Can Bronny play?
David Thorpe watches LeBron James Jr. on video
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BY DAVID THORPE
This is a story about two games. The first game is one that Bronny’s father has mastered: NBA power dynamics. LeBron James has been the world’s best player his age since he was 15; he’s comfortable wielding power and influence to make his dreams come true. Since the first few years of his NBA career, LeBron has had a powerful role in all of the decisions that affect his team, from whom he plays with to who runs the teams he plays for. His lifelong friend Rich Paul runs the agency that represents him. He played a major role in assembling the Heat, the Cavaliers, and the current Lakers. Wealthy people have done this for as long as we’ve recorded history. So when LeBron announced at All-Star weekend that he intended to play for whatever team his son was on, he wasn’t just putting us on notice. He was telling 30 billionaires to get Bronny if they want the incremental revenue bump that comes with a very famous father-son story.
As discussed on Monday’s BRING IT IN, it’s almost a lock that at least one team would spend a first-round pick for the chance to employ two LeBrons. The question isn’t whether LeBron’s statement gets his son drafted. The question is, can Bronny play?
The second game we are talking about is basketball. And that’s what I do for a living. After a few days’ watching video, I have deep thoughts about Bronny as an NBA prospect.
I love him.
Bronny James notes
Powerfully built with good size for a combo guard.
Exceptional speed side to side when his team presses, and when racing on the break. I would like to see more racing when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands.
Elite-level athlete overall–definitely capable of being an above-the-rim scorer.
Very good with his dribble and can outmaneuver defenders with crafty dribble attack moves. Doesn’t try to do too much, though sometimes he’s in matchups that more tuned in scorers would exploit every time.
Loves to be a ball mover–sometimes even when he should be the one attacking.
Sees the court ahead of him and is a willing hit-ahead passer.
Patient as a driver, lets plays develop. He can deliver different kinds of passes that find the holes in a defense to their intended target. Constantly scans the court for open teammates.
He’s a joy to play with if you are a scorer. He will find you.
Beautiful looking shot. He can likely attack the rim far more but he prefers shooting 3s including pull ups off the dribble.
Rarely uses his size and strength to play bully ball with smaller guards but projects to be able to do that at the highest level.
Appears to be able to be a ball hawk on defense but I’ve not seen him do that much. Perhaps it’s not what his coach wants. Something to watch for in AAU season this spring and summer. He could be far more disruptive as a defender if he wanted to be.
Reads the passing lanes on defense well but isn’t engaged to create chaos–again that could be a team strategy. It would be great to see him play in a defensive system that required more risk taking. Will make an occasional highlight play as a shot blocker.
Has a variety of finishing moves around the rim off the dribble, but is not using them often. To unlock another few levels of scoring, this has to change. As a senior I expect it will, and seeing him get 50 points in a game would not be a surprise.
Plays more like a scoring role player on this team, going long stretches without doing anything impactful. Again, that should change next season.
PROJECTION: James is a high-major college talent with unquestioned NBA potential. His skills and shot, his body and size, and his elite athleticism as a big guard suggest he can play at any level and do well. However, he is not yet walking that path. It’s possible he goes to a college and gets caught being a role player. He can learn that later, but it’s not ideal for his growth. In his senior season it would be amazing to show he can completely dominate games mentally because he has all the tools and skills to do so. If that does not happen consistently he'd be better off at a strong mid-major program that will give him 25 minutes a game. Only 17, he should be given time to figure that part of the game out. It’s a pleasure coaching players like him, who care more about how the team is doing than himself. But he now has to step up into a larger role. If he doesn’t do that as a senior, it’s tough to imagine he will as a freshman in college playing on a team with championship dreams. Which means he could be drafted more for his name than his game.
Bronny James plays the right way. Ask any college coach scouting high schoolers how their day went and they’ll complain about forced long 2-pointers and contested sidestep 28-footers. America has many skilled high-schoolers, but only a select few really know the game. “Play the right way” is a phrase old-school coaches love, and they sometimes mean something I do not. Many coaches hate 3-pointers, one-handed passes, combo-dribble attacks, and everything modern.
To me, playing the right way means making easy plays for teammates, ball and player movement, and taking only open shots. Scottie Barnes and Evan Mobley play the right way, which I call the “We” game. I ranked them as the top two prospects in their draft class for that exact reason. My experience is that players who see the game like that can learn new skills more easily than skilled players can learn to see the whole floor.
Barnes exemplifies this. He couldn’t shoot from the perimeter in high school or college, the free-throw line was bad too, and he didn’t hunt bully-ball buckets or finish with his weak hand in traffic much. But he definitely knew how to play—a master of the “We” game. In time, he has added all that other stuff. Evan Mobley has made a similar leap, and was also a guy who had a great feel when he entered the league. Terance Mann, whose mom was a longtime coach, makes his team look great.
On the other hand, look at Jalen Green, athletic and skilled to an elite level, but still needing to learn how to help a team win. Will he fight the urge to score more and scale back his game until he improves his total understanding of the game? Two players who did not figure that out quickly are Marvin Bagley III and Kevin Knox II—sure-fire NBA starters based on size, athleticism, and projected skill. But both could easily be in Europe in a season or two.
As a high-school junior, Bronny is way ahead of the pack. He could take bad shots and force dribble drives all game long, and probably still get tons of minutes, even on a Sierra Canyon team ranked second in California. His dad has infinite influence—there are NBA billionaire investors and other wealthy parents at private schools whose kids get unearned high-school playing time. Instead, LeBron routinely cheers for the team, not just his son, and this year it’s clear he didn’t do anything to make his son the focal point of the team. When LeBron read a positive scouting report about his son, he tweeted out “We just over here just working and preaching how to play the game the RIGHT way!” You can tell.
Which is why I love that Bronny isn't a candidate for that, in fact he’s just about the opposite. In fact, I find myself wanting him to do more.
As it’s helpful to picture NBA players you know, I’ll offer some comparisons. Ultimately, I believe Bronny has the potential to become a bigger, far more athletic version of Fred VanVleet—a strong two-way player who plays with a high IQ and professional demeanor. This is elite. VanVleet is now ranked 11th in the entire NBA in Estimated Plus-Minus at DunksandThrees, one spot down from Luka Doncic. If VanVleet had Bronny’s speed, size, and strength, he’d be a top-five player. If Bronny James reaches his potential, he will carve out a legacy himself that everyone, including his dad, can only smile about.
That effort can begin today, at 17, with a toolset that carries the essence of two different players: Coby White and Chris Paul.
Coby White played one season at North Carolina before entering the draft and being selected seventh overall by the Bulls. Listed at 6-3, 165 at the beginning of his senior year of high school, White was a slighter version of Bronny at that age. In Chicago as a 22-year-old he’s at 6-4, 195. Assuming those measurements are accurate, he’s very similar to James who is listed at 6-3 or 6-4, 180-185, depending on the site. Of course James, now 17 (18 just before his senior season starts in the fall), can still grow, and I’d wager he will, perhaps in height and certainly in strength, as his large-framed body is built to handle more weight.
Size isn’t what made me think of White—speed and shooting form did. Bronny has elite speed, as did White. To me, they look similar in how they run, and both have simple, repeatable shooting motions—the kinds that come from a lifetime of good teaching in driveways. Coby’s dad played in college and his older brother was a college coach.
That’s where the similarities end, because White scored 3,573 points in high school, ending up as the all-time leading scorer in North Carolina history. James is nowhere close to that kind of scorer, as evidenced by his recent four-point outing against a very good Harvard-Westlake team from Studio City, CA.
Though he has some scoring tools, he does not have a mindset for it. Yet?
Instead, James plays like a particular older NBA player, one that should come as no surprise. Chris Paul, who is his actual godfather. Bronny isn’t a “Point God” now, and who knows if he ever will be? The game is played so differently now—90 percent of all teams, from high school to the pros, don’t have a single designated primary ball handler.
Paul grew up in another time, and was that guy for his public high-school team, West Forsyth in Clemmons, North Carolina. James’s team is a private school with boarding available. That’s not to say Paul’s team was bad—it was deep enough with talent to push Paul to the JV his first two seasons. But in this era where so many players have guard skills, there’s no chance James can be the only lead guard for his team. Especially as his school attracts other talented players from all over. Here is a highlight tape of that game; you won’t see James with the ball in his hands much. Some games he is featured more than others, but he’s just a junior and the team has plenty of talented guys. So while Paul played most of every game his junior season and led his team to the North Carolina Final Four, James is in a very different situation. But…
If asked what makes Paul so special, the answer is easy—he has a brain that processes things fast. Not just faster than most humans, but faster than most NBA players, who are generally super processors. This is incredibly rare and the only way to explain Paul’s success. It’s also tough to discern, as we don’t measure brain power the way we do running speed or jumping ability. (Not yet anyway.) Of course Paul has skills and toughness. At his height, six feet at best, that wouldn’t be enough. He’s never been a plus athlete either.
That brain, though, is the type that the CIA and FBI seek for top program graduates, the kind that can rapidly assimilate a lot of moving parts to see something vital and act on it instantly and appropriately.
Bronny processes basketball at an elite level. Here he waits and then chooses to use the ball screen toward the middle, then quickly and easily splits a poorly executed trap. Nothing too special here. As he approaches the scoring area, he sees two enemies in front of him. Most high-school juniors with his speed would go right at them. Driving that decision is a mix of testosterone and the possibility of a highlight bucket.
Instead, Bronny decelerates, buys himself time, and emerges with three options:
The easiest is to shoot a semi-floater off balance as he drifts left. That’s the most common choice of teenaged guards, and it is not an easy shot to make.
Throw the lob to Kijani Wright (#11, a McDonald's All-American), his athletic big man teammate, who has caught many such passes this season. But that’s a tricky pass as he is already close to him, making the timing very difficult.
Throw the bounce pass to the cutting teammate to his right, tucked behind those two defenders.
He chose 3. The fact that he saw that opening is special. Many high-school players go four years without ever making that kind of read. Whether it’s hours of watching tape or actual games, it’s an advanced-level reaction. The deceleration is terrific too, as most teenage athletes tend to go faster when near the rim after beating a trap.
Pros read the game, and by doing so they let the plays develop. James isn’t playing as if his fast forward setting is always on, a big step up the learning ladder for guards.
He also has Paul's sense of calm and willingness to be a ball mover in the half court and a hit ahead passer in transition. These are “lead guard” aspects to Bronny’s game. For a player who has an NBA build with projected NBA athleticism, this is rare. For a top-40 player in his class, rarer still.
That gift, however, comes at a cost. The NBA doesn’t tend to draft non-scoring quarterbacks in the lottery. Jalen Suggs was an exception, but he led his team to an undefeated college regular season as a freshman. Jrue Holiday, who James also resembles to some degree on the court, only averaged eight points per game as a young freshman at UCLA, but was the Gatorade National Player of the Year the season prior. Paul was a scoring phenom his junior year of high school, averaging over 25 per game, and he famously scored 61 in a game his senior season. So far, that is not something we see from Bronny. I’ve long believed some of Paul’s postseason failures stem from his common reticence to take over games early. Or not at all. His penchant to be a game manager has not always served him well. But his overall career speaks for itself, he is still a unanimous first-ballot Hall of Famer. He did enough. James has yet to find that mode.
In a recent game, Bronny scored 18 points, making six-of-nine 3s. It’s great to see a big-bodied athlete shoot so well. But zero 2-point field goals or free throws in a competitive game is weird for a future NBA player. Those opportunities abound!
In his final game of high school, JJ Redick hit eight 3s on a foot with torn fascia and won the Virginia state title over a 29-1 opponent. He added 19 points from the field and the line. THAT sounds like a future pro. The game's best players typically impose their will in many ways, allowing them to win, which helps propel them to the next level.
After Redick entered the NBA and struggled, I wrote a column for ESPN detailing why I thought he would one day start for a playoff team. It struck a nerve and was basically laughed at. My basic philosophy was, he was the main target for every defense he saw for six seasons in high school and college and put up astounding numbers regardless. To me, he had figured out how to be more of a scorer, not just a shooter, and was clearly tough enough for the NBA after the beatings he routinely took. He had the requisite size and skill for his position and now just needed a chance. By the end of his career he had started 488 games and went to the postseason 11 times. He scored more than 12,000 NBA points, with more 2-pointers made than 3s. He had, as it turned out, a big bag of tricks.
This is the main concern in projecting Bronny. In many ways, he is a polished player who absolutely looks like he knows what he is doing. But at that size and speed, more is needed. There are no games yet where James has done what Paul or Redick did as seniors. Players get drafted as projects all the time. The Clippers took Keon Johnson this year late in round one, an explosive 6-5 guard who was taken purely on upside after a nondescript season at Tennessee. After more of the same mostly on their G-League team, he was traded to Portland. Only 20 in March, he’s already on the clock. Redick was one of Duke's all-time best players, so at least NBA executives knew he had proved to be extremely capable at some point in his career in a great college conference. Johnson averaged 25 a game at a small private high school his junior year, got hurt his senior year, and then dropped from what was once considered a sure lottery spot after scoring 11 per game as a freshman in the SEC.
The league wouldn’t normally be so patient with a player like the current version of Bronny. He has the name and enough game to get drafted. That’s a lock. But after that, it’s on him. The league already has dozens of second- and third-unit game managers who come from everywhere, they typically are low-salary guys who bounce around every year or two. They play good defense or shoot well or just don’t turn the ball over.
For Bronny to project to be a difference maker, someone worthy of a first round or lottery selection based on his talent, not his name, he needs to concern himself less with managing risk, like his genius godfather, and more like someone who wants to be a top-10 player in his class. As I like to tell young players of his talent level: “Aggressive, assertive, relentless.”
Bronny has the ability to be a Patrick Beverley on defense, a constant menace, but mostly plays solidly. If that changes next season, and he is on the attack all game on offense, reading the game but unafraid to be the main guy, he’ll shoot up draft boards. He is too gifted physically and too skilled. He should live on the free-throw line, and in the second box for short jumpers and floaters. When defenses pack it in, he can let it fly like he’s Stephen Curry, because his shot is that pretty.
We know Chris Paul can be assertive and then some. The time for Bronny to start exploring that is this summer, on the AAU circuit, and then again in his senior year. He seems worried to be seen as a gunner, considering his fame (over six million Instagram followers), but being more bold must be in his plans. All great scorers occasionally take some bad shots, sometimes too often. They miss a lot of shots too, especially when they are trying to see what works and doesn’t. Great assist men commit turnovers more so than the players who never try to make a great pass. James can’t be so worried about playing the right way that he neglects to explore his ability to take over a game completely. Again and again, one possession at a time. That effort will undoubtedly bring mistakes. He isn’t a pro, yet, and shouldn’t be held to that standard. Pros err too, of course, the enormous percentage of them know how to fail and not be disaffected, they get the “next play” mentality that very competitive leagues require.
For Bronny James, this is the time to have fun and see how good he can be. It is almost impossible to imagine he can be better than his dad. Who cares? He should be judged on his own merits, and along the way he should enjoy the journey. The line between playing the right way and selfishly is very broad. He’s so far from a selfish player now that playing with a significantly heightened focus to get more done as an individual player carries almost no risk at all.
Coincidentally, he can take some guidance from another great friend of his dad. Dwyane Wade allowed LeBron to take over both a Team USA squad and the Miami Heat when Wade was one of the world’s best players and was on both those teams. When LeBron was on the court, Wade operated perfectly as the second-best player. Otherwise, it was Wade’s team again.
Bronny plays with great players and will likely do so again next season. How will he know if he can be the best player on those teams if he doesn't try to be now? Learn from mistakes and successes and keep growing. If he can one day develop into someone a little like White, a little like Curry, a little like Wade, and a lot like Paul, it won’t matter what his last name is.
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