Inside Bronny James’ 2024 NBA Draft Combine, and why he could follow path of

CHICAGO — The name he bore was so unreasonably large that, when Bronny James stepped onto the floor for his first scrimmage at the 2024 NBA Draft Combine here this week, it was disorienting, at first, to recognize the person who carried it.

Wearing the gray pinny of his team, the number 50 on his back, the would-be NBA player best known as his father’s son seemed… tiny. His smallness, compared to the players who seemed to loom over him on that floor, fit neatly with some of the news he’d made: That without shoes he had measured in at just 6-foot-1.5.

There were hopeful signs, too, but they felt overmatched by so much doubt. Yes, his 40.5 vertical was outstanding, and, yes, his impressive 6-foot-7 wingspan offered more reasons for optimism for those eager to believe in the basketball player with the big name. But many here doubted this James belongs in the league, including several who had scouted him throughout his so-so freshman season at USC.

This scrimmage was a small, first step toward trying to disprove all that. Here, now, as the buzzer sounded and the game got underway, was a chance for Bronny to be a basketball player worthy of whatever pick he may earn in next month’s draft, despite the reservations, challenges and pressures that will follow him.

It was not a step that went particularly well.

At first, Bronny seemed to simply vanish from the floor. Not good. Not bad. Not overmatched. Just… not particularly there. A strange place to inhibit for a young man whose whole basketball life — and likely his whole basketball life to follow, whatever that looks like — has been illuminated by, weighted down with and enhanced because of his dad being LeBron.

Yet that invisibleness was better than what followed. These kinds of scrimmages are not exactly wildly revelatory insights into players’ NBA futures. Most of these aspiring hoopsters have not played together, are nervous, are fighting to have a shot at being drafted, and are playing a microcosm of a microcosm of their still-budding careers.

Yet Bronny, in these nearly 20 minutes, was not good. 

He went 2-for-8. He missed all four of his three-pointers. He had almost as many turnovers (3) as points (4).

The game reflected that severe uncertainty I’ve heard from several scouts and NBA executives who filed through L.A. this past college hoops season to watch Bronny during his time at USC. That he’s not good enough, yet. That he needs a year or two more in college to give him a real shot at NBA success. That even then he may fail.

That, were it not for his last name, the young man who averaged 4.8 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game on a paltry 36.6% shooting from the field and 26.7% from three — so, a shooting guard who can’t shoot, and a small player who can’t handle the ball well enough to play the point — wouldn’t even be a point of conversation, let alone a potential draft pick.

The same word from earlier came back to me, the one that had popped up when I’d first laid eyes on him at that scrimmage, the one I’d said almost offhandedly on the Beyond The Arc podcast when talking about my first impression of Bronny James.

One that could have applied to his size.

Or shot at greatness.

Or the odds many give him of even making it.

Tiny.


The word went out a few hours later. Bronny would be at the table in the corner, the one there by the entrance. The reporters swarmed, pushed, jostled. Lights flipped on. Phones, doubling as cameras and recorders, emerged. Nervous rookies wrote their questions out on their “notes” app, their voices later trembling as they asked a 19-year-old with the famous name the question they’d labored over. Weathered, savvy vets carved out the best spots possible to wait for the Chosen One’s kid. 

You could feel the excitement before you saw him, that rush of energy from people you can’t see but can feel. Then Bronny strolled in, politely asking the throng to part so he could pass. He took his seat, ready to begin his first-ever public grilling about a possible NBA career.

The juxtaposition between this young man and the player from the court earlier in the day at Winstrust Arena was striking.

That Bronny had seemed small — perhaps, in retrospect, as much compared to his namesake as his peers. This Bronny James was strikingly, and overwhelmingly, impressive. It is hard to overstate how much he commanded that moment.

He seemed as big a person — confident, even-keeled, funny, thoughtful and likable — as he had seemed the opposite earlier in the day. If then it was the impression of his smallness that stood out, now he seemed something quite different: a man in full.

Perhaps it is because of a life lived in the spotlight. Perhaps a childhood star like LeBron James, who knows the perils of that life and that experience, was well equipped to help his son navigate the strangeness of young fame. Perhaps the prospect of never playing again after collapsing on the court last summer matured more quickly the parts of his personality many of us take decades to hone. Perhaps he’s just an impressive guy.

Whatever the reason, listening to Bronny talk, you got the sense he can handle whatever’s coming.

Asked whether it’s his dream to play with his dad, he didn’t just answer with acumen and ease — he was utterly and totally believable, a fact a few notable longtime NBA big-wig reporters marveled at later. 

“No, never,” Bronny answered. “My dream has always just been to put my name out, make a name for myself, and get to the NBA, which is everyone’s end goal that’s here. I never thought about just playing with my dad. But of course he’s brought it up a couple of times.” 

Everyone laughed. 

“But yeah,” he finished, smiling, “I don’t think about it much.”

Later, he was asked about what others underappreciate about him. It was hard not to hear in his answer a mature acceptance that whatever his name, he is not, in fact, LeBron James — nor aiming to be.

“I feel like my competitiveness and willingness to win is a big part of who I am,” he said. “Also, just being a great teammate, a great coach’s player. That’ll take me a long way in this business.”

In that same vein, he shot down the idea he needed to evolve into a “floor general.” — coded language, perhaps, for a star or focal points. 

As it went on, this first meeting with the press seemed like a mission in humility, but it also seemed utterly authentic.

“My goal isn’t really to be that guy,” he said. “There’s a lot of guys in the NBA who have that role already. My current role is just to fit into a role that a team needs. That’s what’s going to get me drafted.”

One of the most interesting things he said  — and the most revelatory — seemed to point to a keen awareness that there is a giant target on his back, one that will likely burden him with a standard of expectations and level of scrutiny and difficulties few have encountered, ever.

He acknowledged that part of his reality when asked what emotions he’ll have if he is, in fact, drafted next month. “All that negativity and hatred is just going to pile down on me,” he said. “I really don’t know how I’m going to react. It’s going to be a lot.”

It sure will be. And not just that night, but many of the days and nights that follow — with the media, with fans, with a ravenous society that loves fame and loves often to hate the famous, and surely with the players Bronny will face who will often see him as a point to be proven, not a player like them.

Think the jealousy, attention, physicality, pressure and expectations that met Caitlin Clark on her debut in the WNBA Tuesday night — minus being armed to meet those things with a college career that was among the best ever.

Think the Ball brothers’ start in the NBA, when so many wanted a piece of them after their dad’s days talking, talking, talking — without being a top-three pick talent.

Bronny has LeBron’s name but not his talent. And that will make him a target without the same kind of shield others in his position have been able to use in their own defense.

Many think Bronny will fail. Way too many probably will root for it. Doubt and envy are not easy things to live with, day after day, but they will still mark a large part of Bronny’s early career.

That he knows this is a good sign. That he’s such an impressive person is, too. You don’t craft a basketball career without being good on the court. Of course not. But you probably don’t find out if you’re good enough on the court, if you’re LeBron James’ 6-foot-1 son, if you aren’t mentally tough, totally self-assured and aware of what you’re in store for.


That there are doubts about him from many scouts doesn’t alter the growing surety that he will be drafted at some point in the second round of next month’s draft. Many across the NBA believe the Lakers will take him in the second round with the 55th pick, if he’s still there. 

Why not, the thinking goes, when most players in that range never have a career anyway? Combine Bronny’s possible upside with keeping his dad happy and you have an equation that seems to add up to, take him.

Yet many of the same people acknowledge that if Bronny’s last name were not James, and his dad were not LeBron, it wouldn’t even be a consideration.

“No, he’s not good enough,” one talent evaluator who scouted Bronny at USC said. “Maybe if he went back to college for another year or two. But now? Not an NBA player. Not even close.”

Still, he’s athletic, he is LeBron’s son, he is an immensely impressive person, he gets it, and he will probably be given every chance to succeed — that, alone, will be a huge help. Time is precious for would-be talents who aren’t ready. It’s rare, too.

It’s also important to note that Bronny does not claim to aim to be his dad, nor aspire to be him. In fact, Bronny’s goals are much more reasonable, and they offer insight into an ambitious young player who seems to have a good plan for what to aim for.

Asked what player in the NBA he might aspire to play like, Bronny James offered up a list that feels decidedly un-LeBron like: Davion Mitchell, Jrue Holiday, Derrick White.

“Guys that excel in every role,” he said. “Get good money and get good playing time because they’re locked into that role and know what they’re supposed to do.”

Those are good comps.

Here’s another one, prodded by something a scout, among others, has reminded me of when I’ve passed on the doubts many who have scouted Bronny in person have about his chances to succeed in the NBA: That growing up in the game has real advantages, and can correlate in tangible ways to NBA success.

Thinking of that, another name came to mind: Gary Payton II.

I met GP2 when he was a little younger than Bronny is now, and I remember having the same impression: What a nice, impressive, down-to-earth dude he had been. And how much of an old soul he seemed for his age. 

That’s another thing you hear about Bronny. That his humility and down-to-earthness aren’t artifice, and that his intangibles as a person and teammate may well translate to the fortitude, work ethic and dedication it will take for a player like him to succeed.

He and GP2 have much in common. Both are the sons of men in, or sure to be in, the Hall of Fame. Both carry famous names. Both are smaller than their fathers, and both have faced or still do face much harder roads to the careers they crave.

Both are undersized guards who struggled with shooting but had athleticism and strong work ethics. 

Even their measurables at their respective combines are similar.

Height

6-foot-1.5

6-foot-2

Wingspan

6-foot-7.25

6-foot-8

Vertical

40.5 inches

38.5 inches

Payton II went undrafted, just as Bronny surely would if not for his name.

Payton II was able to grow, learn — fail — in relative anonymity. GP2 also went to college for two years — an extra year many believe Bronny could very much use.

But the point, and the comp, tell the same story: There is a path forward for the scions of all-time greats who are undersized athletic guards with suspect shooting skills and much hard work to do. They will face scrutiny over their name, sure, but, as that scout pointed out, a life raised around basketball learning from an all-time great might indeed be a very real Master’s degree in hoops few have access to on their way to the pros.

And then there’s this: The future isn’t written, however much most of us like to pretend we have all the answers. Bronny’s bad days — there will probably be many  — won’t necessarily tell the whole story of the other days to come. 

Because back in Chicago, at Bronny’s Wednesday scrimmage, on his second day trying to impress, things went markedly better. He scored a game-tying-high 13 points on 4-of-10 shooting, including 2-of-5 from deep, plus a couple of steals. He was much more active. He had that same calm confidence on the court as he’d had with the press the day before.

This time, he looked like he belonged. 

My first impression of Bronny James had been that he was tiny. Then I spent the combine trying to see him as clearly as I could. And what emerged was a picture more complex, that of a young man bigger than his six-feet-one-inches — with a large name to carry, yes, but perhaps the composure and grit that will help him do it successfully.

Perhaps.

“I’m just trying to put in the work,” he said this week, “and see where it takes me.”

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