being named First-team All-Metro his junior and senior years and Baltimore Catholic Player of the Year his senior season.

Teenage, short-hair Bishop

As much as Bishop enjoyed his time at the Catholic school, there was one downside: he was required to keep his hair short because of a rule they had. So just as any teenager would do, he made a pact with himself that once he left high school he wouldn’t cut his hair. Five years later, he’s stuck to his word, which explains the signature shoulder-length braids that he now sports.

Just as he’d done four years before, Bishop needed to decide where to take his basketball talents. Ranked as the second-best player in Maryland in his recruiting class, there was no shortage of options. Before making his decision, he had 16 scholarship offers, but the three schools he was considering the most were VCU, St. John’s, and LSU. Ultimately, Bishop decided on LSU because he “felt like at the time it was a good fit with the playing style and different things like that.”

But his freshman year did not go to plan and he played in 16 of 31 possible games, averaging only 8.6 minutes per game. To make matters worse, then-LSU head coach Will Wade was embroiled in a scandal involving paying recruits to play for him (something that is effectively legal nowadays following a 2021 Supreme Court decision). Then right as Bishop and his teammates were preparing to play in March Madness, their season was shut down due to the outbreak of COVID-19.

“As a young freshman, I definitely wanted to get experience being at the tournament, getting that feel.” Bishop said. “So that was a little disappointing, but that’s how it goes.”

Despite the abrupt end to the season, Bishop had his sights set on moving to a different school that would give him more of an opportunity to showcase his talents. Soon after his season ended, he entered the transfer portal. The moment he entered the portal, he had his sights set on schools closer to home and only spoke with the coaching staffs at two schools: GW and VCU.

Then-GW head coach Jamion Christian promised Bishop the opportunity to showcase his skills in game action from day one, something that stood out to him. Despite not visiting in person and only having a Zoom call with the coaching staff, Bishop felt like Foggy Bottom was the place for him and committed within two days of entering the portal.

Not knowing exactly what he was getting himself into, he stepped on campus for the first time in August 2020. Few other students were permitted on campus and COVID restrictions meant he wasn’t allowed to interact with them even if he wanted to. Fortunately, Bishop didn’t mind keeping to himself and focusing on basketball, something he’s tried to do in the subsequent four years.

What he may not have realized were the ramifications of going to school five blocks away from the White House during one of the most tumultuous presidential elections in recent US history. As much as he was able to tune the noise out that came with being in the middle of DC at that time, that became impossible when GW’s game scheduled for 6 PM on January 6, 2021 was canceled due to the failed insurrection and their game on January 17 was moved to George Mason in Fairfax, Virginia due to heightened security measures in DC leading up to Joe Biden’s inauguration. This was followed by numerous COVID outbreaks which prevented the team from playing for over a month, including a GW player getting a very serious case of the disease.

“It was kind of crazy.” Bishop said. “But it was kind of regular because I hadn’t been at GW before. So that was my only impression of GW at the time. So I didn’t really think too much of it.”

Whether it was distracting or not, Bishop didn’t let the peculiar circumstances negatively affect his play, averaging 19.1 points in 36.1 minutes per game while making 42.7% of the shots he attempted in his first season in DC, a sharp increase from his numbers at LSU. An exception to this strong play was the final play in an 85-84 OT loss to William & Mary in which he badly airballed a potential game winning three pointer, drawing attention to himself from across the college basketball world for all the wrong reasons.

Heading into his junior year (and second in DC), the team brought in multiple players to improve upon their 5-12 record the year before to complement Bishop. Despite the addition of two players that would end the season with All-A10 honors (Brayon Freeman and Joe Bamisile), Bishop remained at the top of the opposing team’s scouting report. Although his statistics dipped, he finished second in the conference in scoring for the second year in a row but drew criticism for his shot selection and defense at times.

Photo credit: GW Athletics

By this point, Bishop’s style of basketball was evident. He needed the ball in his hands to make plays. According to KenPom, a college basketball analytics website, Bishop took 30.9% of his team’s shots during conference play in 2021-22, the second most in the Atlantic 10. The juxtaposition between his aggressiveness on the court and his passiveness off it is striking. When I asked what the biggest differences between LSU and GW were, he couldn’t cite many differences beyond being in a city and being closer to home because “I don’t really do too much. I’m just kind of in the house.” As someone who likes to keep to himself outside of basketball, being the face of the team wasn’t the most natural position to be in and although at first it was weird for strangers to come up to him on the street and say hello, he told me he’s come to appreciate it because he knows they are just “showing love.”

After another disappointing year for the team as a whole, the coach that brought Bishop to DC was fired. As many of his teammates entered the transfer portal, Bishop stayed patient instead of taking the first opportunity to jump ship at the request of Lamont Franklin, the lone coach from the old staff who wasn’t let go. Once new head coach Chris Caputo was hired, Bishop met with him and felt like he had a good vision for the future of the program which included the ways he’d be involved on the floor and areas he could improve in.

“He’d been there and done that in terms of the portal.” Caputo said. “He liked being in the area and in a very James-like fashion he was very low maintenance throughout the process and decided to stay.”

In the first year under a new head coach, he improved offensively in virtually every category, leading the league in scoring with 21.6 points per game and notching 5.2 assists per game while playing 92.6% of possible minutes, the fifth most in the country. He was rewarded with a spot on the All-Atlantic 10 First Team but the team once again failed to win a game in the conference tournament.

After four years in college, he had the opportunity to go pro. He would not have been drafted into the NBA, but he certainly would have had teams in Europe looking to sign him because of his proven scoring ability. After consulting with coaches, professional scouts, and (most importantly) his brother, he decided to return for a fifth year of college basketball, something he could do because of the extra year of eligibility granted to every winter sport athlete who played in the 2021-22 season because of the disruptions to the season caused by COVID.

Photo credit: GW Athletics

He returned with the intention of doing something he’d done a lot of in high school but very little of in college: winning. But with two games remaining in the regular season, that has not panned out. After a promising 14-3 start to the season (which included Bishop avenging his failed buzzer beater by hitting a last second shot at VCU), GW has lost 12 straight games and look like they may not win another one before Bishop’s time in Buff & Blue runs out. There are many reasons for the collapse, whether it’s the youth surrounding Bishop or injuries that have plagued the team, not to mention the defense (or lack thereof). But despite a year that will likely garner a spot on an All-A10 team, some put the blame on another lackluster season on Bishop, a leader on the team.

“I feel partially responsible for it.” Caputo said. “It’s been challenging and some of the injury problems have made it even more challenging. For that I feel bad for James and I hope we can get some positive momentum to end the season so we can get this thing rolling and look back at James as the guy who was the beginning of this.”

But Bishop is unbothered by the legacy talk and how people are supposed to evaluate the best player on a bad team. 

“That’s up to them.” Bishop said in his typical laid back fashion. “It’s basketball at a competitive level. All I can do is just go out there and try my best.”

Tonight, Bishop will play his final game at the Charles E. Smith Center before inevitably embarking on a professional career after graduation. Even if fans can’t agree on what Bishop has meant to the program, Bishop has made up his mind on what GW has meant to him.

“GW is always gonna be close to my heart. I enjoyed my time here but it had to end someday.”

One response

  1. Stephen Watsky Avatar
    Stephen Watsky

    Wonderful writeup. Thank you

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *