High school basketball phenom Lebron James will be chosen by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the first selection of the NBA draft on Tuesday, a mere formality for the 18-year-old. In the past month, he has been the focus of shows on MTV and HBO and has been on ESPN almost daily since he challenged the NBA last year to enter the draft as a high school junior. Most pundits believed James would also have been a lock for the No. 1 pick last year, ahead of 7′ 5″ Yao Ming and Rookie of the Year Amare Stoudemire.
The Cavaliers (and the NBA) have done everything but rename Cleveland’s Gund Arena after James. A native of Akron, Ohio, James will be a big boost for the franchise, mainly in terms of season ticket sales and promotional deals. Cleveland also hired veteran head coach and former All-Star Paul Silas to play the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi to James’ Skywalker talents.
Getting Silas is a coup in itself. After four-plus seasons as the steward of the Charlotte/New Orleans Hornets, Silas marked himself as the crutch of the franchise. Not only did Silas lead the Hornets to the playoffs four times in those four years, he kept the team’s morale positive after the shocking death of Bobby Phills in January of 2000 as well as keeping them focused during the transition to the Big Easy.
As is almost customary in sports these days, Silas’ success merely gained him a pink slip. Cleveland swooped in quickly and signed Silas, who is known as a coach that players, young and old, respect and play hard for. (The Hornets replaced Silas with Tim Floyd, who distinguished himself in Chicago with the worst record of anybody who has ever coached in the NBA, 49 wins and 190 losses.)
Silas won’t coddle James, but the King, as he is prematurely called, is not wont for a lack of coddlers. His mother bought him a Hummer in time for mid-terms, and he’s signed a $90-million multi-year contract with Nike, a contract that will pay him about four times as much as the Cavs can pay him.
That leaves basketball fans with only two questions.
First, is all this too much for an 18-year-old to deal with? James is an Adonis-like figure, 6’7″, 245 pounds of rapturous energy, carrying only 6.9 percent body fat. He runs like a deer, leaps like a gymnast and has the court awareness similar to that of an owl in the night preying on field mice.
The fact that he has only displayed this on a high school athletics landscape may cast doubt, especially since he was a shooting guard that was larger than opposing teams’ starting centers. The only knocks on James’ game is his risk taking on defense and a propensity to shoot too much, two problems that will be addressed by Silas.
But many with lesser build and accomplishments in high school have gone on to great careers, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett are examples. James is the only two-time Parade Magazine Player of the Year, and led his team in five statistical categories. Since recent youngsters like the Spurs’ Tony Parker and Phoenix’s Stoudemire have acquitted themselves quickly to NBA-level competition, James knows what he has to do, and will follow the blueprints laid down by the teenage ballers that came before him.
James, however, won’t have the luxury of easing into NBA life like Bryant, who didn’t start until halfway trough his rookie season. James will come out of the gate as the starting point guard for the Cavaliers, a squad of malcontent players who haven’t done much since the days of Brad Daugherty. The best prediction is that the Cavs become like the Clippers were in 2001-2002, a bad team that was at least fun to watch. The worst forecast has James clanging jumpers and sending bounce passes to no one in particular. The NBA, in desperate need of ratings after the least watched finals in history, is hoping for the former.
The second question is whether James will have the focus and motivation to succeed, with millions of dollars already falling into his wallet before his senior prom. Will he be like Bryant, bent on becoming the best player in the game? Will he be like Tiger Woods, with his only goal being wins and lots of them? He will most definitely not be a bust like the only other high schooler selected No. 1, Washington’s Kwame Brown, but will anything less than world domination be a letdown? The hype will never cease, so let’s hope James’ talent never ceases, either.