On the final day in January more than five years ago, Bam Adebayo walked past the scorer’s table and onto the court for his first on-court meeting with LeBron James.
Before he’d be recognized as the anchor of the Miami Heat or one of the NBA’s best all-around defensive players, Adebayo was a 20-year-old rookie, a late lottery pick averaging a handful of points and rebounds in 20 minutes a game.
“He looks [at] me — and we all know who he is. ‘That’s Bron,’” Adebayo remembered. “But he like, he just told me everything about myself before I even stepped on the court.”
It’s when Adebayo knew he’d experienced something people who merely watch James play could never understand, that his IQ in the middle of a game is encyclopedic.
With James set to play in his 19th All-Star Game on Sunday in Salt Lake City, his competitors around the league were asked one question — what’s the skill or trait that you needed to experience in person to really understand James’ greatness?
The answers were either about James’ mind or body — the combination of the two meeting to make him the NBA’s all-time leading scorer earlier this month.
“Whatever the hype is, it’s true,” Clippers forward Paul George said. “Talking about a guy with his build, that size, fly down the court and jump out the gym and one of the best brains in the league that we’ve seen — it was just the full package. And I think it was just on display the second you saw him up close, just his brilliance on the court.”
LeBron James has dunked 63 times in 45 games this season. It’s the same percentage of dunks-per-shot attempts as he had his rookie season, a testament to his longevity from a physical standpoint.
“To be honest, it’s even now, just impressive how in good shape he is and how he’s just playing with such ease,” Denver center and two-time most valuable player Nikola Jokic said. “He doesn’t look like he’s struggling at all.”
James is probably the most-dissected player ever considering his rise coinciding with that of social media, expansive access to NBA games and a hot-take environment that James’ successes and failures helped fuel.
Yet if you think you know it all, you can’t — not unless you’ve shared the court with him.
“I think everybody appreciates LeBron and what he brings to the table,” Phoenix’s Kevin Durant said. “I think we know his game inside and out. But playing against him, you realize how strong and fast he is. I think that’s something that might fly under the radar a little bit, that his athleticism is once-in-a-lifetime, in a generation, and I don’t think it’ll ever be duplicated again. That’s something that you can’t really get a feel for through the TV, just the force and the power he plays with, it’s special.”
And even in a league with gigantic athletes, he’s a monster.
“He’s a lot taller than I thought he was — taller and stronger for sure,” Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “That was the biggest thing that stood out. He’s a lot bigger than he is watching him on TV.”
That once-in-a-generation burst combined with all that size, it caught Portland’s Damian Lillard off guard in their first matchup.
“I remember one play specifically that was like a cross-court pass and he kind of deflected it and he just kinda took off on the fast break and I was like running from the opposite wing. And he was just moving so fast. Like it was one dribble and he was in the air,” Lillard said. “… I think he’s still a super athlete and what he does is super impressive, but it’s not like it was. And that’s not to slight him. It’s to say how crazy it was to have an athlete that was doing that type of stuff.”
Philadelphia 76ers guard Mac McClung, who has scored three baskets in his NBA career, put on a show to win the NBA All-Star slam dunk contest.
George said the same — that James isn’t the athlete he was at his peak.
“I think there’s moments throughout the latter part of his career where you think to yourself, ‘Young Bron would’ve probably dunked the mess out of that,’” George said. “But when you think of him being 38 years old, Year 20, the athleticism that he still has. Everybody at some point loses it. But I think he’s definitely lost a step, but he’s so gifted that it doesn’t seem that far [from that].”
So how do you stop him?
“Foul him when you can,” Utah’s Jordan Clarkson said with a laugh. “Just keep fouling him until they don’t call them.”
Twenty years of basketball experience has led to James having one of the most-respected brains in the league.
“I don’t think people understand how smart he really is,” Chicago’s DeMar DeRozan said. “Maybe they know, but it’s a difference when you’re out there and you see him picking you apart, reading and understanding the game from a different level. That’s one thing about him that stands out even more being a competitor, going against him.”
The easiest examples? James blowing up opponents’ strategy like he was in the huddle with them.
“He’s as good as advertised,” Boston’s Jayson Tatum said. “He’s been playing the game for a long time and has a great IQ. He knows everything that’s going on at both ends of the floor. All the stories about him knowing the other teams’ plays and s— like that, it’s true. LeBron is as good as you think he is.”
The way James processes information in real time stood out to Memphis’ Jaren Jackson Jr. in their first game against each other.
“It was how he was reading the game in transition. Like he was bringing it up, telling people where to go while he was dribbling. That’s real,” Jackson said. “He’s calling plays on the fly, making reads. As he’s dribbling, he’s telling people where to go, he’s calling plays, he’s talking to the coach, talking to his family. He’s doing a bunch of stuff on the fly.”
The brain — and the ball — can end up moving pretty fast, Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox said.
“I played against him my rookie year in Cleveland — I didn’t play when they came to Sac — and just the way that he sees the game. How hard he throws the ball. It’s just everything about him physically that year,” Fox said. “Like my first time playing against him, it was like, ‘Yo, he’s on a different level than everybody else on the court right now.’ Just the way that he saw the game and how physically dominant he was. That was just crazy.
“… Like, if you’re not ready for a pass, he might break your finger. Or if you’re a second late and you’re not getting your hand up, the ball is just zipping right past your hand or right past your head. Just the way he saw the floor and the way he put everything on the ball, knowing that only his teammate would catch it was amazing.”
When James takes the court Sunday, he’ll be doing it with a group of All-Stars that have seen first-hand how he became one of the NBA’s best players of all time.
“The consistency is crazy,” Toronto’s Pascal Siakam said. “That’s something you watch from afar. Just seeing someone being there, every single day, in and out, in Year 20 … like that’s insane. Being at the level consistently. I think for me, just seeing that up close, is so incredible — being great, at such a high level, for that long. ... I think he’s going to slow down whenever he wants to slow down. Like it feels like he could play forever. It looks like it.”
On Feb. 25, 2020, in Los Angeles, one of the most hyped players since James, Zion Williamson, took the court for his first game against the Lakers. He played well — 29 points, six rebounds and plenty of physical dominance.
But James — he was just too much.
“He had 40,” Williamson said with a laugh. “It was one of those things where he just got to it — from three, from the middle, attacking the basket — the whole game he just played amazing basketball.
“It was one of those moments where it was like, ‘That’s why he’s LeBron.’”
All things Lakers, all the time.
Get all the Lakers news you need in Dan Woike's weekly newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.