At 22, LeBron James is on his way to playoff stardom

Above expectations

June 07, 2007|By Sirage Yassin | Sirage Yassin,Sun reporter

Overall No. 1 picks in the NBA draft can't hide. Some are more visible than others. Then there is LeBron James.

James, who made the jump from high school to the NBA, pulled on a No. 23 jersey - fully knowing its significance - and lifted an entire city, not just a franchise, onto his back.

Tonight, Ohio's favorite son will play on basketball's grandest stage, when he leads the Cleveland Cavaliers in their first NBA Finals appearance, against the San Antonio Spurs.

At 22, James is not the youngest player to reach the Finals, but perhaps he is the youngest to do so with so much pressure and so many expectations on him.

Since James entered the NBA in 2003, he has lived with comparisons daily. As if the NBA were looking for its next messiah, many touted James as Michael Jordan's successor, an athlete who would be the league's marquee player for at least the next decade.

"I don't really like it when people use Jordan and anybody in the same sentence, because Jordan's greatness was over time," NBA analyst and former coach Jeff Van Gundy said in a teleconference Tuesday. "He had the unique combination of athleticism, skill, basketball IQ and complete will to win."

James, as self-aware as necessary, has shied away from calling himself the next Jordan. Like most young basketball players, James has called Jordan his idol. Like most young basketball players, he has fashioned parts of his game after Jordan's - including wearing No. 23. There are other flashes on the court: explosive dunks, fadeaway jumpers and shining charisma, but his style of play reminds some of another former superstar.

"No question, he's a lot like Magic [Johnson]," said David Thorpe, an NBA analyst for ESPN.com. "They are guards in power forwards' bodies. They're bigger than every guy they go against. And it's their interest in making the pass that sets them apart. The other ingredient that Magic had was he was incredible at being a leader and breathing spirit in his teammates. And LeBron has shown that this year."

Some believe James is patterning Jordan off the court more than he is on it. James is a marketing sponge.

Chicago-based sports marketing consultant Marc Ganis knows firsthand the impact Jordan had and still has economically. Ganis thought it would be awhile before James would be worthy of such attention by advertisers.

"I didn't think he deserved to take over that part just yet. But the distinction with LeBron is he has exceeded all expectations," Ganis said. "His level of play has matched the hype. It's a tribute to him for putting the game first."

Putting the game first has James on the threshold of a title. In his second postseason - his breakout postseason - he has shown the basketball world he can produce by distributing the basketball and, when necessary, taking over a game.

James took criticism in the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals against the Detroit Pistons for being too passive down the stretch. But after the Cavaliers rallied to tie the series at two games, James scored 48 points - including his team's last 25 - in a double-overtime Game 5 win, cementing the performance as one of the best in postseason history.

"He's been a great player ever since he [set] foot in this league," Van Gundy said. "I think in the Pistons series he went from great to special. Whether he can do it in the Finals or he can do it over time, that to me is the intriguing part of it."

Former University of Maryland basketball coach Bob Wade said James has some Johnson-like traits, but that he has awhile to catch him in the passing category. Still, Wade, who has spent much of his life working with youngsters on the court, is impressed with the way James has performed in these playoffs.

"He's done a phenomenal job. He's played 82 games plus the playoffs; that's kind of rough. Especially for a young person who didn't go to college," Wade said. "He's an outstanding player, but I don't think he's in the Jordan era yet. Until he can put a few championships under his belt, he has a few years to go. It's all about consistency."

Jordan also had impressive playoff performances early in his career, but he didn't win it all until he was 28. He retired with six rings - four of which came in his 30s - and could have had two more if not for a jump to baseball after his third championship.

For James and the Cavaliers, beating the Spurs four out of seven games won't be easy, though Ganis said their chances are better than most people think. James, Ganis said, will have to have spectacular outings for Cleveland to have a chance.

In his fourth year in the league, James has taken the first step toward filling Jordan's and Johnson's shoes by reaching the Finals. An upset of the Spurs would be even more impressive.

"They're a dangerous team," Thorpe said of the Cavaliers. "And they're more dangerous now that LeBron had that one breakout game ... where he just carried a team in really unprecedented ways."

Let the coronation begin.

sirage.yassin@baltsun.com

NBA FINALS

Game 1

Today: Cleveland @San Antonio, 9 p.m.

Game 2

Sunday: Cleveland @San Antonio, 9 p.m.

Game 3

Tuesday: San Antonio @Cleveland, 9 p.m.

Game 4

Next Thursday: San Antonio @Cleveland, 9 p.m.

Game 5*

June 17: San Antonio @Cleveland, 9 p.m.

Game 6*

June 19: Cleveland @San Antonio, 9 p.m.

Game 7*

June 21: Cleveland @San Antonio, 9 p.m.

*-if necessary. All games televised on chs. 2, 7.

Stacking up

Statistics for three NBA stars' first two seasons in the playoffs:

LeBron James

Season Games PPG APG RPG 2005-06 13 30.8 5.8 8.1 2006-07 16 25.8 7.5 8.5

Michael Jordan

Season Games PPG APG RPG 1984-85 4 29.3 8.5 5.8 1985-86 3 43.7 5.7 6.3

Magic Johnson

Season Games PPG APG RPG 1979-80 16 18.3 9.4 10.5 1980-81 3 17.0 7.0 13.7

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