Favorite athlete: Jimmy Butler
Favorite team: 76ers
Favorite memory competing in sports: Playing at Temple University
Most embarrassing/funniest thing that has happened while competing in sports: Playing at Temple and smelling all the fries and one of our coaches was eating fries as we where playing
Music on playlist: Lil Baby
Future plans: Play overseas and become a firefighter
Words to live by: “Don’t tell people your dreams, show them.”
One goal before turning 30: Work hard to play at the professional level
One thing people don’t know about me: I play a lot of 2K, and I’m really funny when someone talks to me.
By Mary Jane Souder
James Ashford is a gifted and dynamic basketball player.
The Bensalem senior gave glimpses of a promising future well before he stepped onto the hardwood as a freshman.
“Coming into ninth grade, we were very excited because he was a really good middle school player,” Bensalem basketball coach Ron Morris said. “We have to worry about other schools coming in and looking at them and all that stuff in today’s day and age of high school basketball, so we were really thrilled when he did come to the high school.”
That’s not to say the question of attending another school didn’t arise. It’s inevitable for an athlete as talented as Ashford.
“There was a time I was thinking of going to (Archbishop) Ryan,” he said. “Me and my dad were like, ‘No, no, we’re not going to Ryan. We’re going to stay at Bensalem and I’m going to make my mark.’”
And make his mark Ashford has.
The senior standout is averaging 23 points a game, and he’s doing it with a wide variety of shots. He also averages seven rebounds and 1.3 assists and gets the job done at both ends of the court.
“He’s been amazing,” Morris said. “He has a really high motor - he has the motor of a kid that can separate themselves.
“He can catch a rebound and beat guys down the floor that were 10 feet ahead of him. He has a high basketball IQ. His shot has improved and is only going to continue to improve, and I think he’s someone that’s going to flourish at the next level.”
Playing at the next level is the ultimate goal for Ashford, who is as impressive off the court as he is on it.
“He’s very high character, gets really good grades,” Morris said. “Everybody in the building – all the teachers, the administration – they love him. The principal actually picked James and (teammate) Aaron Sanders to be on the leadership team that the principal formed. It’s 10 kids in the building, and he’s one of them.”
Morris is the advisor of Bensalem’s Blue Crew, a culture club that builds school spirit. Ashford is an active member of the club.
“He’s also in another club that I run called Building Bridges, a mentor club where the high school kids go down to the middle school and talk to the kids about different topics,” the Owls’ coach said.
It’s easy to understand why Ashford is on the wish list of numerous Division 3 schools, and listening to his coach tell it, he would be a steal at that level. The Bensalem senior, who has a 3.40 GPA, is keeping his options open.
“Right now I’m focusing on playing at the next level at any school,” Ashford said. “Since COVID had a big hit, it’s kind hard with the recruiting and all that stuff.”
Sports have been part of Ashford’s life for as long as he can remember. He began playing soccer, baseball and basketball when he was three.
“I liked soccer a lot – soccer was my number one,” he said. “I enjoyed playing soccer, and that went all the way up until I turned 13. Then I started to aggressively get into basketball.”
Ashford went through the ranks and most recently played for East Coast Cyclone on the AAU circuit. He comes by his love of the sport honestly.
“My mom went Division 1,” he said of his mother, Tammi Ashford, who played at Delaware State. “My dad (James Ashford III) also played basketball.”
Ashford acknowledged that while he’s never taken on his mother one-on-one, he has played her in games of HORSE.
“She always beat me,” he said with a laugh. “Right now, I don’t think she could beat me, but back then she always beat me.”
As a freshman, Ashford played mainly jayvee but travelled with the varsity on its postseason run the resulted in a berth in the state tournament.
“We saw his talent early on,” Morris said. “Even more than that, he was just an awesome kid, very humble, and his work ethic – we could see from the beginning he was top notch. He just was a sponge, just liked to work and listen. We were excited.”
Ashford found himself on the court in the closing moments of the Owls’ season-ending loss in the state tournament to a powerhouse Reading High School squad.
“When I first got on the court, I had a lot of nerves because it was my first time in a state game,” Ashford said. “I was going through a lot of emotions.”
The following year Ashford was penciled in to play a key role on the varsity, but he struggled with a nagging groin injury. He gave glimpses of his immense potential in his first game, scoring 14 points in the opening half.
“I was done the second half, and I was out for almost my whole sophomore year,” Ashford said. “After I pulled my groin, everything went upside down, my emotions – I couldn’t look at basketball no more.”
Ashford returned to the lineup for Bensalem’s non-league game against North Penn. Morris remembers it well.
“We won in the last couple of seconds (72-71), and he was just a difference maker even in 10th grade,” the Owls coach said. “He ended up playing four or five games, and he was high energy, always a good rebounder.
Ashford’s return to the lineup was short-lived- he re-injured his groin and was once again sidelined.
“I felt bad for him because I knew how much he wanted to play,” Morris said. “Going into the offseason between sophomore and junior year, he just got better and better. He’s a really hard worker.”
“In the offseason, I kept pushing myself to become way better for my junior year,” Ashford said.
He reaped the benefits for his hard work and played a key role in the Owls’ run to the SOL National Conference title.
“He has broad shoulders,” Morris said. “He’s really strong, he’s very athletic, he can jump real high to get a rebound, not just dunking. I think he’s only going to continue to get better. We’re really pleased that he has grown as a player and as a person.”
This season, Ashford along with Sanders have carried the bulk of the scoring load for an Owls’ squad that graduated key players from last year’s title squad.
“I try to guide the young players on the court,” Ashford said. “We have joking moments during practice, but once we’re on the court, we get business done, and we’ve got to stay strong and have a great mindset. If we have a great mindset, we’ll come together as a team and we’ll win.”
A leader by example, the senior captain spoke to the team after the Owls’ recent loss to Council Rock North that saw Ashford and Sanders score all their team’s points in the first three quarters.
“I asked the team – ‘Anyone have anything to say?’” Morris said. “He actually stood up and talked to the team, which I think showed growth on his behalf as a vocal leader. He’s very positive, and he’s always a leader by example.”
Ashford says he knew it was time to speak up.
“I was telling them I know we’re young, but we have to be more aggressive, and other players have to step up,” he said. “I was trying to tell them – if you’re not aggressive on the court, we’re not going to win games because me and Aaron are going to need help.”
Ashford’s long-term plans include becoming a firefighter. It’s a career choice that had its roots when he was a youngster and was inspired by his uncle Terrence – a fire captain in Trenton.
“When I was growing up, I always watched Firehouse Sam,” Ashford said of an animated television series about a fireman named Sam. “My uncle was a firefighter, and I would go to the firehouse. I was always interested in hearing the sirens, helping people and putting that whole suit on.”
For now, Ashford is looking for the Owls to finish the season strong with his sights on a future that includes college basketball, pro basketball overseas and, eventually, firefighters academy.
“Division 3 schools are all over him – I think he’s a higher level,” Morris said. “However, I told him – ‘God has a plan. You have to think of what’s best for you.’”
Ashford has not given up on his dream of playing basketball at a high level.
“I believe in God a lot, and God has a plan for me,” he said. “I think something’s going to come up for me.”
So does his coach, who believes Ashford has all the tools.
“And he’s just an all-around great kid, Morris said.