From LeBron James’ start, rivals saw he was off the charts
On the last day of January more than five years ago, Bam Adebayo walked past the scorer’s table onto the court for his first on-court meeting with LeBron James.
Before he was recognized as an anchor of the Miami Heat or as one of the NBA’s top all-around defensive players, Adebayo was a 20-year-old rookie, late lottery winner, averaging a handful of points and rebounds in 20 minutes of play.
“He looks [at] me – and we all know who he is. ‘That’s Bron,'” Adebayo recalled. “But he likes it, he just told me everything about me before I even set foot on the pitch.”
That’s when Adebayo knew he’d experienced something people who just watch James play would never understand, that his mid-game IQ is encyclopedic.
As James is set to play his 19th All-Star game on Sunday in Salt Lake City, his league rivals were asked a question: what skill or trait did one need to experience in person to truly understand James’ greatness?
The answers concerned either James’ mind or body – the combination of the two encounters made him the NBA’s all-time leading scorer earlier this month.
“Whatever the hype, it’s true,” said Clippers forward Paul George. “Speaking of a guy with his build, that size, flying down the court and jumping out of the gym and one of the best minds in the league we’ve seen – it was just the whole package. And I think it was only evident when you saw him up close, just his brilliance on the pitch.
LeBron James has made 63 dives in 45 games this season. It’s the same dunks-per-shot attempt percentage as in his rookie season, a testament to his longevity from a physical standpoint.
“To be honest, even now it’s still impressive how great his form is and how he just plays with such ease,” said Denver center and two-time MVP Nikola Jokic. “He doesn’t look like he’s going to fight at all.”
James is quite possibly the most analyzed player of all time, considering his rise has coincided with that of social media, widespread access to NBA games, and a hot-take environment that James has fueled through his successes and failures.
But if you think you know everything, you can’t – unless you’ve shared court with him.
“I think everyone appreciates LeBron and what he brings to the table,” said Phoenix’s Kevin Durant. “I think we know his game inside and out. But when you play against him, you realize how strong and fast he is. I think that’s something that might fly a little under the radar, that its athleticism is unique, in a generation, and I don’t think it will ever be duplicated again. It’s something you don’t really get a feel for through the television, just the impact and power that he plays with, it’s special.”
And even in a league of giant athletes, he’s a monster.
“He’s a lot bigger than I thought – bigger and stronger for sure,” said Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. “That was the biggest thing that stood out. He’s a lot bigger than he sees him on TV.”
That one-off explosion combined with all that size caught Portland’s Damian Lillard off guard in their first matchup.
“I specifically remember one game that was like a cross-court pass and he kind of deflected it and he kind of swerved on the quick break and I was like running off the opposite wing. And he just moved so fast. Like it’s a dribble and he’s in the air,” Lillard said. “…I think he’s still a super athlete and what he’s doing is super impressive, but it’s not the way it was. And that shouldn’t belittle him. It’s to say how crazy it was to have an athlete do something like that.”
George said the same thing – that James is not the athlete he was at his peak.
“I think there are moments in the latter part of his career where you’re like, ‘Young Bron probably would have blown it all,'” George said. “But if you think about it he’s 38 years old, year 20, the athleticism he still has. Everyone loses track at some point. But I think he’s definitely lost a step, but he’s so gifted it doesn’t seem that far [from that].”
So how do you stop him?
“Foul him if you can,” Utah’s Jordan Clarkson said with a laugh. “Just keep fouling him until they stop calling.”
Twenty years of basketball experience has resulted in James being one of the most respected minds in the league.
“I don’t think people understand how smart he really is,” said DeMar DeRozan of Chicago. “Maybe they know, but there’s a difference when you’re out there and you see him picking you apart, reading and understanding the game on a different level. That’s one thing about him that stands out even more when he’s a competitor going up against him.”
The simplest examples? James shatters opponents’ strategy as if he were in the throng with them.
“He’s as good as advertised,” said Jayson Tatum of Boston. “He’s been playing the game for a long time and has a great IQ. He knows everything that’s going on at both ends of the floor. All the stories about him knowing the moves of the other teams and s – well, that’s true. LeBron is as good as you think it is.”
The way James processes information in real time caught Memphis’s Jaren Jackson Jr. in their first game against each other.
“That’s how he read the game in transition. Like he’s addressing it and telling people where to go while he dribbles. That’s real,” Jackson said. “He spontaneously calls plays and does reads. As he dribbles, he tells people where to go, he calls plays, he talks to the coach, talks to his family. He does a lot of things on the side.”
The brain — and the ball — can end up moving pretty fast, said Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox.
“I played against him in Cleveland my rookie year – I didn’t play when they came after Sac – and exactly how he sees the game. How hard he throws the ball. This year is just all about him,” Fox said. “The first time I played him it was like, ‘Yo, he’s on a different level than everyone else on the court right now.’ The way he viewed the game and how physically dominant he was. That was just crazy.
“…For example, if you’re not ready for a pass, he might break your finger. Or if you’re a second late and don’t raise your hand, the ball just flies right past your hand or right past your head. Just the way he saw the ground and put everything on the ball knowing only his teammate would catch him was incredible.”
When James takes the field on Sunday, he will join a group of All-Stars who have seen firsthand how he became one of the NBA’s greatest players of all time.
“The consistency is crazy,” said Pascal Siakam from Toronto. “You can see it from afar. Just seeing someone there, every single day, in and out, in 20th grade… that’s crazy. Be consistently at the level. I think for me it’s so incredible just to see it up close – to be amazing at such a high level for so long. …I think he slows down whenever he wants to slow down. It feels like he could play forever. It looks like.”
On February 25, 2020 in Los Angeles, one of the most hyped players since James, Zion Williamson, took the court for his first game against the Lakers. He played well – 29 points, six rebounds and a lot of physical dominance.
But James – he was just too much.
“He was 40,” Williamson said, laughing. “It was one of those things that he just got around to doing – out of three, down the middle, attacking the basket – the whole game he just played fantastic basketball.
“It was one of those moments where it was like, ‘That’s why he’s LeBron.'”
https://www.latimes.com/sports/lakers/story/2023-02-19/nba-all-star-game-preview-2023-lebron-james-off-the-charts From LeBron James’ start, rivals saw he was off the charts