Freshmen Stars Are Constructing James Madison From The Ground Up

Justin Amadi / James Madison

James Madison’s brand-new home, Atlantic Union Bank Center, might well have already needed a new roof if fans had been allowed in on Jan. 5. 

Justin Amadi took an entry pass along the baseline from Julien Wooden, elevated, and flushed a right-handed dunk on the help-side defender. 



It’s not the best dunk of Amadi’s basketball career; he ranks it No. 2 behind a high-school throwdown in which Amadi described as so forceful, it sent both the defender and him to the floor. 

As it stands, though, it might be the most oooooh-inspiring posterization of the 2020-21 college basketball season. Dukes faithful could not be in the arena to cheer it on, but the team celebrated with plenty of head taps. 

“It was a ‘finally’ moment, because in practice he’ll try everybody,” said teammate Terell Strickland. “He’ll try to dunk on people in practice all the time...It was only a matter of time ‘til somebody tried to catch him lacking, and he got him.” 

Only a matter of time, indeed. Amadi’s game is built for such plays, from the aggressive mentality when he approaches the rim, to his strength and leaping, and his proficiency in the pick-and-roll game. 

Not every play results in such a rewatchable dunk, but Amadi knows how to create opportunities. In James Madison’s CAA-opening win over Towson on Jan. 16, the forward made himself a frequent target for teammate Matt Lewis. 

“Justin does a great job of screening, and a lot of times, he’s getting Matt open,” Dukes head coach James Byington said. “The way separates on ball screens is as good as anybody I’ve ever coached. He really can separate on ball screens and create distance.” 

The dunk served as the crown jewel of a 7-of-7 shooting performance for Amadi against FAU, which was his third game with a perfect field-goal percentage on the season. At 74.1 percent for the campaign, Amadi is tops in the nation. 

He’s also not the only Dukes freshman to have a national-best statistic in 2020-21. 

Strickland — the son of longtime NBA standout Rod Strickland — debuted with 10 steals in a rout of Limestone the night before Thanksgiving. 



“I kept saying afterwards, ‘I’m in the books now, you can’t erase me,” Strickland laughed. “I’m there. You’re going to see me. It was a surreal moment.”

Surreal, but very much up to the standard of his dad’s time as an All-American at DePaul and in a 17-year NBA career. Terell said Rod would not play him or brother Tai, currently at Temple, one-on-one — too intense. The competitive juices might have caused too much strife. 

But with those 10 steals and eight assists, Terell began his tenure in a part of the country where Rod staked his reputation at Oak Hill Academy and with the Washington Wizards by beginning to carve out his own name. 

“It set a crazy bar,” Strickland said. “People thought a lot of me from that point. And, the next game I had zero steals but it wasn’t even because of me. Teams are afraid now, and I like that. I don’t have to steal, but I know y’all aren’t coming at me. Y’all are going to pick on me, you know what I’m capable of.” 

Those who might still not know will have plenty of time to familiarize themselves. In James Madison’s first season at AUBC, under the tutelage of first-year head coach Byington, the freshmen Amadi and Strickland are fast establishing themselves as pillars for the future of Dukes’ basketball. 

“What really got me about JMU was that it was a new coaching staff,” Amadi said. “I didn’t really know the old coaching staff, I never had heard of JMU until the new coaching staff from Georgia Southern came.” 

Starting his time at James Madison off appropriately enough, Amadi took a leap. 

He committed to the Dukes after Byington’s hire, which happened to follow COVID-19 shutting down the world. The recruiting situation was perhaps less than ideal, but the opportunity to contribute to building from the bottom on up appealed to the 3-star prospect out of South Carolina. 

“It was the coaching staff, them telling it was going to be a whole new team and a couple returners,” Amadi added. “The campus, how they were getting a new arena, that just got me here.” 

“It’s really special,” Strickland said. “That’s why I came here. I love it, I love being part of changing the culture, being a part somebody who can determine how everything is going to be from this point on.” 

James Madison is charting a course for its future from the base: new coaches, new key players, and a new arena that — for now — has its roof intact. That might change when a crowd is there to witness Justin Amadi’s next highlight dunk, though.


Kyle Kensing is a freelance sports journalist in southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.

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