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LAS VEGAS – Five miles from Las Vegas’ gleaming neon decadence, past the strip malls and noodle shops on the fringes of town, LeBron James entered a remote high school gym on Saturday and sparked an immediate buzz. Flanked by security, his longtime business partner Maverick Carter and a few friends, James settled into a section of bleachers roped off for college coaches.
James’ appearance at an obscure 16-Under grassroots game in the Fab 48 Tournament in a half-empty gym held a powerful symbolic meaning. James came to watch the next great player with Akron ties, 14-year-old Chris Livingston, who is considered perhaps the top eighth-grade player in the country.
That’s a position James once held, and the former Akron basketball prodigy traveling to a far-flung gym to watch the next one doubled as Livingston’s christening on the grassroots scene as the next great player from Ohio. Livingston is a 6-foot-5 wing who is a pure shooter, natural scorer and has a frame and strength that belies his age.
James sat in the ninth row of the bleachers at Desert Oasis, wearing a red hat pulled over his eyes and Beats headphones on his ears. When James left in the waning minutes, he stopped at the bench, grabbed Livingston’s arm and whispered some words. “It was humbling,” Livingston told Rivals.com recruiting analyst Corey Evans. “I just wanted to play hard and show my talent, not be nervous and play my game.”
Livingston scored 15 points in the victory for his grassroots team, We All Can Go, over the Colorado Chaos. He had a dunk and showed the athleticism and fluidity that have led both Akron and UAB to already offer scholarships. (Being just 14, Livingston said he has a few other scholarship offers but couldn’t remember them.) He said he planned to visit Ohio State in August, a place he said he liked a lot because they’re “my hometown team.”
Coaching circles were buzzing about Livingston long before LeBron dropped by his game on Saturday. “He’s viewed as the next guy since LeBron in Ohio to be in that category of, maybe, a transcendent player,” said a college head coach. “It’s hard, you want to be careful to stay away from Harold Minor and Michael Jordan comparisons. But he’s got that degree of that talent at the age. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better player in his class right now.”
To be clear, it’s unfair to cast Livingston as the “Next LeBron.” But those familiar with his game project that in these embryotic stages he’s likely to be a high-level player in the class of 2022. Livingston grew up in Kentucky but he’ll play basketball at Akron Buchtel High School as a freshman in the fall. His mother, Julia, attended Buchtel, the same school that James’ wife, Savannah, attended.
“Forecasting four years in advance is not easy, nor is it fair, but the talent level and two-way abilities is evident,” Evans said. “If he does what he has to do, which is show incremental improvements, Livingston has a chance to be one of the best backcourt prospects in recent years.”
Livingston has shown well this summer playing up two grades on the We All Can Go team. (We All Can Go is a Nashville-based team, which Livingston plays on because of his Kentucky roots.) Coach Quinton Thompson told Yahoo Sports that he compares favorably in terms of potential with another former player, Marvin Bagley III, at this stage of his career. “I think he’ll be the most special player we’ve had besides Marvin,” Thompson said. “He’s right there with [him]. Maybe a little more special with scoring.”
A college coach in attendance on Saturday echoed those thoughts to Yahoo Sports: “We can argue about the legitimacy of ranking kids that young, as there are so many variables in their development. But when you perform against kids two years older as he has, that’s a really good sign of his potential.”
NBA stars appearing at AAU games around Vegas during this week of grassroots tournaments isn’t uncommon. Dwyane Wade has been watching his son, Zaire, and James Harden was at Desert Oasis at the same time as James on Saturday watching his Team Harden. There was a black Bentley with a driver idling outside Desert Oasis on Saturday, giving the secluded school a bizarre paparazzi feel.
Many of the college coaches in the gym were a bit confused about James showing up for a game between a Nashville and Colorado AAU team. James has been a fixture at 13-Under games of his son, Bronny, around the grassroots circuit this summer. But Bronny’s team wasn’t in the gym on Saturday. Colorado coach Tad Boyle sat a few rows in front of James among the coaches scattered in the section. (Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott was in the gym for his son’s game later in the day and didn’t realize James was there until a reporter pointed him out.)
Livingston and his teammates had been given a heads up that James would be coming. “LeBron is his favorite player,” Joe Livingston said of his grandson. “It meant a lot to watch him play and perform. To have him come to a game is very, very important.”
As for the inevitable comparisons to James while playing in Akron, Chris Livingston shrugged them off. “I’m not really too worried about that,” he said. “I’m just trying to get better. No pressure at all. I’m trying to get better every day.”
After LeBron gave Livingston a quick chat, he exited out a back door before the game ended and jumped into a Cadillac Escalade. While he drove off into the 111-degree heat, his appearance marked the arrival of another star from Akron.
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