Bronny James has become one of the basketball public’s greatest fascinations over the last several years. Bronny, the son of NBA all-time leading scorer LeBron James, was a four-star recruit who was invited to the McDonald’s All-American game and Nike Hoop Summit. There was building excitement for his pro future and speculation he might even share the court with his father in the near future. While no 2024 NBA mock draft from The Athletic ever considered Bronny James a first-rounder, other reputable prognostications placed him in that echelon entering the season.

But James’ first season in college did not go according to plan. He suffered a cardiac arrest in July, and though he was cleared to return to the court midway through the fall, he did not perform to a first-round standard at USC. Still, James decided to enter the NBA Draft, while maintaining his collegiate eligibility, and the transfer portal. He will likely play elsewhere next season, whether in a pro league or for another college.

At this point, James is expected to devote his energy to the NBA Draft process in hopes of securing a selection he and his father’s agency, Klutch Sports, would find desirable, multiple league sources tell The Athletic. It is unclear if they have a range of picks in mind or a specific team. But the plan is for James to see what happens over the next couple months before the May 29 withdrawal deadline.

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Here’s what you need to know about James’ situation and pro prospects.

What is Bronny James’ game and how does it translate to the NBA?

USC listed James as a 6-foot-4 guard, but most scouts believe he will likely be listed at 6-3 or maybe even 6-2 when measured at the NBA Draft Combine. He has a strong frame at 210 pounds and possesses an NBA-caliber combination of explosiveness and power.

By NBA standards, James is a defense-first player now. He fights at the point of attack, has the physical tools to disrupt most opposing guards and is strong enough to cut off their drives. He’s also a sharp team defender with great feel for the game. James probably cannot switch effectively enough to stop big wing creators, but he is physical enough to at least avoid getting hunted by them. He’s a bit small for an NBA off guard, but he’ll be able to hang on defense right away.

The problem is James is not an NBA-caliber offensive player yet and isn’t all that close. He averaged just 4.8 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 19.3 minutes per game while shooting just 36.6 percent from the field and 26.7 percent from 3. He showed much more shooting potential as a high-school player than he did in college. There is nothing inherently wrong with his mechanics. Perhaps he was out of rhythm after not being cleared to play during the offseason. But we’ve yet to see evidence that he can consistently make shots from the NBA 3-point line.

While James, like his father, is a high-level passer who sees the court well, he is not a particularly adept ballhandler or driver and not particularly shifty or crafty off the bounce. He struggled to generate half-court paint touches even when using screens or attacking heavy closeouts. He doesn’t change pace or direction all that effectively, nor does he cover ground quickly with his first step and stride length.

All in all, James was too easy to defend this season. Opponents could close out short on him because of his inaccurate jumper, then stay in front of him with ease. He didn’t have much of an in-between game either, making just nine of his 27 non-3, non-layup 2-point attempts. To become an NBA-level offensive player, James must take a massive step forward as a ballhandler.

Let’s say James’ name was Braun Jones and he wasn’t the son of the greatest NBA player of the last 30 years. What would NBA teams really think of him?

Point blank: We wouldn’t be talking about him as an NBA player this season. Teams are not interested in smaller, defense-first guards until they become good enough offensively to at least be effective in their role.

I asked five people who work for NBA teams — two scouts and three higher-ranking executives — a simple question: “Removing his name from the equation, where would Bronny James be drafted in 2024 if it was purely based on the merits of his game?” Four of them said he would go undrafted, with the fifth saying they would be willing to draft him late in the second round to be a two-way contract player because they liked his high hoops intelligence and defensive potential. When asked why they wouldn’t select him, two of the four evaluators said they thought he would never be good enough. The other two felt James had a chance to be good enough down the road, but it would take too much time and investment to develop him, and they’d rather get him later in his career after another team did that work.

The career path of Providence guard Devin Carter, a potential first-round pick this summer, is an instructive comparison. Like James, Carter is a 6-3, defensive-oriented guard with great feel and basketball processing ability. He’s also the son of a former NBA player, albeit a less famous one (longtime backup point guard Anthony Carter).

As a freshman, Carter was, in no way, shape or form, an NBA prospect. He averaged nine points per game at South Carolina before transferring to Providence. As a sophomore, Carter improved to 13 points and 2.5 assists per game but shot just 43 percent from the field and 30 percent from 3. At that point, several smart evaluators told me they saw a possible NBA player but viewed him as a potentially undervalued two-way contract candidate. Carter ultimately went back to school and took another leap this season, averaging nearly 20 points, nine rebounds and four assists while winning Big East Player of the Year. Only now is he on teams’ first-round radar — and that’s in what is considered a weak draft class.

Despite freshman-year production that was twice as large as James’ and a big jump from there as a sophomore, Carter still wasn’t considered anything close to a first-round pick. It took a multi-year leap, during which Carter became a real shooter, competent lead guard and great decision-maker. That is the pathway James should follow.

It’s not an easy one, especially for a player like him. Even those who are recognized as some of the league’s top perimeter defenders were also excellent offensive players in college. Current Orlando Magic guard Gary Harris, a player to whom James is often compared, was a five-star recruit and elite college player who averaged 13 points per game while shooting 46 percent from the field and 41 percent from 3 on a 27-9 Michigan State team as a freshman. Tony Allen, best known for his role with the Memphis Grizzlies, averaged 16 points per game and won Big 12 Player of the Year at Oklahoma State before entering the NBA. Chicago Bulls pest Alex Caruso averaged five assists and posted shooting splits of 50 percent from the field, 39 percent from 3 and 79 from the free-throw line at Texas A&M. New Orleans Pelicans defensive ace Herb Jones averaged 11 points and was SEC Player of the Year at Alabama. Milwaukee Bucks irritant Patrick Beverley averaged 14 points per game as a freshman at Arkansas and was named All-SEC.

The general feeling is that James is on the precipice of being a real draft prospect, but it will take multiple years of effort to get there.


Bronny and LeBron James shake hands before USC faced Washington State this past season. (Kirby Lee / USA Today)

Does being LeBron James’ son impact his draft stock?

Of course, especially since it comes in conjunction with LeBron’s potential free agency this summer (he has a $51 million player option). LeBron has said he would love to play on the same team as his son at some point. Will an NBA team select Bronny as a ploy to sell James on joining their team this summer? If so, at what pick would such an investment be worthwhile? Will Klutch Sports, led by LeBron’s agent and childhood friend Rich Paul, try to dissuade certain teams from drafting Bronny to get him to the location of their choice? These are questions multiple front offices are asking.

The obvious team to deploy such tactics is the Los Angeles Lakers, LeBron’s current team. The Lakers’ only assured pick this draft is the LA Clippers’ second-round pick, currently projected at No. 55. Los Angeles could also buy into an earlier part of the second round to better position itself to select Bronny. Outside of LA, the Philadelphia 76ers are the franchise most often brought up by members of other teams. The 76ers have a pair of stars in Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey, in addition to max cap space, their own first-round pick and an aggressive general manager in Daryl Morey.

If James is focused on the draft process, why did he also hit the transfer portal?

Keeping his options open is the right call at this stage. James’ coach, Andy Enfield, departed USC to go to SMU, so the staff that recruited James to USC is no longer there. New coach Eric Musselman is a successful college coach, having made the Elite Eight twice and Sweet 16 once in the last four seasons, but his on-court personally doesn’t vibe with every player. Maybe he and James would mesh well, but James can’t be sure yet.

Is there another program that makes the most sense for James if he stays in college?

It would require a coach comfortable with James’ level of fame and notoriety, even if James isn’t seeking it. Sources across the NBA and college hoops consider James to have high character and believe he is well-adjusted considering he’s been in the limelight his whole life. But having James on your roster inevitably leads to more public scrutiny.  Many schools will not be interested in James for that reason alone.

Duquesne was the school that came up most often in my conversations with rival college coaches at the Final Four. (To be clear, those were rival coaches connecting some dots, not anyone affiliated with Duquesne or James himself.) The Dukes, who reached the second round of the 2024 NCAA Tournament, recently appointed longtime assistant and former LeBron James high school teammate Dru Joyce III as their head coach following Keith Dambrot’s retirement. Dambrot coached LeBron in high school, as did Joyce’s father, Dru Joyce II,  and the younger Joyce is still considered one of LeBron’s close friends. It’s hard to imagine anyone the James family would trust more to develop their son.

Still, expect James to go through some process to find a new home if NBA teams are not enthusiastic about his draft stock.

How does James’ cardiac arrest last summer play into his future?

Because of that incident, James could be subject to an NBA Fitness-to-Play Panel, which is put into place to confirm that players with potentially life-threatening injuries are able to play in the NBA. “Cardiac illnesses and conditions” are among the specific reasons the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement lays out to bring such a panel together. James and his family have kept the specifics of his medical situation private, so it’s not clear if James’ situation would require such a panel. But if there is a possibility it would, and James remains in the draft, it behooves Klutch Sports and the rest of James’ team to get ahead of the issue and begin the process.

Fitness-to-Play Panels begin in one of two ways, league and agency sources tell The Athletic. The first is if the NBA itself flags something in a player’s medical testing. The new CBA now requires prospects to attend the NBA Draft Combine and undergo medical testing, so the NBA will get its hands on James’ medical records. If the league sees something, it would bring a Fitness-to-Play Panel together.

The second possibility is that the player may pre-emptively ask the NBA to put one together before the medical tests if they believe league doctors are likely to flag something in the results. Until a Fitness-to-Play Panel decision is finalized, that player is not allowed to participate in any NBA-sanctioned activities, including pre-draft workouts. Therefore, players with potential issues are incentivized to ask the NBA to begin the process earlier. If something is flagged at the May combine, there is little time for the prospect to go through a full pre-draft process.

Each panel features three doctors on it, according to the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement. The NBA appoints one doctor, the National Basketball Players Association appoints another, and the third is jointly appointed by the other two physicians. Each is certified in their field of medical expertise, with at least 10 years of post-fellowship clinical experience, and is a specialist in the subject matter of that player’s specific Fitness-to-Play Panel issue. They each register their opinion, and the decision is made on a majority-vote basis.

The process leading up to the convening of the official panel is arduous and invasive for players and their representation. Doctors will request everything related to the player’s condition as if it is a discovery process in a trial. They sift through every file, test, medical record and more.

At the actual panel, the doctor who has treated the player and feels confident in the player continuing to play will speak on his behalf. The player may also be asked to speak. The three independent doctors on the panel will ask the player’s primary doctor questions, and after hearing from those involved, the three doctors on the panel confer, sift through the evidence and vote.

These panels have happened before. If James requires and passes such clearance, he, like others in his position, would still be subject to the beliefs of each team’s individual medical staff. Some team doctors are known to be more risk-averse. Because of that, the pool of teams interested in selecting James will likely be even more limited than it would be for other prospects.

What should James do? Is there a right or wrong answer?

If the goal is solely to give him the best chance at long-term basketball success, I think he should go back to college and transfer to a situation where he can improve his off-the-dribble game and become a better shot creator.

If he enters the NBA now, I worry he’ll get stuck in the G League, where the basketball is not all that competitive. Very few defense-first players go from the G League to a multi-year NBA career, and I don’t think any pro team — whether in the NBA, G League or overseas — would provide James the reps he needs to become a better ballhandler. It’s not impossible for James to walk that path, but I think college offers a greater opportunity for him to improve his weaknesses.

But if James and his representatives believe he is better off going pro now as opposed to waiting, then so be it.

Required reading

(Top photo of Bronny James: Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)



Zrodlo

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