But they always knew James had the potential to be a star. That star shined bright Friday night.
In a career-shaping performance, James poured in 28 points, eight steals and seven rebounds to lead the Cougars to a 10-point victory over the visiting Hug Hawks. A loss in that game would have all but eliminated the SSHS cagers from the postseason discussions.
For coach Christine Eckles, it was a great sign to see James take over a game and dominate, especially in the final quarter when James had 10 of the team's 13 points. James went toe-to-toe with the Hawks, outscoring them 8-6 in the last 3:50 of the game to thwart any potential comebacks.
"We know what Ari is capable of doing night in and night out, but getting Ari to believe it is different. It was just nice. I just let her keep playing. I didn't know she had 28 points until the game was over," Eckles said. "I just thought she was playing the way she is capable of playing. I think it's great for Ari because she's the type of kid who works hard everyday in practice. She's become a much more vocal leader this year.
"More than anything, I would love for Ari to end her four-year career with us in that fashion. There's nothing I'd like better for her than for her to realize the only thing that's been holding her back is herself."
Even watching film of Friday night's game shocked James. She had no idea how well she was performing at the time and the film put it in perspective.
"I actually watched the film today and I was a like 'what, I did that?' I was just pumped," James said.
James has always been a solid player for the Cougars. In her freshman year, she was an all-league honorable mention selection after scoring eight points a game and leading the team in rebounds with seven per outing.
A year later, she moved up to second team all-league, slightly increasing her scoring to nine points a game, while still pulling down seven boards.
Last season was the first time James had to be the go-to player though. With the reigning High Desert League Player of the Year (Jordan Rogers) shelved due to a knee injury, James had to step up and she responded. As a junior, James led the team in scoring (11 ppg), field-goal percentage (49.4) and steals (3.25) and was second on the team in rebounds and assists. Her rebounds took a little bit of a dip, but that was partially due to playing more guard than in the past.
James' ability to do pretty much anything on the court makes her an incredibly valuable asset to the Purple and Teal and makes her a rarity in the HDL.
"I think (Reed's) Danielle Peacon does all the same things at times because she'll help break the press for them," Eckles said. "I think the pressure on Ari is a lot more just because of what we demand of her everyday. She handles it well, and she's definitely got to be one of the best players in Northern Nevada. She's earned that by what she does everyday.
"She played for (Reed coach) Sara (Schopper) this summer with Jam On It and Sara was very complimentary of her. When you don't see a kid practice everyday, you don't realize how talented and athletic they are. She got to see that from Ari this summer. That was a nice compliment."
Now, whether or not that asset will carry Spanish Springs to a postseason appearance for the third straight year remains to be seen. Currently, the Cougars are sitting on the outside of the playoff picture looking in with a 3-5 league record.
However, James' career-high in points against the Hawks in a game the Cougars had to win could be a good sign for the stretch run.
"I really want to make the playoffs with it being my senior year. I'm just real determined right now," James said. "It would be so awesome making it again, especially knowing we dug ourselves a hole. To still get there, that would make it even better."
At only 5-foot-10, her height might limit her options at the next level, although she's been able to make up for her lack of height with just pure strength.
Eckles believes James could be a "diamond in the rough" type player for smaller Division-I schools. It would just take more work on her outside game. Or she could play Division-II and be an immediate impact player.
However, Eckles said a lot of it depends on James, who has high academic standards for herself as well and admits she's still waiting for the "right school" for her.
Even if her future basketball path is still unclear, she can always look back at her illustrious high school career and be proud. James will be at the top of school's career rebounding list for years to come and she might also be able to catch Kyle Molino for the career scoring record. James is first on the all-time steals list and second on the all-time assists list, and no other player has won more games in a Cougars uniform than James.
She even got to experience something her first year that most players don't.
"This would probably be the hardest year because we lost two players," she said. "I'm still confident in the team that we have. Freshman was my best year because I got to play with my sister, so high school started off great. With coach, she just continues to find a way for us to win and be successful."