There is little doubt among NBA analysts that Lebron James will be one of the greatest players to ever play in the league. But there is also great uncertainty about how long it will take the 6-foot-9 phenom to become dominant, and more specifically, how good will he be as an 18 year-old rookie?
If history has any prediction power, James will struggle this season. While the Phoenix Suns' Amare Stoudemire became the first player to win the NBA's rookie of the year honors after skipping college for the NBA a season ago, players without college or international experience usually take at least two seasons to gel into the NBA game.
Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady, who all went straight from their high school proms to the NBA draft podium, each struggled greatly in their respective rookie seasons. Garnett was the only of the three to average over 10 points per game.
This proves ominous to James, because of all the players in the NBA, James most resembles, in both body type and playing style, McGrady and Bryant. Bryant finished as just the eighth leading scorer with an average of 7.6 points per game on the 1995-96 Los Angeles Lakers.
McGrady faired even worse, scoring at only a 6.4 points per game clip on a wretched, 16-66 pre-Vince Carter Toronto Raptors team.
But James is clearly different from these two players. While both Bryant and McGrady were considered the consensus No. 1 high school players in the nation their senior years in high school, James was the first player in modern prep basketball to be the consensus No. 1 player both his junior and senior seasons. While McGrady went undiscovered until his senior year of high school, James was already voted to the All-USA Today High School First-Team as a 16 year-old.
More athletic and strong--though less skilled--than Bryant at this point in their respective careers, and more cerebral and versatile--though less robust--than McGrady at the same point in time, James should be better as a first-year player than the two superstars.
But before anyone gets too excited by the player who is already guaranteed over 100 million dollars in endorsement contracts, one must remember James' performance during the Pepsi Pro Summer League in Orlando this summer.
At times James looked absolutely brilliant, connecting on acrobatic reverse lay-ups in traffic and effortlessly finding open teammates with no-look-confusion-maker passes. No one who observed the games would argue that there was not something special about James.
But at the same time there was nothing dominant about James, either. The Akron, Oh., native averaged 15.4 points per game and 4.5 assists per game against players who are all in the infancy of their NBA careers. Can James legitimately be expected to improve on his summer league statistics in an 82-game season against seasoned professionals?
Perhaps an even more intriguing story for the 2003-04 season will be whether the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have lost over 50 games in each of the past three seasons, will improve with James in the lineup. Even if James does prove to be dominant at the outset of his career, it may not inevitably add numerous wins to the Cavaliers.
The year before the Cincinnati Royals obtained the rights to Oscar Robertson, who averaged 30.5 points and 9.7 assists per game as rookie in 1961, the team finished in last place, and their first year with the future hall-of-famer was spent in the cellar, as well. Michael Jordan, who averaged 28.2 points a game as a first-year player, pulled the Chicago Bulls from the depths of NBA hell to mediocrity, where the Bulls stayed for nearly five years.
My guess is that the Cavs will lose less than 50 games this year, but not by very much. Cleveland has made it public that James will not play point-guard full-time this year, as many had speculated, in order to take the colossal pressure off the teenager. This creates a log-jam at the shooting guard and small forward positions, leaving many cocky, young players fighting for playing time and shots.
But predictions are about to end for James' rookie season, and it will be results, not hype, that will measure his success or failure. Just as I've said nearly every other year of my life, I can't wait to see what number 23 does this season.
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