LeBron James’ influence on the modern NBA and the next generation of stars


LeBron James has transformed the league and his legacy will live on in the next generation of NBA stars.

Whomever prophesied LeBron James as the “Chosen One” was a true seer. When you really think about it, he’s the reason for the league is how it is now and he’s the model for its next generation of stars.

James has always been one of the most unique and dominant forces in the league.

In his first stint in Cleveland, despite coming straight out of high school he destroyed teams with his overwhelming strength and athleticism, uncanny passing ability and a basketball IQ that could make even James Naismith jealous.

It should come as no surprise he experienced both individual and team success with Rookie of the Year honors, five consecutive playoff appearances, an NBA Finals appearance, six consecutive All-Star selections and two NBA MVP awards by the time he was 26-years-old.

He averaged 27.8 points, 7.0 assists, 7.0 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 0.9 blocks per game after the first seven seasons of his career. He shot 47.5 percent from the field and 32.9 percent from three-point range.

After he infamously took his talents to South Beach, the mainstream media narrative focused on the obvious storylines: the feelings of betrayal, his failure to live up to expectations, his eventual triumph and his status as the best player in the game.

Yet, while the majority of the world focused on the forest, there were some who didn’t just focus on the trees but on the branches and leaves. The real storyline should have been how James and the Miami Heat transformed what was en vogue in the league by inverting their offense and using their guards for a post presence while they kicked the ball out to open shooters.

The ‘spread and spray’ offense, in which teams get downhill, probing the lane with dribble-drives and kicking the ball out, wasn’t so popular until James and Wade were throwing bullet passes out to Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Chris Bosh, Rashard Lewis, Mike Miller and others for three.

It’s nearly impossible to find a team that’s not starting a stretch-four now. Or a point guard who can’t be at least an average three-point threat off-the-ball. Those two things, along with a center who can stretch the floor or guard out on the perimeter (á la Bosh), are the keys to small-ball.

Keys forged in the fires of Miami.

The modern-day Big Threes, which involve three marquee players teaming up on a quest to win a NBA championship, is also James’ handiwork. Make no mistake about it — there have been teams from every era to amass superior talent in order to become the creme of the crop. But, as far as we know, players weren’t calling each other up to team up like James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh did. Now it seems like a yearly tradition to see which superstars want to create a superteam.

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Aside from James’ influence on the NBA’s style of play in general, he’s had a notable effect on individual players as well.

Ben Simmons is the player most similar to James due to his athleticism, court vision, passing ability and basketball IQ. His ability to dominate as a facilitator is a major reason for the Philadelphia 76ers being successful despite the struggles of – and injury incurred by – the top pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, point guard Markelle Fultz.

Lonzo Ball is similar to James in that he uses his court vision, passing ability and basketball IQ to make what James would call “the right play”. Ball is also as heavily scrutinized as any young athlete since James, with expectations to be the savior of a franchise.

Luka Doncic is currently the darling of the 2018 NBA Draft because he displays a complete game. He can shoot well, passes well, has a fine understanding of the game and plays solid defense to boot. While James’ jump shot isn’t the most consistent element of his game, he’s the most complete player to grace the hardwood.

Zion Williamson is perhaps the most athletic player since James and boasts point-forward ability to go with a downhill, aggressive style of play. With Williamson it’s become all to clear that the NBA wants to find the next LeBron, not the next Jordan.

None of the players named, save for Doncic, are great jump shooters. Sans Doncic and Ball, these players are elite athletes.

All of the players have shown the ability to facilitate at a high level. Simmons and Ball, rookies, average 7.7 and 7.0 assists per game respectively. Doncic is averaging 4.2 assists per game in just 20.9 minutes per night. Last season, Williamson averaged 3.2 assists per game despite putting up 36.8 points per game.

If there’s one noticeable shift in the league it’s that the focus went from dominant low-post players to dominant iso players to dominant passers who can pour in points from positions other than point guard.

James is the most dominant passer ever seen thanks to his athleticism and otherwordly IQ. Just think, his single season career-low for assists (5.9) was set in his rookie season and it’s a number unmatched by a lot of players career-high. The shift to organizations and fans preferring their volume scorers to be elite passers is due to the amazement his passing has generated since being in the NBA.

Case in point: James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Blake Griffin.

Harden, a shooting guard, is arguably the best offensive player in the league because he gets such a high volume of points and assists on a nightly basis. To make it better, he’s doing it by making the right play. Harden currently averages 32.0 points and 9.5 assists per game.

Antetokounmpo, who has drawn comparisons to James, plays a point-forward role at times but his physical tools allow him to dominate even though a couple of skills – jump shooting, post play – aren’t highly developed. The Greek Freak is averaging 29.8 points and 4.5 assists per game.

Griffin, who has drawn comparisons to James as well, has improved his jump shooting and playmaking ability to become one of the best point-forwards in the league. So far this season, Griffin is averaging 23.6 points and 5.1 assists per game.

Even Draymond Green, who isn’t a volume scorer, is well-respected and it’s due to his passing ability and inclination to make the right play. That’s led to him averaging 7.3 assists per game this season. Green, like Simmons and Antetokounmpo, displays another one of James’ many talents. Defensive versatility.

I’ll give you a few more and it shouldn’t be surprising that they’re guards.

Noted James fan Bradley Beal. Beal, while not the level of playmaker James is, plays a balanced game and constantly attacks the paint. Eric Bledsoe, nicknamed Mini LeBron and one of James’ friends, is also an all-around player, volume scorer and intent on probing the lane with dribble-drives. Dejounte Murray, a second-year pro, is also an all-around point guard who loves to attack the rim.

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Trying to find the “Next LeBron” is a risky proposition. Never forget that O.J. Mayo, who is out of the league, was once pegged as just that. Despite playing an all-around game himself, he was never able to be as statistically, physically and mentally dominant as James has been.

No player has.

Simmons could be it but he has yet to develop his jump shot or show a willingness to shoot from outside like James. Williamson, who doesn’t seem to have the eye and arms of James as a passer, is likely going to have similar issues with his jump shot.

Yet, past James’ physical tools and skill set is his determination to be the greatest player ever when he’s already the greatest player in the world. His work ethic has also set him apart from any player not named Jordan.

What does set James apart from Jordan is his altruism and desire to share the spotlight. That’s a quality that every player mentioned in this article, every player that’s taken the proverbial page out of James’ book, has as well.

After James retires his legacy will live on in the NBA and it’ll be interesting to see how a team owned by James operates on and off-the-court. LeBron James Jr., an excellent passer at what looks to be the early stages of his burgeoning basketball career, will also be a testament to James’ significance to the game of basketball.

Perhaps he’ll lead a revolution all of his own.

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*Unless otherwise referenced, all stats gathered from www.basketball-reference.com