NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. — College basketball’s familiar faces — Mike Krzyzewski, John Calipari, Roy Williams, Tom Izzo, Jay Wright and on and on — convened last week at a recreation center here in South Carolina, as they have for years in mid-July, to scout the best high school talent in the country.
But none of them were present for the biggest draw on Court 5 one day last week at The Peach Jam tournament, where hundreds of spectators lined up three hours before an afternoon game that featured players 15 and younger. The crowd squeezed into the court’s wooden bleachers and the balcony above — standing five deep and eventually drawing the attention of the local fire marshal — to get an early glimpse at a player who has not yet entered high school.
He does, however, have a household name: LeBron James Jr.
While college coaches bided their time to get a peek at LeBron Jr., who goes by Bronny, others could not wait.
Dozens of fans rose, cellphones aloft, each time he shot a 3-pointer, and the games carried an unusual degree of intensity, even for showcases that sort out the pecking orders of adolescent alpha dogs. When Team Final, a group based in Philadelphia, had beaten Strive for Greatness, with Bronny on a roster of players from California, Arizona, Utah and Nevada, the celebration was so vigorous that one expected confetti to drift down from the rafters.
As the final seconds ticked away, Enai White, a 6-foot-5 forward who will be a sophomore this fall at Imhotep Institute Charter in Philadelphia, waved his arms at the fans behind his bench to get them to cheer even louder.
“It was crazy,” Enai said of the atmosphere. “I’ve never seen nothing like this for a 15-U A.A.U. game.”
“I’m not going to lie,” he added. “It made me feel like a little celeb.”
If there was anyone in the gym who seemed to greet the environment with a shrug, it was the young James himself. At 14 he was one of the youngest on the court, but he was also often the most composed — calmly passing the ball out of traps, stepping in to break up a confrontation that resulted in double technicals, and in one game looking unperturbed as he listened to chants of “overrated” while he stood at the foul line in the final minute.
(He missed both free throws, but that has been known to happen.)
Paul Biancardi, an ESPN recruiting analyst and a former college coach, said Bronny’s poise was not much different from his father’s when he was a high school phenomenon.
“He’s been taught by the absolute best,” said Biancardi, who as an assistant at Ohio State had recruited LeBron James.
Though James did not attend the tournament, two of his close friends did; Chris Paul and James’s former teammate Mike Miller each watched Bronny play. At one game, Paul sat next to James’s wife, Savannah, and the couple’s young daughter in a corner of the gym that was near an exit and well fortified by security guards. Bronny’s grandmother and other members of the family circle watched, too.
(One of Bronny’s games last summer had to be shut down because of a fan who was heckling James, which may have explained why there was also a security guard stationed on the Strive for Greatness bench.)
“He’s been well prepared for this — as well as anyone can,” Miller said. “It’s been a group effort, by his mom, his grandmother, the whole family.”
Bronny, who is listed as 6-foot-2, resembles his father in many ways: his smile, facial expressions and slightly duckfooted gait are familiar — as are his pass-first sensibilities, which is a largely recessive trait in the grass-roots basketball world. And yet there are signs that he is his own young man — his tinted hair is grown out more than his father’s ever has been, he wears the uniform No. 0 (not his father’s 23 or 6), and he can skillfully juggle a basketball with his feet.
In this orbit, Bronny is more complementary player than chosen one. Though his jump shot is much more refined than his father’s at a similar age, his physical gifts are playing catch-up with many of the elite players his age.
James lamented last year that he had passed his name on to his eldest child, though his intentions were honorable. “When I was younger, I didn’t have a dad,” he said on “The Shop,” his HBO show. “So my whole thing was like, whenever I have a kid, not only is he going to be a Junior, I’m going to do everything that this man didn’t do.”
James is not shy about sharing stories of his children on social media, which might explain why Bronny has 2.7 million followers on Instagram.
There were other scions in this tournament, which featured 15-, 16-, and 17-and-under divisions: Kenny Lofton Jr., Jamal Mashburn Jr., Larry Hughes Jr., Adrian Griffin Jr. and the grandson of the Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Their careers may be tracked by the basketball cognoscenti who filled the small gyms, but those who attended Bronny’s games — or hoped to — were largely fellow teenagers.
When security guards closed the doors to the gym before Bronny’s final game here, they slammed shut on Mark Abduo, 21, and the four high school players he had driven down from Pittsburgh to watch the tournament. They had skipped lunch and waited three hours in line to get in.
“They need to change the location,” Abduo said. “The next four years, it’s just going to get bigger and bigger.”
That much seems certain. Bronny will enroll as a freshman this fall at Sierra Canyon, a private school in the Chatsworth neighborhood of Los Angeles, where he will join Dwyane Wade’s son Zaire, Scottie Pippen Jr. and Kelvin Martin Jr. on the basketball team.
At the moment, among his peers — gangly and still developing — Bronny seems a good player among more talented ones.
“Definitely a Division I player,” Biancardi said, be it Duke or Duquesne. That will be determined with time, he said — and plenty of people watching.
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