NORTH AUGUSTA, SC – LeBron James sat on a folding chair in the corner of the recreation center’s basketball court last week, often seen in a state of shock.
It was James, frequently approaching the court to check the scoreboard and the clock above him. Or cutting into an apple and digging into a gallon-sized bag of nuts. Or begging, “Come on, reference” when he doesn’t like the call.
As he passed the ball in from the starting line, he shook it vigorously and stopped to whisper instructions to his son. James took the court at halftime – first to give advice to the coach of the travel ball team he was rooting for for a great effort and then to take a shot from his left hand that prompted many in the packed bleachers to pull out their cell phones. To record the exercise.
For several days at Nike’s annual summer recruiting showcase, Peach Jam James was another basketball dad (albeit one with a security detail). He was there, learning where his oldest son, LeBron James Jr., would go by Brony and where his basketball future lay, just like any other high school player entering his senior season (with 6.3 million Instagram followers and the father of an internationally-renowned basketball star).
Broney, a 6-foot-2 guard who has mostly good basketball IQ but lacks the athleticism and finesse of a graduate — could be a role player for almost any team.
Regardless of where Broney ends up a year from now — he goes to college, plays in a developmental league or takes an unusual path — it’s unlikely to change the championship aspirations of Gonzaga or North Carolina or the Turbos. The G League, a developmental league run by the NBA, or the Part-Time Elite, a fledgling developmental league that pays high school and college-age players.
Still, his next step is sure to generate interest beyond the hyperkinetic fishbowl of college basketball recruiting. James, 37, told The Athletic that he will spend one last time playing with his son before the NBA All-Star Game in February. “Wherever Brony’s at, that’s where I’m at,” said Ken Griffey, whose son Ken Griffey Jr. played together for the Seattle Mariners as a child. “I will do whatever it takes to play with my son for a year. At that time, it’s not about the money.
(Brony turns 18 in October and won’t be eligible for the NBA draft until 2024. Under current rules, players must be at least 19 years old and one year removed from graduating high school.)
As Broney is set to graduate from Sierra Canyon School, whose contract with the Lakers expires next June, James declined to discuss the private school in Chatsworth, Calif., about Broney’s plans or experiences to prepare him for the next level of basketball. Life is like that for him and his wife, Savannah, who spent most of the past week hanging out with their 7-year-old daughter, Zuri. (James’ youngest son, Bryce, 15, also plays at Sierra Canyon.)
“There will be time to talk about Broney’s future later,” James said.
This is true. While many of Broney’s contemporaries will be making campus visits, announcing college commitments or reaching deals with developmental leagues in the coming weeks, Broney has more immediate plans. He leaves Aug. 7 with his high school all-star team to play exhibitions in London, Paris and Rome that will be broadcast on ESPN.
Still, as he begins to take the next step this fall, more than two dozen college and travel ball coaches, NBA scouts, television network executives and juniors who played with Brown expect his recruiting — if not his junior decision — to be far from normal.
“I don’t think I’m always on the phone with mom and dad like I am,” said one school head coach interested in getting to know Brony. This person, like the others, spoke on condition of anonymity because coaches are prohibited by NCAA rules from commenting publicly on recruited athletes.
Ed Estevan, a coach for greatness and an assistant at Sierra Canyon, expects Broney to take recruiting visits this fall.
“I understand he doesn’t have a normal life, but he’s a normal, normal kid,” Estevan Broni said, adding that it’s rare to go into a restaurant or go through an airport without the bakers. “He wants them to experience all the other things that other kids get to experience.”
College coaches didn’t put much effort into recruiting Broney until recently because they doubted he would have attended college. “Now, a lot of college coaches know he’s interested in college, and that’s where he sees himself going, so the phone is going off like crazy,” Estevan said.
A few things seem certain: If Broney does attend college, it will be at a Nike-sponsored school that has invested heavily in his father since James entered the NBA as a generational phenom in 2003. James, will be an eager partner. James’ longtime mentors, Rich Paul and Maverick Carter, would be a conduit for anyone looking to hire Brony. “I’d have to listen to my dad, Rich or Maverick,” said an aide who works at a school interested in recruiting him.
Finding the right place for a brony may not be as easy as choosing a blue blood. Kentucky and Duke, for example, received commitments from 5-star guards, likely his future position. UCLA elite point guard Isaiah Collier of Marietta, Ga. He is targeting, and will also have a stacked depth chart. (UCLA and another hometown school, Southern California, have not expressed interest as of last week.)
If Broney isn’t going to play a big role, which coach is going to have the headache of explaining why – to the fans, the media and James and his camp?
Memphis coach Penny Hardaway, a former NBA star herself and whose 18-year-old son Ashton is considering playing at Memphis or elsewhere, said: “As a parent, you become a normal person — you’re looking for the best situation for your child.” . “As a parent, you want to make sure they’re being supported wherever they go.”
Hardaway, who saw Brony 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. One of the nation’s top recruits last season, Emoni Bates, transferred from Memphis to Eastern Michigan.
Michigan coach Juan Howard, whose son Jett is a freshman this season, has played three seasons with the Miami Heat and spent another season as an assistant coach with James. The Wolverines are also interested, even if James — a lifelong Ohio State fan — sends his son to the rival Buckeyes.
Still, Broni can reach Columbus. Ohio State could have played for James if he went to college, James let his son know he was interested in recruiting, and coach Chris Holtzman and assistant Jake Diebeler watched Broney play in the Peach Jam.
The limits of family ties are tested when Keith Dambrot, the coach at James High School in Akron, comes calling. He is the coach at Duquesne.
One school making an unexpected push to recruit James is Rutgers, a basketball player. As far-fetched as it may seem, Rutgers hopes coach Steve Pickle’s strong development record — turning unlikely recruits like Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr. and Miles Johnson into Big Ten players — has some appeal for James.
As fun as Brony’s in Piscataway was, it offered a window into what Peach Jam might look like. Since he was playing in the tournament for the first time before he started high school, crowds waiting to see Broney fill the hallways outside the court an hour before tipoff — even as top major league coaches are watching more esteemed prospects on other courts. This year, Ramel Drake, 32, of Graniteville, S.C., with his son Mark, 5, is grateful to be able to get into the packed janitors. (Mark points to Bronny wearing number 6.)
In this particular game, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul sat next to James in the corner of the gym and entered through a door on the side of the parking lot.
“Oh man, the environment was crazy,” said Madison guard Josh Hubbard, who took a photo with his father after playing with James and his son. “There were people outside the gate at the game just waiting to see us play.”
During this year’s in-person evaluations, which ended this week, college coaches saw a different side of Broney, who often played a backup role on his high school and travel ball teams. Over the past few months, the list’s quest for greatness has steadily stumbled, the team has rarely won and Broney has been left to carry the team – a role that runs in the family.
“He’s tough as hell,” echoed by college coaches and NBA scouts, said Thaddeus Young, who just completed his 15th NBA season and sponsored his Strive for Greatness team. “Of course, they’re probably not elite elites. But he’s athletic, he’s strong, he plays defense, he shoots the ball well, he runs the point guard position, he can play off the ball.
“I like his game,” Young added.
Before long, a wider audience will judge itself.