King James' Court

Zander FreundSenior Writer IMay 18, 2006

IconNot quite as laughable as drafting Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan, nor as laughable as those (including myself) who insisted the Colts should pick Ryan Leaf over Peyton Manning.  But it's laughable none the less.  It's laughable because Lebron James, at age 21, is already surprassing expectations.  And those expectations were significantly higher than any #1 pick in NBA history.


When Lebron signed his $90 million shoe deal with Nike weeks before draft day, the sporting world went crazy, insisting that there was absolutely no way that an 18 year old kid could live up to all the hype.  After all, most 18 year olds can’t perform during a high school dance, let alone in an arena with 20,000 fans who expect you to be the next Michael Jordan.  This idea that Lebron would choke under the pressure led to a lot of skepticism about drafting him #1.  Coming off of a NCAA championship that he single handedly had won for Syrcause, Carmello’s stock was high.  After all, in comparing the two, Carmello had a year’s more experience in competitive basketball, and had shown that he was a natural born leader.  Lebron, on the other hand, had just become richer than Donald Trump at age 18. 


Fast forward now three years ahead to Lebron mopping the floor with the faces of his skeptics, as a team who three years ago had no chance of making the playoffs is now ahead in a second round series against one of the NBA’s finest squads.  Lebron is runner up for MVP of the league, averaging over 30 points per game this season, even though upon entering the league it was thought that passing, not scoring, was his best attribute.  Lebron’s jump shot, allegedly his “weakest skill” on day one, has developed in quite a hurry, leaving defenders clueless about what to do against a guy who can shoot 3 pointers and 18 foot fadeaways but also burn your ass to the hole when you try to challenge his shot.


Fine, you say.  Lebron James is one of, if not the best player in professional basketball.  But is he really going to be the next MJ?


No one can pretend to know the answer to this question.  But one thing is clear: if there is anyone currently in the NBA who will be the next Michael Jordan, it’s Lebron James.  His scoring totals have improved drastically over three years, going from 20.9 points per game in his rookie year to 27.2 in 2004 to 30.9 this year.  In his first post-season appearance, Lebron has already got the Cavaliers past the first round of the playoffs – something it took Michael Jordan four trips to the post-season to do.  Athletic as they come and standing 6 foot 8, Lebron has the versatility of Michael Jordan, with a similar ability to beat players both inside and out while also grabbing twice as many rebounds as the man he’s matched up against. 


But we haven't yet mentioned Lebron's best quality: his unselfish attitude.  And no, I'm not talking about the fact that he finds the time to dish out nearly seven assists a game while he is busy breaking ankles, dunking and rebounding.  I'm talking about the fact that at age 21, Lebron seems to have the maturity of a seasoned veteran.  Nike gave him $90 million at 18; three years later, he has avoided many of the pitfalls that other basketball tycoons have fallen into.  And he didn't even go to college - his short high school career gave him less time to develop these personal skills.  While a young Allen Iverson was fond of skipping practice, and a young Kobe Bryant was fond of paying complements to himself, a young Lebron James is fond of keeping his mouth closed, playing basketball and leading his team to victory.  Can you think of one time, one time, when this kid who is already the league's finest specimen, but who is paid less money than 129 other players in the NBA, has shown the slightest amount of arrogance?  Has he ever used press time to rag on his teammates, his coach or his organization?  Has he ever blamed other players on his team for a loss?  Has he ever showed a hint of disrespect for the game of basketball?        


In only three seasons in the league, Lebron has managed already to disprove many of the typical stereotypes common of young NBA stars.  He has proven that just because you never played college basketball doesn’t mean that you cannot grasp the concept that there is no I in team.  He has shown that just because you are worth millions of dollars, one of the world’s finest athletes, and able to take any girl you want home at night doesn’t mean that you have to be cocky and classless.  Most importantly, he has demonstrated that the appropriate time to express your emotions and display your youth is on the court, not at a press conference. 


However, Lebron has a long way to go before we begin comparing him with MJ.  Michael Jordan is one of the game's all time best defensive guards - Lebron's defense needs serious work.  Jordan is the NBA's greatest clutch player of all time - Lebron hasn't even played in a finals game.  Most importantly, Michael Jordan is widely acknowledged as the greatest basketball player to ever live - Lebron James is 21. 


Lebron's uncanny ability to dunk, shoot, pass and rebound make him one of the best players the game has seen in years.  The fact that he is able to do these things at his young age suggests that he has a long career of dominance ahead, and that within a few years he may be indeed be lifting that trophy.  However it is Lebron's attitude that has made him a role model NBA player, fully capable of living up to the initial hype surrounding his entrance into the league.  If he can manage to stay healthy and work on his defensive game, then perhaps within the next decade the #23 from Cleveland will earn a serious comparison to the man from Chicago.