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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – LeBron James’ final NBA wish has already been spoken aloud. In 2017, he told GQ magazine he wanted to play in the NBA with his son, LeBron James Jr.
The senior James told GQ he’d “love to stick around” for the chance to play against Bronny, calling it “the icing on the cake” for his career.
Bronny will turn 15 in October, just ahead of his first season of high school basketball at Sierra Canyon in the Los Angeles area. As highlights of Bronny doing things as benign as dunking in warmups go viral, the first seeds of LeBron’s dream becoming a reality have been planted. (LeBron is 34 and the earliest he could play with Bronny is the 2023-24 NBA season.)
As we brace for four years of Bronny high school hype – with LeBron already fanning the flames – one simple question is being asked, from NBA front offices to college recruiters to the grassroots scene: How good of a player is Bronny?
That simple question comes with a flurry of complex answers. Opinions gathered from respected voices in the recruiting, grassroots and college game offered an array of perspectives. The essence of their answers was that Bronny is a talented prospect with much to improve upon before coronating him a sure-fire NBA prospect.
“I haven’t closely evaluated him yet,” said Rivals.com recruiting analyst Corey Evans, who will begin looking hard at the entire Class of 2023 this year. “But from a quick glance, he’s made significant progressions over the last year in terms of skill set, improving as an athlete and getting bigger, taller and stronger. You hate to project four or five years in advance, but right now everything adds up to him definitely being an NBA prospect.”
When LeBron was Bronny’s age, his NBA potential was much more obvious. But LeBron James is a generational freak, and comparisons to him would be like comparing a junior high pianist to Chopin.
LeBron James Jr. didn’t play at the USA Basketball Men’s Junior National Mini Camp in Colorado Springs this weekend. He was discussed as an invite, but Bronny chose instead to play with his grassroots team in Las Vegas. The venue he selected did offer a forum to get a much-too-early evaluation of Bronny from all levels of the game.
Those optimistic about Bronny’s future attach their analysis to his physical tools, advanced floor game and the potential for elite genetics to catapult him into a higher echelon. He’s already 6-foot-2 with long arms and a frame that hints at more growth. He’s described as a top 25-type prospect in his current class who has yet to show consistent alpha traits. (Top 25 would be general, as it’s too early for quality rankings to be put together for incoming freshmen.)
Those more cautious about evaluating his game say he should be considered only a top 50 prospect in his current class. They say if his name was Bronny Smith and he lived in Joplin, Missouri, he wouldn’t be on anyone’s radar.
Mike Jones is the head coach at Washington, D.C.-area power DeMatha Catholic and the head coach of the USA Basketball Under 16/17 Junior National Team. He cautions he’s only seen Bronny on film, which he began watching after USA Basketball assistant director Samson Kayode told him he may end up coaching James Jr. at some point in the next few years.
Jones offered this pragmatic assessment of Bronny, highlighting a trait mentioned by nearly everyone: “[Bronny] has the ability to play the game [well], in terms of passing the ball and playing with other good teammates. A lot of kids his age struggle with that. They’re so good that they need to have the ball in their hands. He’s been able to develop, kind of like his father, being able to play with other really good players. That’s a skill that I think is underappreciated.”
There’s been a distinct uptick in LeBron James Jr.’s athleticism the past few months, a hint that his game could keep developing. Skyy Clark, one of Bronny’s grassroots teammates with the Strive For Greatness (Under 15), pointed out Bronny could barely dunk at the start of the Nike EYBL season in late April. That ability escalated quickly. “Now he’s over here wind-milling, 360-ing and cradling,” Clark said. “That’s in three or four months.”
What’s certain about Bronny’s immediate future is that it will be accompanied with relentless fanfare. On Saturday night, a highlight of Bronny dunking before a grassroots game in Las Vegas appeared on ESPN. It was accompanied by a highlight of his father dunking in the pregame warmup line.
LeBron James is calculated and self-aware enough to know that drawing attention to himself on the sideline of games – as he did in April – and joining pregame warmups is only going to perpetuate the expectations of his son. At this point, James has no grounds to complain about his son being overhyped because he’s jump-started the hype machine.
Clark has felt the tailwinds of fame from being Bronny’s grassroots teammate. He said he went from 27,000 Instagram followers to 144,000 in about three months. (Bronny already has 2.9 million followers, which means he’s only about 1.1 million behind Zion Williamson.)
Clark praised LeBron for giving pep talks to the Strive For Greatness grassroots team. “We have a little group chat on Instagram, he’s always texting us,” said Clark, a top point guard in the 2022 class. “He doesn’t act super Hollywood. He bonds with us.”
Bronny will start his high school career on a so-called Super Team at Sierra Canyon with Zaire Wade, the son of Dwyane Wade. There’s also a pair of top-10 transfers, B.J. Boston and Ziaire Williams, who have announced their intentions to join the team.
For Bronny, playing along with such a loaded roster should aid his development. “The [talent] they have around him. player-wise, he’s not going to have to do that much,” said an industry source tied to the grassroots scene. “This year he can be solid, next year he can be better and his junior year, you’ll be like, ‘This kid is really good.’”
His career will come with an intense microscope, but that’s something he’s accustomed to. Thanks to his dad, he’s never known a life without security details and selfie requests.
There’s not a lot of optimism in the college basketball scene that Bronny will ever play college basketball. While James has a strong relationship with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, he’s also shown a disdain for the NCAA. He produced an HBO documentary in 2018 called “Student Athlete” that blasts the NCAA and collegiate athletic system. In the wake of the Department of Justice investigation into the basketball underworld, James called the NCAA “corrupt.”
James also poked fun at Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim for criticizing former Orange commitment Darius Bazley for skipping college to prepare for the NBA draft.
For many college coaches, scouting Bronny appears to be futile. “For us, why would we waste our time recruiting him?” asked a high major assistant coach. “It’s going to be a circus.”
The Bronny circus is coming to high school basketball. No matter how loud the din and how many Instagram highlights it produces, the reality is that Bronny has a lot of developing to do before his dad’s dream becomes a reality.
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