NORTH AUGUSTA, SC — When LeBron James sat in a folding chair in the corner of the recreation center’s basketball court last week, he often looked like he was in agony.
There was James, who repeatedly walked up the pitch to check on Tar and the clock above him. Or grabbing an apple and dipping it into a gallon-sized bag of nuts. Or begging “come on ref” when the call wasn’t to his liking.
He stood to whisper instructions to his son, who nodded sharply as he inbounded the ball down the baseline. James took the field at halftime — first giving advice to the coach of the travel ball team he sponsors to strive for greatness — then throwing a lefty shot that prompted many in the packed bleachers to pull out their cellphones. To record an exercise.
For a few days at Peach Jam, Nike’s annual summer recruiting showcase, James was just another basketball dad (albeit with a security detail). He’s been there watching his oldest son, LeBron James Jr., go by Bronny’s side and figure out where his basketball future lies, just like any other high school player entering his senior season (even one with 6.3 million Instagram followers and a worldwide – famous basketball superstar father).
Bron, a 6-foot-2 guard, has been largely characterized as having a strong basketball IQ but lacking elite athleticism and a fine shot — an asset to almost any team, but arguably a role player.
Whatever Broney ends up doing a year from now — attending college, playing in a developmental league or going an unconventional route — is unlikely to change the trajectory of championship ambitions at, say, Gonzaga or North Carolina, or the rise of a turbocharger. The G League, a developmental league run by the NBA, or Overtime Elite, a new developmental league that pays high school and college-aged players.
Still, his next move is sure to generate interest from beyond the hyperkinetic fishbowl of college basketball recruiting. James, 37, told The Athletic before the NBA All-Star Game in February that he would spend his final season playing with his son. “Wherever Bronny is, I’ll be there,” he said, recalling a childhood scenario in which Ken Griffey and his son Ken Griffey Jr. played together for the Seattle Mariners. “I would do everything to play with my son for a year. It’s not about money at that moment.”
(Brony turns 18 in October and won’t be eligible for the NBA draft until 2024 under current rules, which require players to be at least 19 years old and one year removed from high school.)
James, whose contract with the Lakers expires next June when Bron is set to graduate from Sierra Canyon School, a private school in Chatsworth, Calif., declined to comment on Bron’s plans or experience preparing for the next level of basketball. Life is like that for him and his wife, Savannah, who sat next to him often last week with their 7-year-old daughter, Jury. (The Jameses’ youngest son, Bryce, 15, also plays at Sierra Canyon.)
Bronnie’s future will be discussed later, James said.
This is true. While many of Bron’s contemporaries will take campus visits, announce college commitments or reach deals with developmental leagues in the coming weeks, Bron has more immediate plans. He will leave Aug. 7 with the high school all-star team for exhibitions in London, Paris and Rome that will be broadcast on ESPN.
Still, as he begins to finalize his next move this fall, more than two dozen college and travel ball coaches, NBA scouts, television network officials and teenagers who played with and against Broney are waiting for his hiring — if not the decision entirely. Junior — being far from the norm.
“I don’t think I’m always on the phone with mom and dad like I usually am,” said one head coach at a school interested in Broney. That person, like the others, spoke on condition of anonymity because coaches are prohibited by NCAA rules from commenting publicly on recruiting athletes.
Ed Estevan, the Rush to Glory coach and assistant at Sierra Canyon, expects Broney to take recruiting visits this fall.
“I understand that he doesn’t have a normal life, but he’s a normal, normal kid,” Estevan said, noting that it’s rare for Broni to go to a restaurant or go through an airport without it. “He wants to experience all the other things that every other kid experiences.”
College coaches, he added, didn’t make much of an effort to recruit Broney until recently because they were skeptical he would go to college. “Now, a lot of college coaches know that he has interest in college and it’s somewhere that he’s probably going to find himself, so the phone is going off like crazy,” Estevan said.
A few things seem certain: If Bron goes to college, it will be at a school sponsored by Nike, which has invested heavily in his father since James entered the NBA as a generational phenom in 2003. and ESPN, which has often collaborated. James, will be an eager partner. James’ longtime advisers, Rich Paul and Maverick Carter, will be the go-to guys for anyone interested in recruiting Bronn. “I have to listen to Dad, Rich or Maverick,” said an assistant at the school that expressed interest in hiring him.
Finding the right place for Bron may not be as easy as choosing a blue blood. For example, Kentucky and Duke already have commitments from 5-star guards, his most likely future position. UCLA is targeting elite point guard Isaiah Collier from Marietta, Ga., and will also have a stacked depth chart. (UCLA and his other hometown school, Southern California, had shown no interest as of last week.)
If Bron isn’t playing a featured role, what coach would want the headache of explaining why — to the fans, the media, and James and his camp?
“You become a normal person as a parent — you just look for the best case scenario for your kid,” said Memphis coach Penny Hardaway, herself a former NBA star whose son Ashton, 18, is weighing whether to play at Memphis or elsewhere. . “As a parent, you want to make sure they’re supported wherever they go.”
Hardaway, who watched Bron play at least twice last week and spoke briefly with James, has used his NBA connections with Mike Miller, Rasheed Wallace and Larry Brown on his staff in recent years. (Brown is weighing a return; the others are gone.) Hardaway’s record, however, is mixed. Emmon Bates, one of the nation’s top recruits last season, fell to Memphis and has since transferred to Eastern Michigan.
Michigan coach Juwan Howard, whose son Jett will be a freshman this season, played with James for three seasons with the Miami Heat and spent another season with him as an assistant coach. The Wolverines are also interested, though it would be nice if James — a lifelong Ohio State fan — sent his son to the rival Buckeyes.
Still, Bronn could end up in Columbus. Ohio State, where James likely would have played had he gone to college, let James know it was interested in recruiting his son, and coach Chris Holtman and assistant Jake Diebler watched Broney play in the Peach Jam.
However, the limits of family ties will be tested when Keith Dambrot, James’ high school coach in Akron, comes calling. He’s the coach at Dukes.
One school that is suddenly eager to recruit James is Rutgers, a basketball player. Rutgers shouldn’t assume that coach Steve Pikiell’s strong track record of development — turning lightly regarded recruits like Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr. and Miles Johnson into decorated Big Ten players — will give James some appeal.
As fun as a brownie can be in Piscataway, Peach Jam provided a window into what it could be. Ever since he first played in a tournament just before high school, Bronny’s games have been awaited by crowds that line the hallways outside each court an hour in advance — even as high-ranking coaches are on other courts watching more prized prospects. This year, Ramel Drake, 32, came from Graniteville, SC, with his son, Mark, 5, thankful they could squeeze into the packed bleachers. (Mark pointed to Bronn wearing number 6.)
At this particular game, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul sat next to James in the corner of the gym, which he entered through a side door from the parking lot.
“Oh man, the atmosphere was crazy,” said Josh Hubbard, a guard from Madison who posed for a photo with his father after the game with James and his son. “There were people outside the gates, people waiting before the game to see us play.”
During this year’s personal evaluation season, which just ended this week, college coaches saw a different side of Bronn, who often played a supporting role on his high school and travel ball teams. Over the past few months, the Strive for Greatness roster has been falling apart, the team has rarely won, and Bronn has been left to run his team, a role familiar in the family.
“He’s tough as hell,” said Thaddeus Young, who just finished his 15th NBA season and sponsored a team that played “Strive for Greatness,” an assessment that largely echoed college coaches and NBA scouts. “Obviously, probably not the elite of the elite. “But he’s athletic, he’s strong, he plays defense, he can shoot the ball well, he can run to the guard position, he can play the ball.”
“I love playing it,” Young added.
Before too long, the general public will judge for themselves.