Kenny Wood was an impact basketball player not all that long ago, the type of player who simply made things happen when he was on the court. A 6-foot-6 forward, Wood played four seasons (1989-93) at the University of Richmond (Va.) and when he graduated he ranked among the Spiders’ top-10 all-time in scoring and rebounding; he was inducted into Richmond’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 2011.
Kenny Wood’s only son, James Wood, was also a standout basketball player in his youth or, more specifically, up until his junior year (2019) at St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C.
Playing at an athletic 6-foot-6, 230 pounds, James was a very good hoopster playing at a nationally prominent prep program, but his heart and mind were tugging him in a different direction. James Wood decided to apply his efforts toward becoming the best baseball player he could possibly be.
And so, at the semester break of the 2019-20 school year, the family made a well thought-out decision that allowed James to transfer to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. James felt like the IMG experience would expedite his development on the ballfield and his parents, Kenny and Paula Wood, agreed to help their son follow his heart.
“Baseball has always been his favorite; he’s always loved it,” Paula told PG during a telephone conversation last weekend, speaking from the family home in Olney, Md. “Kenny actually played in high school but he loved basketball. James is the opposite – he played basketball but loved baseball.”
And to this point in his still blossoming career, baseball is loving the 18-year-old, left-handed hitting outfielder and Mississippi State signee right back. He’ll go into his senior season at IMG as the No. 8-ranked overall prospect (No. 3 OF) in the class of 2021 and his strong performances at Perfect Game events this summer – including the PG National Showcase in mid-June, WWBA tournaments in July and the PG All-American Classic in early September – has him projected as an early round pick in the 2021 MLB Amateur Draft.
“I’m happy with it, but I think it never really stops,” James Wood, speaking to PG from the IMG campus in Florida, said when asked if he’s been pleased with his development and progression to this point in his young career. “As soon as you think you’re done developing or done getting better that’s when people start to pass you up.
“I don’t really get too caught-up in the rankings. I just keep thinking about how I can get better, how I can keep improving.”
From the outside looking in, Kenny Wood told PG while speaking alongside Paula during the same telephone conversation, it may appear that James’ ascension up the prospect rankings and on draft boards has just been steady as she goes. But he knows first-hand how hard his son has worked to reach this level of respect.
“He has a really good attitude and it’s been a fun ride,” Kenny said. “The summer was fun just seeing him come out … and put weight on; he got a lot stronger. He physically changed his body and got faster and you could see with a lot of hard work and repetition where it was able to take him.”
The IMG Ascenders were able to get 10 games in before the remainder of their 2020 spring season was cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic, and four of those games were played at the PG High School Showdown in Hoover, Ala, the first week in March. Wood was named to the all-tournament team after helping IMG to a 3-1 record and a runner-up finish in the Red Bracket playoffs.
Wood made a return trip to Hoover more than three months later for what would be the most important event of his PG career. He had been invited to the National Showcase where he was on the field at Hoover Met Stadium with nearly 300 other top prospects from the 2021 class, and his showing there earned him an invitation to the PG All-American Classic in Oklahoma City later in the summer.
At the National, Wood ran a PG career-best 6.70-second 60 (1.68 10-yard split) and threw 92 mph from the outfield. His scouting report from the event noted his “long-limbed athletic build”, his “very easy and loose swing with outstanding extension” that “creates easy leverage at contact”. Two other words kind of summed up the report in its entirety: “Huge potential.”
Following the PG National this summer, Wood was invited to join Andy Partin’s Dirtbags program and he was named all-tournament while playing with the Dirtbags Skrap Pak at both the PG 17u National Elite Championship and at the Ultimate Baseball Championship Powered by Perfect Game & Baseball America.
“Playing with (the Dirtbags) was a lot of fun because they kept it competitive while also keeping it fun, which is hard to (find) both in travel ball,” James said. “I think a lot of teams either try to have too much fun and don’t take it serious at all, or just take it way too serious and take all the fun out of it. We found the perfect balance with the Dirtbags and it just led to a great summer.”
Kenny Wood agreed with his son: “This past year was really helpful. With COVID going on, we didn’t know what was going to happen and we were fortunate to play with the Dirtbags and some of the big events came through. … So the summer was good, especially not knowing if you were even going to be able to play games or not.”
PG scouts first started taking a hard look at James Wood when he was named to the all-tournament team at the 2017 WWBA 14u National Championship with the EvoShield Canes MD. He was all-tournament again at the 2017 WWBA Freshman World Championship playing with the Diamond Skills Dodgers.
Staying on with the Dodgers, Wood was twice named all-tournament in 2018, at the WWBA 16u National Championship and at the WWBA Underclass World Championship. He started turning his attention to the showcase circuit during the summer of 2019 and earned Top Prospect List recognition at both the PG Junior National Showcase in Hoover, Ala., in June and at the PG Underclass All-American Games in San Diego in August.
Paula said it is her understanding that Mississippi State first got interested in James after scouting him at the 2018 PG WWBA 16u National Championship in Emerson, Ga., the summer before his sophomore year in high school.
“For a kid that lives in Maryland and plays in Maryland up until recently, getting a chance to mark yourself against the best competition in the country, Perfect Game provided an opportunity that wouldn’t have been available,” she said. “That was sort of the beginning of him realizing that maybe SEC/ACC is within my reach. …
“Even with some of the metrics it kind of showed that this kid from up in Maryland can hang with the kids from down south.; I think it was important for him.”
By being at IMG and functioning in what is close to a “bubble” environment as you can get in a high school setting during this challenging school year, Wood feels like his living situation is about as close to normal as anyone can hope for during a worsening pandemic.
He’s attending classes in-person and the baseball team is practicing, but the students can’t go off-campus or visit anyone else’s rooms for socializing. Despite that, Wood feels like IMG has been a great fit that has helped with his development as a ballplayer.
“Just with the weight-lifting, the practices, the reps and just getting stronger really benefitted me throughout the whole summer circuit,” he said.
“Him getting down to IMG (last spring) was really good,” Kenny said. “He got really good coaching there and that kind of started the process last January. When he went down to IMG it really put him in a position where he was playing with other top players and he was seeing that he really belonged at this level.”
And there are a lot players on the Ascenders’ 2021 roster that James Wood has already gotten to know pretty well, including fellow 2020 PG All-Americans lefthander Mason Albright, outfielder Drew Gray and third baseman Tommy White.
While much of the acclaim Wood is receiving comes as a result of his impressive hit tool, he has also developed into the No. 3-ranked outfield prospect in the 2021 class. Because he’s so tall, there was an early assumption that he wouldn’t be able to move well enough to adequately patrol the outfield but his speed and agility immediately blew holes in that theory.
“It honestly goes in hand with me playing basketball,” James said. “That’s really helped me with my footwork and my reads and my speed and athleticism, which really helps me on defense.”
And so the story, quite naturally it seems, comes back around to basketball. James has two older sisters, Kayla and Sydney, and Kayla is a student manager on the Notre Dame women’s basketball team in the ACC and Sydney is a junior guard at Northwestern in the Big Ten. (Paula Wood was on the dance team at the U. of Richmond).
Kenny Wood, who played pro ball in Europe and South America after college, told PG that just about everyone he and James have talked to think it’s a huge advantage for young athletes to play multiple sports, especially for a 6-foot-6, 230 pounder like his son. James had the opportunity to spend some time with the Yankees’ Aaron Judge (6-7, 280) last year and with Judge being a three-sport athlete in high school, their conversation centered on that topic.
“Keeping up with your body and that rate of growth, I think it totally helps being able to play another sport.” Kenny said. “(James) actually excelled at basketball … and he learned how to use different muscles. He became more explosive with lateral quickness so I think it was really good (and) I do attribute a lot of his athleticism to playing basketball. He probably played more basketball than he did baseball the last six months that he was here (in Maryland).”
One of the interesting things is that his basketball prowess probably meant he wasn’t as much of a known commodity on the baseball field as early as the players that played the year around.
“So, his progress was a little bit more organic,” Paula said. “He never had a hitting coach or a pitching coach until he got to IMG. Our motto was to keep it as fun as we could for as long as we could and then basically trust the process from there on out. It helped that Kenny had been through it before and that we went through it with our daughter, as well.”
James Wood signed his national letter of intent with Mississippi State last week, joining a 2021 recruiting class that includes PG All-American left-hander Maddux Bruns (No. 60-ranked) and top-130 prospects in third baseman Aaron Downs, lefthander William “Pico” Kohn, and shortstop Jordan McCants.
“When me and my family went down there to see a game I think that’s when we knew that’s where I wanted to go,” James said.
The talk regarding the MLB Draft is out there but Wood isn’t listening to any of it at the moment. He’ll think about it from time to time but it isn’t a subject he’s had any lengthy discussions on with his parents or anyone else, for that matter. There are still a lot of questions surrounding the 2021 Draft and, Wood acknowledges, a lot of things can happen between now and then.
The family focus for now, Paula said, is on James first getting in and then finishing out his senior season at IMG this spring with the hope that he can enjoy the experience as much as possible. And having fun on the field has always been the driving force behind James Wood’s ambitions.
“It goes back to thinking about when you were a kid and all the fun you had looking back at it,” he said. “I couldn’t think of baseball the same if I wasn’t having that same exact fun playing right now.”
The fun promises to continue at a higher level once James graduates from IMG in the spring. Paula noted that she and Kenny spent a lot of time and energy helping James determine his college of choice just like they had done their daughters. The three of them made several trips to Starkville just to make sure everyone was comfortable with Mississippi State being the right fit.
“We know that there’s Draft talk but the focus for now is him continuing to develop, continue to work on his tools, get stronger and have fun,” Paula said. “And then at the end of this spring we’ll kind of see where we are.”
Getting to this point has been a blast. You can almost feel Kenny Wood smiling over the telephone when he talked about how much he and Paula enjoyed watching James interact with the other top prospects on PG’s biggest stages over the past several years.
James, Kenny explained, loosens his belt and is allowed to just be himself when he’s out on a baseball field. Kenny specifically recalled watching the Home Run Challenge during the PGAAC at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark in downtown Oklahoma City in September and marveling at how much fun the players were having.
“You come away getting to know a lot more kids at something like that and that’s a big plus,” he said.
Another big plus is enjoying the type of upbringing that James Wood continues to thrive in. When asked if there was anyone who has had the biggest impact on his baseball career to date, he answered “My parents” without the slightest hint of hesitation.
“As far as choosing what sport I wanted to (pursue) they were willing to let me just play what I wanted to play and what I had the most fun with,” James said. “My parents kept it really stress-free for me and made sure that I was having fun throughout my whole high school baseball career. …
“The way they’ve raised me and raised my two sisters, without them I don’t think I would be anywhere near where I am right now.”