LeBron James is learning to play in the paint

For many years, pundits and observers have claimed that LeBron James needed to develop a post game. It's a no-brainer for a player with his physical stature, let alone for a guy who's usually guarded by much smaller players. Plus, it just happens to be part of a skills progression that great perimeter players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant have undergone in the past. At some point, top-flight guards and small forwards go to the post. It's just how these things work.

For the most part, this expectation of James has been centered on adding a post game to his arsenal instead of having it become the defining characteristic of his style. However, as Brian Windhorst notes in a recent profile of LeBron's progression at ESPN.com, he's becoming more like a big man with every passing day:

On this day James is wearing out assistant coach David Fizdale, grunting as he meticulously drills his footwork around the rim. Over and over, paying close attention to balance and technique. Fitzdale starts to sweat as James continues, spinning on him and pump faking him. He's a former collegiate point guard and clearly overmatched though that is not the point, the point is to act as the punching bag. [...]

A few minutes later, James is joined by teammates Chris Bosh, Mickell Gladness and Dexter Pittman. These are, essentially, the Heat's centers. At the other end of the floor the team's guards are shooting those 3-pointers. James is no longer a part of that group. Now he's stepping in and trying to show Pittman how to execute the drop steps and spin moves.

Pittman has been a center all his basketball life but it is James, the recently reformed 3-point shooter, is now trying to do some coaching on the matter. For this, Dwyane Wade joins in, feeding Pittman the ball and giving his own instructions. It is the only time all day Wade steps on the court, he's still out with a foot injury and came to the practice a half hour late because he was at the hotel getting treatment.

"I'm not about hiding my tricks in my own bag, you know?" James said, flicking his head toward Pittman, who the Heat are really hoping can become some sort of big man option. He's recently started playing, coach Erik Spoelstra giving him veteran Juwan Howard's minutes in hopes that he can work into a trustworthy option for a couple of minutes a night.

If you're keeping score, James isn't just learning how to play inside, but is actually teaching some of the Heat's younger players how to get better. That's killing two maturity birds with one stone!

What's notable here isn't just that James is developing a post game, but that he seems to be recasting his entire style to help the Heat inside. Miami is low on post threats — even Chris Bosh, ostensible power forward, is best at shooting mid-range jumpers. So LeBron, knowing that the Heat needed that help and that his body type fit the bill, developed his game to help the team and himself. All the while, he still does things as a perimeter player, because not doing so would be a waste. It's as if he took the expectations for how he'd develop and did them one better.

As ever, the final verdict on James won't come until this spring during the playoffs and finals. Oh, and it's still very much a work in progress. But, if this story is any indication, he's well on his way to making everyone eat their words. We just can't say for sure until he holds the Larry O'Brien Trophy over his head, if and when that ever happens.