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Will Bronny James play college basketball before he starts his pro career?

Lexington Herald-Leader logo Lexington Herald-Leader 2/25/2022 Ben Roberts, Lexington Herald-Leader

Feb. 25—The declaration by LeBron James last weekend that he would play his final season of professional basketball with his son, Bronny, raised eyebrows across the NBA world.

The statement obviously trickles down to the recruiting trail, as well.

The younger James is in his junior season at Sierra Canyon (Calif.), where he's rated as a high-four-star prospect in the 2023 recruiting class. The elder James, of course, is one of the greatest NBA players of all time and — at 37 years old — still one of the game's top stars but entering the twilight of his storied career.

"My last year will be played with my son," LeBron told The Athletic over All-Star Weekend. "Wherever Bronny is at, that's where I'll be. I would do whatever it takes to play with my son for one year. It's not about the money at that point."

It was a quote that set off a flurry of speculation over where exactly James, who has won NBA titles with the Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers, would end his career.

It also further stirred the speculation over the basketball future of his 17-year-old son, who already boasts more than 6 million followers on Instagram and has already been in the recruiting spotlight for years due to his famous father.

Kentucky Coach John Calipari acknowledged several years ago that he sent Bronny scholarship papers "probably when he was 2 years old," explaining that it was (obviously) more of a gesture toward a family friend, LeBron, than an actual recruitment.

Over time, however, the legend of Bronny has grown as he's developed into an actual high-major college prospect. His father's comments last weekend will only stoke the interest in the next steps of his young basketball career.

So, how good is Bronny James? What are his actual NBA prospects? And will the son of one of the greatest players of all time actually play college basketball before he embarks on a pro career?

Bronny as a prospect

Heading into the final weeks of his junior season, James is ranked by Rivals.com as the No. 30 player in the 2023 class. 247Sports has him at No. 52 overall. ESPN ranks him 43rd.

There's obviously a lot to like about him, but there are also some clear knocks on his game.

"He is really talented," 247Sports analyst Travis Branham told the Herald-Leader. "His body has matured at a really impressive rate over the past two years. He gets more athletic by the day, and that should come as no surprise to anybody. He has a good feel, and plays the right way.

"But the biggest thing that he's shown a pattern of is he's just really passive. He can make shots, he can pass the basketball, he can defend, rebound — he can do a lot of things to impact the game — but there are so many times where he's out on the floor and he'll go for several minutes at a time leaving you kind of guessing. Like, 'Was he actually even out there?'"

Yahoo Sports' Krysten Peek, who has closely followed James over the course of his high school career, also mentioned that pattern of sometimes-low production. Peek called him an "incredible on-ball defender" with solid shooting mechanics and said James has been an "amazing sidekick of sorts" over the years to higher-profile Sierra Canyon recruits like former UK guard Brandon Boston, 2021 lottery pick Ziaire Williams, and consensus top-five 2022 recruit Amari Bailey.

But being a "fantastic role player" — as Peek called him — on the high school level doesn't exactly translate to a can't-miss NBA prospect. "He needs to put it all together for a complete game if he first wants to see (major) minutes at a Power Five program and then potentially turn that into an NBA career," she told the Herald-Leader.

None of this is to say James can't reach that point.

Branham talked about James in more glowing terms — from an NBA perspective — than you'd normally hear about a No. 52 overall recruit. That's because there's seemingly more room for upside with a player who already possesses the intangibles that James does. (Not to mention the family history). The next step — but one some fear might never be fully realized — is getting past that passivity and turning in more complete games.

James' ranking at Rivals.com (No. 30 overall) appears to be taking more of that unrealized potential into account.

"He's a strong, strong high-basketball IQ kid," Rivals national analyst Rob Cassidy told the Herald-Leader. "He can shoot it a little bit better than he was at this time last year. He's handling the ball a little better than he did at this time last year. But he's a work in progress."

Unanswered questions

One knock that Cassidy and Peek mentioned was James' height, which is listed by Rivals.com and on Sierra Canyon's roster as 6-2. Branham said he thinks James is closer to 6-4. That's a pretty big difference for a player who doesn't yet look the part of an elite point guard. That discrepancy is also an indicator of just how secretive those around James have been keeping things.

Despite playing for one of the country's top high school teams, there are no reliable season stats for James except for the games that Sierra Canyon has played in national showcases. Very few have been granted interviews with the teenager, and little reliable information related to his plans beyond high school has been revealed. Even college coaches interested in recruiting him aren't quite sure how the process will unfold.

James' stats from the Nike EYBL last summer are available. He averaged 7.2 points, 2.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game — pretty good numbers on the top circuit of grassroots basketball, but not anything that screams NBA prospect.

"I see him right now as a fringe NBA type," Cassidy said. "Now, could he grow 2 inches and become a slam dunk for the league? Sure. But it's going to be mighty interesting to see how this goes. It's so hard to be compared to your dad. I think that's what everybody wants to do, and everybody wants to see him as a surefire NBA player. But he's not hyper-athletic. He's not super long. He does a lot of good things, though. He handles the ball well. He facilitates. He's getting better at passing. He's not making a ton of bad decisions with the ball.

"It's going to come down to how much he grows and how much more athletic and quick he gets — kind of the God-given things, more than the skill things. Because he is one of the top IQ players in the country."

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LeBron's comments last weekend made pretty clear the expectation that Bronny will be a one-and-done player, which — at this point — would put him in the 2024 NBA Draft.

The elder James will turn 40 years old at the start of the season that follows that draft, which would be his 22nd season in the NBA. Counting the playoffs, he's already played more than 1,600 games in the league.

Peek, who also covers the NBA Draft for Yahoo, said Bronny will need to get more consistent if he has any hope of legitimately living up to those one-and-done expectations. She pointed to three-point shooting and improved pace of play as key areas of focus for a player who likely won't grow much more.

"If he's going to play in the NBA, he's going to have to play the '1.' And he's not there yet," Cassidy said, pointing out that Rivals actually moved Bronny up a few spots in its latest 2023 update. "The reason we moved him up in the rankings is because some of those point guard skills have started to develop. It's trending in the right direction. He's still got a long way to go — to play in the NBA with his dad — but at least you can see the trajectory."

247Sports national analyst Eric Bossi wrote this week that 71 one-and-done players have been taken in the first round of the NBA Draft over the past five years. Of those, 60 have been five-star recruits in the 247Sports composite rankings. And another seven were rated as five-star players by at least one of the major recruiting services. So only four players — Kentucky's Tyler Herro was one — managed to be one-and-done, first-round picks in the past five years without being a five-star recruit out of high school.

Those stats clearly speak against Bronny's chances of becoming a first-round pick.

Judging his unique NBA Draft status, however, is a trickier task.

"If I'm talking specifically about Bronny — excluding the LeBron factor — I would say that calling him an NBA player at this moment is unfair to him," Branham said.

The 247Sports analyst continued that it's impossible not to factor in LeBron's recent comments in any assessment of Bronny's draft stock.

"And with the LeBron factor — especially after talking to people around the NBA — it sounds like Bronny could potentially be a lottery pick, solely because of the LeBron factor," he said.

Branham pointed to LeBron's comment that money wouldn't be an issue if he could play in the NBA with his son and laid out a scenario in which a team reaches to draft Bronny, then signs LeBron to a minimum contract, theoretically leaving that franchise with enough salary space to go after other complementary players and compete for an NBA title.

"Guys will want to play with LeBron," Branham said. "And at the same time, you're going to sell out every single ticket for the entire season. Potentially two seasons, if LeBron decides to play more than just one year. So, there's a lot of value in that."

At 37 years old, James is still averaging 29.1 points (third in the NBA), 7.9 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game. His game will continue to slowly decline, but — barring major injury — there's no reason to think he couldn't still be a key player on a title contender three years from now. And he'll certainly remain a box-office attraction for as long as he plays professional basketball.

So, who will take the risk of spending a high draft pick on Bronny James?

"That is going to be the hottest draft topic we've ever seen. And it's not going to be close," Branham said. "Somebody's going to do it. It's just a matter of who."

Reclass to 2022?

It has to be mentioned that Bronny James will turn 18 years old in October, and — while he is currently in his proper class — he could be eligible for the 2023 NBA Draft if he reclassifies up and graduates from high school later this year.

Every analyst the Herald-Leader talked to this week about Bronny's basketball future said that would be a bad idea.

"If Bronny were to reclassify, it would only hurt his development as a player," Peek said. "He's not Scoot Henderson, who's dominating pros in the G League. Bronny goes from scoring 19 points one night to being a non-factor and finishing with four points the next night."

Cassidy was also skeptical of such a scenario.

"I don't think that would be a very good idea for the kid," he said. "If you really want to make it to the NBA — if that's really the goal — reclassing him up would be ... I don't think that's very smart. If the goal is to get him to the NBA as a real NBA player who's not just there because of dad, he's going to need the extra year. I can't see him being ready at this time next year to go into the NBA Draft."

To be clear, there's been no talk out of James' circle that such a path is under consideration, but — like all things Bronny — there is sure to be rumor and speculation over the possibility of reclassification in the coming months.

Bronny's college path

The biggest question for college basketball fans familiar with Bronny James is whether or not he'll ever play at that level of the sport.

He'll have a few different options.

He could reclassify, graduate early and play a post-grad year at the high-school level. He could jump to one of the professional leagues — like the G League or the Overtime Elite operation — before entering the NBA Draft. Or he could go the college route.

Branham, Cassidy and Peek all predicted that Bronny would indeed play college basketball.

"I do think Bronny will end up playing in college," Peek said. "His game is still so inconsistent and he's undersized ... so there's no real reason to think he could make the jump to the pros right away or even play in the G League for a year."

The James family is obviously not in any need of money, but Cassidy pointed out that the NIL possibilities would be immense over one college season for Bronny, who announced his first major endorsement deal Thursday — with PSD underwear — and will surely want to build on his own brand as his career continues to the next levels.

"The name, image and likeness money would be out of this world compared to anything that they could get him at Overtime, or the G League even," Cassidy said. "I mean, think about if this kid lands at Kentucky or Duke or North Carolina? Or anywhere really? The marketing potential.

"There's more money in endorsements if you go to a school with a built-in fan base than if you go to Overtime Elite or you go to the G League — where there aren't really fans to get excited. There are LeBron James fans that might get excited, but there's not a fan base there."

The question then becomes: where would Bronny play his college ball?

Programs are indeed inquiring about James, but — with little being revealed by the player or his inner circle of family and coaches — it's incredibly difficult to handicap a possible recruitment.

Duke, North Carolina, Ohio State, Tennessee and Texas are the schools that have been mentioned most prominently in recent months.

LeBron James developed a close relationship with Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski through his USA Basketball experience, and the Blue Devils might be considered heavy favorites if not for Coach K's pending retirement. Duke might still be a frontrunner, but Jon Scheyer will take over the program next season and presumably be in charge when Bronny is a college freshman.

Kentucky has not been mentioned by reliable recruiting sources as a possible landing spot for James recently. UK has already extended several scholarship offers to players in the 2023 class, and James — as far as we know — is not one of those prospects.

But, again, information surrounding Bronny has been kept so quiet that no ultimate result should necessarily be unexpected. With a year of high school beyond this one, there's still plenty of time for his recruitment to normalize a bit.

There was already a glaring spotlight on the 17-year-old and his basketball future. His father's recent comments will only make that spotlight all the brighter until Bronny reveals what comes next.

This story was originally published February 25, 2022 7:00 AM.

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