What Can We Learn From LeBron James’ High School Tape?
Corey Tulaba goes back in time to watch LeBron James’ high school film to figure out what lessons can be learned from scouting one of the greatest prospects of all time
It’s been nearly twenty years since LeBron James was selected with the first overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft; and after 37,000+ points, 10,000+ rebounds, and 10,000+ assists, I think it’s fair to say that the kid from Akron lived up to the hype. But with such limited film available back in the early aughts, what exactly was the LeBron hype all about? Sure, you could watch a LeBron breakaway dunk or highlight pass on SportsCenter or the dark web, but you couldn’t actually break his game down like you can today and really dive into the nitty gritty of what made LeBron so special and what holes (if any) the King had in his game back then. Now, however, in the year of our Lord 2022, thanks to the magic that is YouTube, we can.
So in a draft year with a couple of phenom prospects, is there anything that we can learn from going back in time, taking a closer look at what LeBron the prospect actually looked like, and applying those lessons to the present?
Let’s start with the importance of sample size. There aren’t as many LeBron James high school games available online as any random prospect you can type into an InStat or Synergy search bar, but there are enough games to form valid conclusions. In order to form your most accurate opinion of a prospect’s game, you should really watch as much as you possibly can. I know that this sounds like a pretty trivial and obvious point to make, but sometimes the most obvious things are of the utmost importance. The reason I mention this in regards to LeBron the prospect is that after watching the first two games that popped up on YouTube, I honestly walked away a little…underwhelmed. I mean, we’re talking about possibly the greatest pre-NBA prospect ever and a Top 2 player of all time, after all. You go into this experience expecting the Chosen One to dominate every aspect of the game, but it was clear that LeBron the prospect had not yet evolved into his final form.
LeBron is one of the most fluid basketball athletes of all time, but it was clear that, like most huge high school kids, there were moments when it seemed as if he was still adjusting to growing into his godly frame. There would be these possessions where he would make a nasty move, but it would feel just a tad rushed, as if his body was moving faster than his mind like a person who just bought a Ferrari and needed more reps behind the wheel before they could push it to 110 and stay in complete control.
In a lot of ways, it reminds me of another super freak prospect from France.
It wasn’t just LeBron’s sporadic clumsiness that left me wanting more. We all know that LeBron has never been known as a sniper, but in the first few games that I watched, his shooting looked almost disastrous. Seriously, he couldn’t throw a rock in the ocean standing on the beach. No matter what kind of jumper he shot, it just wouldn’t fall. Things got ugly. LBJ settled for inefficient mid-range shots over smaller players and ugly pull-ups from behind the high school line that would clank off the side of the rim.
You’d see a flash of some ridiculous off-the-bounce combo move that young Bron connected on, followed up by LeBron running down the floor and throwing up an airball. There were just technical aspects of his form that really needed to be improved upon. James had this narrow, sometimes pencil-like base and a natural fade that really affected the consistency of his release.
If your sample size isn’t big enough, you may walk away from young LeBron’s film thinking not only that he couldn’t really shoot but that his shot was going to be a real issue. There just weren’t many encouraging shooting results, and he had a propensity to settle. At the end of the day, the shots need to go in, right? Well…not necessarily when you’re a pre-NBA prospect. You’d rather the shots go in than not, but scouting is about projecting a prospect forward. While the shots didn’t go in as much as you’d like them to, there were pretty easy functional tweaks to be made, and LeBron had confidence in his own ability to make them. If you had only watched those two games, you’d have an incomplete evaluation and miss the next game that I flipped on, where young LeBron flamed a Trevor Ariza led Westchester squad for a cool 52 points mostly through a barrage of long-range off-the-bounce jumpers that would not only help you buy into the flashes, but also sell you on them.
Again, watch as many games as possible before forming conclusions, and always be willing to adjust those conclusions with new information.
This leads us to my next takeaway: consistent flashes are meaningful. It isn’t smart to disregard a prospect’s weaknesses, but you also have to recognize that these kids are far from finished products, and what is a weakness today may not be a weakness in the proverbial tomorrow. NBA development teams are awesome at pinpointing the intricacies of a player’s perceived weakness and identifying how to improve upon them. If a prospect has the right work ethic and the on-court freedom to get better, most of the time, they will. This is especially true for high-level prospects. If the greatest prospect of all time can shoot airballs, hit the bottom of the backboard on reverse layup finishes, look sped up, and just have really ordinary moments, so too can the young kids of today. Being a high-level lottery prospect doesn’t mean you’re going to look like a finished product your first few years in the league, far from it, but you will see flashes of what the actualized version of a prospect looks like—moments where it all comes together, and you know there’s a higher level to one day be reached. We all may have watched one of those seminal prospect moments this week, as the presumed top 2 picks flashed nearly everything that makes them special.
As draft analysts, we by nature want to overanalyze every aspect of a player’s game, but don’t let the need to nitpick every little detail cloud your judgment when zooming out and looking at the bigger picture. Even though the jump shot was inconsistent, LeBron was willing to let it fly. That willingness to shoot it at volume is something that I value as a scout. Some prospects are clearly afraid to fail, and they try to hide their weaknesses as much as possible. It’s why I want to see someone like Amen Thompson shoot a variety of shots this season that push him out of his comfort zone. I want Amen to be more concerned about progress than percentages. Scoot, on the other hand, while still a poor shooter (he nearly broke the backboard with his first shot attempt of the second game last week), is ultra-confident, and that’s why he could also knock down a step-back three over the outstretched arm of Victor in the first game. LeBron never shied away from the fact that he wasn’t a good shooter early on because he trusted his work. To this day, LeBron still has a natural fade to his jumpers, but he worked on the little details of his shot to where his base and balance have much improved throughout his career. LeBron’s willingness to fail with his shot early on is what ultimately led to its success.
Something you’ll notice when going back and watching game tape from the year 2002 is that basketball was MUCH different. The spacing sucked, the pace was slow, team lineups favored more traditional positionality; it was normal for players to settle for long twos. It was just visually messy through today’s lens, but context really matters when projecting futures. Nowadays, a team would just give LeBron the ball, spread the floor, and let him cook out of high pick-and-roll. That wasn’t the case for high school Bron. St.Vincent St.Mary would rarely have LeBron initiate offense in the halfcourt, so while LeBron consistently showed Magic Johnson-esque flashes in transition, you didn’t truly see the point forward ability in its purest form.
Instead, you’d see a lot of perfectly timed drive and kicks or some weak-side skips when LeBron was in the post or playing against a zone. Sometimes we need to use our imagination and try to think about what a player might look like in an actual NBA offense against actual NBA defenses. LeBron always had the tools to serve as the de facto point guard, but the NBA is what gave him the opportunity to fulfill that destiny.
Those tools matter. Some people were born with talents that other people could straight-up never replicate, no matter how hard they work. It matters. Of course, as Giannis recently said at Bucks media day, the results don’t come without obsessive work, but the truly great players mesh that insane work ethic with otherworldly physical tools that just can’t be taught. You can’t teach Amen and Scoot’s athletic package or whatever the hell Victor is. LeBron was a unicorn in his own right in the early 2000s. He was the size of an old-school power forward with the perimeter skills of a guard. In the nineties, Converse eighty-sixed a Larry Johnson commercial where Larry Bird and Magic Johnson get together in a lab to create the perfect basketball player. If you did that commercial today, they’d be working on LeBron instead of LJ. Young LeBron was the ultimate mismatch. He could attack the rim with a lightning-quick first step and weave through defenders finishing with power or finesse, or he could bring you down low and take advantage of a mismatch on the block. The combination of speed, power, and coordination that LeBron flashed at such a young age was incalculable. Physical tools aren’t the end all be all of what makes a player special, but they matter a whole hell of a lot when it comes to NBA superstardom.
Let’s transition to the other side of the ball and discuss pre-NBA LeBron’s defense.
Evaluating high school defense in the halfcourt can be challenging. If you listen to a lot of scouting podcasts or read sites like No Ceilings, you’ll often hear something like: “I didn’t love the defense, but it’s high school, so let’s see what it looks like in a more structured context.” A lot of high school games can get sloppy or real up and down, plus the premier prospects usually have a pretty overwhelming physical advantage over their opponents. So, how important is it to really form a concrete opinion on a defensive prospect in this context? I wouldn’t let the concrete dry.
It’s hard to quantify, but if a prospect shows good effort and defensive tools, it’s probably a good indication they’ll become passable even if they aren’t always in the right spots or committing all their energy to that side of the floor. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that LeBron has become one of the most special defenders the league has ever seen, with the ability to guard one through five. But in high school? Well, the King’s defense could get pretty lazy. Our own Tyler Metcalf, who is a kindred spirit of mine in his appreciation for defensive structure and fundamentals, would have a heart attack watching LeBron’s engagement and positioning on that end for the Irish. Bron rarely got into a stance on ball and was prone to fall asleep or be out of position in order to gamble for steals on the weak-side.
So we once again have to go back to understanding the context of the defense that St. Vincent St. Mary played. They were much more comfortable applying aggressive fullcourt pressure where they could overwhelm opposing teams with size and athleticism than they were playing fundamentally sound halfcourt defense. This allowed LeBron to gamble more freely and generate easy points by playing the passing lanes on his way to a pick-six finish.
But there were also real flashes where LeBron would put in the on-ball effort that would lead you to believe that he could be a great halfcourt defender! I know none of this is a revelation because we have evidence that he was one of the most valuable NBA defenders ever on that end when he was locked in, but it’s important to note because this is an exercise in projection, and while I’m about to show you examples of good defense, there were also many possessions like this.
While it’s fairly common now, it’s really hard to put into words how rare it would have been at that time for a player of his size to be as mobile as LeBron was while being able to guard as many positions as he could. LeBron’s ability to move laterally, flip his hips, and hold his ground physically was unreal.
If you were lucky enough to watch LeBron in high school, it wouldn’t have been shocking when he eventually locked down D-Rose in the Eastern Conference Finals. LeBron even gave us glimpses of his open court chasedown ability that ultimately culminated in one of the greatest defensive plays in league history with his block on Iggy. The signs were always there for greatness on the defensive end, even if the effort would wane.
We’re about to witness the greatest race to the bottom of all time as teams jockey for position to be lucky enough to select one of Victor Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson. Those guys are the kind of prizes that every lottery team prays for during a rebuild. Just as LeBron was the ultimate prize before them.
I don’t know if I’m ready to crown Wembanyama as the best prospect ever or Henderson as a generational guard. Some of the things LeBron did as a high school prospect (given the era) were just as silly as Vic dribbling into fallaway threes. But what I do know is that prospect LeBron had shown shortcomings—shortcomings that Draft Twitter would undoubtedly highlight ad nauseam throughout the process. There would absolutely be a contingency denouncing the potential all-time greatness of King James due to the fact that he wasn’t perfect. I’m even sure that contingency existed back then, but it would be louder now.
These kids are works in progress, and that’s the point of this exercise because so too was LeBron. As spectacular as Victor and Scoot looked in the G-League exhibitions last week, they’re both bound to have some duds throughout their respective seasons. As will the rest of the class. Let’s try not to overreact too much when that happens because sometimes, when you’re special, you’re just flat-out special, and that surface-level analysis is more on point than some long-winded over-complication.
I love getting as detailed as possible with prospect breakdowns and can nitpick the shit out of all of them. I hate the way Wembanyama and Lively open up after they screen, but is that micro detail really going to make or break their long-term success? Doubtful. That shit can be coached. I’m still going to get into the nitty-gritty, but I’m going to do my best to be as contextual in my viewership as possible and not overthink what needs not to be overthought because the kids at the top of this draft are special.
So let’s sit back, do our best to evaluate these kids as fairly as possible, learn from history, and enjoy the ride because we’re about to embark on what we may look back on in twenty years as an all-time draft cycle.