Las Vegas Punishers program director James Feltus still remembers Wyoming senior point guard AJ Banks as an awkward, lanky eighth grader. A scrawny kid with glasses, who didn’t look much like a basketball player at any level — much less a two-year starter at the Division I level.
“He didn’t look like no ballplayer,” Feltus playfully emphasized. “He looked real goofy to me, too.”
Banks, a 6-foot-2-inch point guard, returned to his hometown to play in the MGM Resorts Main Event at T-Mobile Arena, and started for the Cowboys on Sunday in a 56-41 loss to No. 23 Colorado. The Cheyenne High School graduate logged modest totals of one rebound and two assists, but cherished the chance to compete in front of family, friends and Feltus, for whom he played three years of club basketball.
“Coming back home is always special,” Banks said. “This being my senior year, it heightens that a little bit.”
Banks fondly remembers his upbringing in Las Vegas, and jokingly agreed with Feltus’ assessment of his eighth-grade appearance. He, too, says he was small, awkward and weird during that particular time.
But he was always a basketball player with collegiate aspirations.
Banks played for the Punishers and Desert Shields, averaging 11.4 points during his senior year of 2015-16. He wasn’t recruited by any Division I schools and committed to Pratt (Kansas) Community College, knowing only he wanted to continue playing at any level.
“Everything I’ve been about has always been hoop,” Banks said, noting he wasn’t fixated on playing Division I. “Once I was in junior college … seeing myself grow and adding some athleticism, I knew I wanted to keep pursuing it. I wanted to just keep getting better and better.”
Banks averaged 6.9 points and 2.3 assists as a freshman, and 11.2 points and 3.3 assists as a sophomore. He wasn’t recruited by four-year universities, though, until starring at a showcase event after his sophomore season.
Wyoming coach Allen Edwards attended the event, seeking a mature, experienced guard.
“It was a (junior college) event, and sometimes that could be a little chaotic,” Edwards said. “I thought he was still trying to play the right way. … When I saw him, I loved his speed, I loved his athleticism, and he actually shoots the ball better than he even gives himself credit for.”
Banks bypassed opportunities to play at Florida International, Stetson and Pacific in favor of Wyoming, where he started 18 games during his junior season of 2018-19. He has started four of Wyoming’s seven games this season, and his coach says he’s improved as an on-ball defender and floor general.
He says he’s most proud of his defensive capabilities, and hopes he continues to improve his scoring profile. That awkward stage is far, far behind him. Gone, but certainly not forgotten.
“It wasn’t always this way, so up through this point, I’m grateful for everything that I’ve done and everything that I’ve accomplished,” he said. “Even when I was a small, awkward, weird kid, it’s always been hoop. … (And) I get to hoop every day.”