NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. – The circus that surrounded Bronny James, the oldest son of NBA legend LeBron James, during his time at the Peach Jam was unlike anything that I’ve ever seen for a player his age.
Bronny is 14 years old. He has yet to take a single high school class. He played U15 on the EYBL circuit, which is the youngest group of kids that play at the Riverview Athletic Center.
And yet, he was the biggest draw at an event where the gyms are always at capacity while fans – and some media members – are constantly turned away at the door so as to avoid fire code violations. His first game reached capacity a good 40 minutes before tip-off. That was at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, before coaches were allowed in the gyms and when the public at-large was in the middle of their work day. His second game was postponed because of the demand, allowing Nike to put Bronny’s Strive For Greatness team in main gym. Every Nike EYBL event has a dozens of very large, very intimidating security guards running things, but I was in the gym an hour before the rescheduled second game, and watching those security guards prepare for Bronny’s arrival was akin to watching the Secret Service prepare for Barack Obama to come watch a game.
Hell, Bronny wasn’t even allowed to go in the main entrance. He and his team walked in through the emergency exit door.
I’m not mocking that decision, either.
He had to.
It would have been impossible for him to move through the crowds waiting to see him play. He may only be 14 years old, but he is a certifiable superstar for the social media generation.
And, at this point in his development, it’s not a direct result of his basketball ability.
Let me be clear here: There is a reason that trying to evaluate 14 and 15 year old basketball players is foolish and dangerous. The best players in middle school are the kids that hit their growth spurt and develop physically first. When I was in seventh grade, there was a kid in a neighboring town that was 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds. He was the best player in the state, and he never grew another inch. When we played his high school our junior year, he was still playing JV.
Back to Bronny, he was the third-best guard on his team and it wasn’t all that close. Dior Johnson might be the best guard in the Class of 2022, and Skyy Clark isn’t all that far behind. Bronny, who was playing against kids a year older than him, was more or less relegated to playing a 3-and-D role on his team. And he did that well, but at 6-foot-1, that’s only going to get him so far in basketball.
Now, remember, his dad is 6-foot-8. He’s probably got some growing left to do, and it’s hard to imagine that he won’t continue to improve as a player. So he’s got a chance.
I think the best way to view Bronny as a prospect is that he’s probably going to be a high-major talent, but the idea that he is a surefire pro and guaranteed top five pick is an unfair level of expectation to put on the kid. So much of that will depend on how much he grows and whether or not he can handle the pressure of being the GOAT Jr.
Because, when it comes down to it, he is still just a kid.
PENNY HARDAWAY ISN’T GOING AWAY ANY TIME SOON
It is impossible not to notice Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway when he walks into a gym
For starters, he’s 6-foot-8 and still looks like he is in good enough shape to go out and play in an NBA game. He also happens to typically be flanked by Mike Miller, another recognizable 6-foot-8 former NBA player who is best known as the sniper that teamed up with LeBron.
But it’s more than that with Penny. Between the brand-new snapbacks, the multiple $3,000 Louis Vuitton backpacks he rotates through on the road, the suped-up Mercedes Sprinter Van he and his staff travels on and the Foamposites – the final release of his signature shoe line – that he wears, he is as recognizable as any coach in the gym.
And that certainly has helped play a role in his ability to get in the mix with just about any recruit that he wants at the high school level – Jalen Green, Terrence Clarke, Greg Brown.
Everyone knew he was going to land James Wiseman once he got the Memphis job, but what really made waves was the fact that the Tigers landed talents like Precious Achiuwa and Lester Quinones, highly-regarded recruits out of New York.
The key for the Tigers moving forward is going to be simple: Can Penny turn the talent he brings into his program into winners in college that get picked high in the NBA draft?
Remember, Josh Pastner was a promising recruiter at one point in his career. His first recruiting class included a five-star Memphis kid (Joe Jackson) and a five-star out-of-star recruit (Will Barton). Barton has turned into a good pro, but it took him two years to get to the NBA and he was the No. 40 pick when he eventually left. Jackson ended up spending four years in college. He’s never played an NBA game.
The difference between Coach K, John Calipari and the rest of college basketball is that those two consistently turn elite recruits into successful college players and early draft picks.
Penny will need to prove he can do the same.
CADE CUNNINGHAM IS THE BEST PLAYER IN 2019
Evan Mobley is, at this point, the No. 1 player in the class according to the majority of the people that make these kind of decisions, but for my money, Cade Cunningham is the best player in 2019.
He’s a prototype wing for modern basketball. He stands 6-foot-7, but he’s successfully made the transition to playing as a point guard in the high school ranks. He can defend, he can pass, he can run a ball-screen, he can make threes, he’s athletic and strong enough to eventually guard up or down at the next level. He can do it all.
I also think it’s worth noting that Cunningham went from competing with the U19 team in Greece to playing with his AAU team at Peach Jam, which is not something always happens. He wants to play.
Cunningham is uncommitted, but everyone I spoke to in Augusta thinks he’s heading to Oklahoma State, where his brother, Cannen, was hired as an assistant coach.
JALEN JOHNSON IS THE BEST COMMITTED PLAYER IN THE CLASS
The first thing that I was told when I sat down to watch Johnson playing in Augusta was that he is the second-coming of Ben Simmons. Then within five minutes of watching him play, Johnson threw a pair of passes in transition – one was a full-court bounce pass through defenders, the other was a no-look dart he threw for a dunk – that made that comparison seem apt.
Johnson, who is committed to Duke, seems to make more sense as a mismatch four, however. It’s a position that Duke has had a ton of success with in recent years (Jabari Parker, Brandon Ingram, Justise Winslow, Zion Williamson, etc.) and will keep him from having to try and handle the ball in the ACC.
THE TOP THREE IN 2021 IS ABSOLUTELY LOADED
One of the more interesting debates that was had at Peach Jam was whether or not Patrick Baldwin Jr., Jonathan Kuminga or Terrence Clarke is the best player in the Class of 2021, and since Nike loves the drama, they put all three players in the same pool.
That was fun.
And while I’m normally the kind of guy that’s unafraid to fire of scorching hot takes – informed or otherwise – I really don’t know if there is a right answer here. I think all three are good enough to be the top player in the class. Kuminga is probably the guy with the highest ceiling of the three. He’s a 6-foot-8 wing with elite athleticism that can really, really score. One coach told me he thinks Kuminga is the next Tracy McGrady, but after I relayed that to another coach, his response was, “sure, if he hasn’t been corrupted by the system already.”
Baldwin might actually be the most interesting story out of this group. He’s a 6-foot-10 forward that is “the best shooter for a guy that size that I’ve ever seen at his age,” a coach at a top ten program told me. But there’s a real chance that Baldwin never plays for a top ten program, because he also happens to be the son of Patrick Baldwin Sr., the head coach at Milwaukee.
Clarke is interesting as well, because there was speculation throughout the week that he could end up reclassifying into the Class of 2020. If he can do it, if he can get to college a year early, there is no reason not too.
SPEAKING OF RECLASSIFYING, THERE’S N’FALY DANTE
The late reclassification drama for the 2019-20 season looks like it is going to be N’Faly Dante, a 6-foot-10, 230 pound center that plays at Sunrise Christian in Kansas. He’s big and strong and athletic, and his production is starting to catch up to his potential, which is why programs like Kentucky, Oregon and LSU are currently locked in on his academic situation.