Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
January 10, 2004
BASKETBALL: The Next Big O
Bill Simmons has a fine column on why LeBron James is the real deal. James still needs a lot of work (biggest weakness: he's averaging almost 4 turnovers a game), but his in-season progress has already been dramatic, and the kid just turned 19 two weeks ago.
I disagree, though, with one assertion in Bill's column:
When LeBron hits his prime, surrounded by quality shooters and big guys who can run the floor, he'll toss up a triple-double for an entire season. Comfortably. We're talking 33/12/13 every night.
The scoring and assists, I can see; in that respect, projecting James as a potential next Oscar Robertson isn't unreasonable, although such projections are always speculative.
LeBron is currently averaging 5.8 boards per game, playing over 40 minutes a night on a crummy team with lots of rebounding opportunities (the Cavs are shooting .427 from the field as a team). That means he has to go a long, long way to 12 boards a night. Most NBA players -- with the exception of specialists like Ben Wallace or slow-developing big men like Patrick Ewing or Kevin Garnett -- enter the league at or near their peak as rebounders. Michael Jordan pulled in 6.5 rebounds/game as a rookie, and only once cleared 7 a game. Larry Bird: 10.4 R/G as a rookie, career high of 11 three years later. Clyde Drexler: 6.0 his second season (his first playing starters' minutes), cleared 7/g twice. Magic Johnson: went up from 7.7 as a rookie to 9.6 two years later, and downhill after that. Robertson himself averaged 10.1 as a rookie and 12.5 his second year, and dropped off after that. If LeBron is a star rebounder in the making, I'll be shocked.
I emailed Bill about this, and he does have his reasoning: LeBron's currently playing guard and playing away from the basket, so he'll get more opportunities to hit the boards when he moves to the frontcourt later in his career; plus, he's just a teenager and still growing. Bill knows more about basketball than I do, and he's seen a lot of LeBron's games, whereas I've only seen highlights. It's true enough that Garnett shows how a skinny teenager can develop into one of the league's best rebounders. But I still think history is against LeBron ever developing into a double-figure rebounder.