How Bronny James improved his draft stock at the NBA combine

ByJamal Collier ESPN logo
Friday, May 17, 2024

WITH DOZENS OF cameras tracking his every move, Bronny James stepped onto the court Monday evening at the NBA draft combine ready to create his own narrative.

It was the first day of the strength and agility drills in Chicago, and James was in one of the last groups to participate, but several executives, including Los Angeles Lakers vice president Rob Pelinka, remained in the stands at Wintrust Arena to watch his workout.

James put together an impressive first day. He recorded a 40.5-inch vertical leap, which was the fourth highest among combine participants with solid marks relative to his peers in the agility drills. He shot 19-for-25 in the 3-point shooting drill, which ranked second overall. And despite measuring at 6-foot-1 without shoes, his wingspan of 6-foot-7 and 210-pound frame were still comparable to NBA players such as Gabe Vincent or Gary Harris.

James went on to participate in scrimmages the next two days, and scouts who spoke to ESPN this week applauded James for his performance and the way he filled a role to help his team win, hit open shots and played defense with enthusiasm.

In front of the watchful eyes of NBA executives, his combine performance -- from the measurables to the intangibles -- catapulted him up the ESPN Top 100 rankings, rising from No. 98 overall to No. 54. In a matter of days, his projection went from outside of the top 100 prospects to a potential second-round selection ahead of the June 26-27 NBA draft.

James initially was not among the most impressive of the 78 prospects invited to the combine, but instead he was somewhere in the middle of the pack. But most importantly, by the end of the combine, he looked like he belonged.

Bronny James has so far lived under the shadow of his superstar father,LeBron James. For years, his name has made headlines for his father's desire to play beside him before his career ends. LeBron James, 39, a four-time MVP and NBA champion, just completed his 21st season and could become a free agent this summer if he opts out of his contract with the Lakers. But he recently said he hasn't "given much thought lately" to teaming up with his oldest son in the NBA.

Bronny James, 19, told reporters this week that he considered the combine a showcase of the work he has put in since the end of his first college season at USC (adding more bulk), of himself as a person (taking questions from the media after not granting interviews as a freshman) and of the player he is on the court (an NBA prospect detached from his famous name).

James stated his goal was to make it to the NBA and not necessarily just to play alongside his father, the NBA's all-time scoring leader.

"My dream has always just been to put my name out, make a name for myself, and of course get to the NBA, which is everyone's angle in here," James said Tuesday. "I never thought about just playing with my dad, but of course, he's brought it up a couple times."

If Bronny James' goal this week was to create a divide between himself as a player and his father, he began doing so with a strong showing among the rest of the draft hopefuls in Chicago.

"It's coming around again," USC guard and fellow draft prospect Isaiah Collier said. "It's taking a little bit of time, but Bronny's going to be real good.

"Y'all gone see real soon."

WHEN ASKED WHICH NBA players most resemble his game, James pointed to theBoston Celtics' Jrue Holiday and Derrick White and Sacramento Kings' Davion Mitchell-- guards who excel in their roles by being pests on defense.

"[Mitchell] was an interesting comparison to hear him point out," a team executive told ESPN. "Showed he's realistic in thinking about this. I see some Aaron Holiday in him."

James' freshman season at USC was delayed after he went into cardiac arrest during a July practice and needed surgery because of a congenital heart defect. He did not make his college debut until December, but even then he acknowledged he was still feeling some lingering effects as well as some outstanding fear from the episode.

"He was in a tough situation in college," the executive continued. "He had the health issue, and their backcourt was already set. Collier is a legit lottery pick, andBoogie Ellisas a senior ahead of him. So I can see where [James] needs more time, but in a few years he's got a shot to be an NBA rotation player."

With a limited sample of game tape from his freshman season -- he averaged 4.8 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 25 games for the Trojans -- several executives who spoke to ESPN at the start of the combine said they were eager to see how James looked up close and on the court.

In his first scrimmage Tuesday, James failed to capitalize on the momentum from his strong showing on opening night. He struggled to find a rhythm while playing 19 minutes, going 2-of-8 from the field and collecting 4 points and 4 rebounds.

"He made that nice move for a floater," an Eastern Conference scout told ESPN. "But he needed to do something more to stand out."

"With his height, when you're undersized, you need to do more things that stand out," an Eastern Conference general manager told ESPN.

WEARING A BLACK hoodie with the hood pulled over his head as if that would make him incognito, LeBron James walked down the steps in the stands at Wintrust Arena and found a seat in the second row at center court.

He was accompanied by his wife, Savannah, as they took seats near LeBron's and Bronny's agent, Rich Paul. Bronny's second and final scrimmage of the week was about to begin.

He wasn't in the starting lineup for Wednesday's game, but he appeared comfortable from the moment he stepped on the floor. He scored during his first playing stint, getting a defender to leap in the air on a pump-fake before dribbling into a midrange jumper. He knocked down a pair of catch-and-shoot 3s and created for his teammates with some creative passes.

"These things take time, man. How many rookies come into the league at 19 years old with it all figured out and can make an impact right away?" a G League general manager told ESPN. "You trust the basketball IQ, and he's going to figure some stuff out because of how he was brought up. He is the son of LeBron James."

Bronny scored 13 points on 4-of-10 shooting in 23 minutes in the second scrimmage, earning him player of the game honors and a postgame interview on the ESPN broadcast.

LeBron sat with a smile in the stands as he pointed out Bronny walking over to put on a headset for the courtside postgame interview, and Savannah whipped out her phone to document the moment.

"I always try to play the right way, but my teammates and my coaches just encouraged me to be aggressive," Bronny said in the postgame interview. "They believe in me. I feel like that's a big part of why I come out and play the right way for my team and my teammates.

"They really helped me today."

BRONNY JAMES DECLARED forthe NBA draft while maintaining his college eligibility. He has until May 29 to decide whether to stay in the draft or return to college, where he has decided to enter the transfer portal.

James admitted this week that he has yet to make up his mind and declined to say if he will be meeting with NBA teams during the pre-draft process. James will have workouts with various teams based on conversations coming out of Chicago, a source said.

The Lakers have shown continued interest in James as the rest of the league becomes aware of what L.A. has been scouting for some time, a source said.

James will participate in Klutch Sports' pro day on Wednesday, May 22. Klutch is holding the pro day at the Lakers practice facility in El Segundo, Calif.

If James decides to return to college and transfer elsewhere, Duquesne is expected to be among his considerations, sources told ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski in early April. Duquesne's new coach, Dru Joyce, was a high school teammate of LeBron and is a longtime friend of the family.

For now, Bronny James is taking some time to himself to think about his future.

If he does choose the NBA, his performance this week helped raise his case as a legitimate prospect in the eyes of league executives and scouts.

"Wherever I'm happy, I feel like that's the best opportunity and situation that I want to be myself in," James said. "Yeah, just wherever my heart wants me to [go], I feel like that's where I should be."

ESPN's Dave McMenamin and Jonathan Givony contributed reporting.

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