- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 19, 2003

LeBron James lands in Tony Cheng’s neighborhood tonight with a maturity that makes a liar out of his 18 years.

He is an old 18, if it matters, set to turn 19 next month.

Age is the jaw-dropping element of James, who is too young to be this refined on a basketball floor.

He is mocking the skeptics, this space included, many of whom envisioned a steeper learning curve.

Both Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady, perimeter-bound players not unlike James, endured unfavorable reviews in their first NBA seasons after high school.

McGrady even lacked the plausible deniability of a quality team. His Raptors in 1998 won 16 games, a mark of futility the James-led Cavaliers are certain to avoid.

James is hardly all the way there, of course, not close. He is, however, almost as good as the hype, which in his case is no easy achievement.

He is the first of his kind, the synergetic product of the satellite dish and the Internet, a phenomenon who earned more than $100million in endorsements before he scored his first point in the NBA.

We got to know James before he really was prepared to know us. A few missteps later, he is smart enough not to push his cause.

His patience extends to his work in the team’s offense.

In the first meeting between the Wizards and Cavaliers this season, James made the kind of play that Magic Johnson or Larry Bird would have made at the height of their powers.

It was a textbook play, a screen-and-roll maneuver with Carlos Boozer that might have resulted in a 15-foot jump shot from a player lacking imagination.

Instead of shooting the ball, however, James recognized the out-of-position defense and slipped a dump pass to a rolling Boozer. The result was an easy dunk for Boozer.

That one play reveals just how far along James is in his basketball development. It was not the play that ended up in the highlights that night. It was too subtle for that, too old school.

No, the play lots of observers viewed from that game involved James stepping into a passing lane, deflecting the ball, then going three-quarters the length of the court before finishing the sequence with a powerful slam. It was a scintillating play, no doubt, but one based on raw ability as opposed to savvy.

In a mere 11 games in what might be a 20-year career, James has demonstrated that he has a remarkable feel for the game. He has let his scoring needs be almost incidental to the needs of the team. He is not a pure shooter from the perimeter. That is his principal weakness, but a highly correctable one in the seasons ahead.

Going into the Cavaliers-Clippers game last night, James was carrying impressive averages: 16.8 points, 6.4 rebounds and 6.4 assists. He was leading the team in scoring, assists and steals. There really is nothing not to like about him.

The impressive transition of James is not without precedent, if you recall the ascent of Connie Hawkins and Moses Malone, two high school-to-pro players from a bygone era.

The comparison is not entirely apt. Those were different basketball times, Hawkins and Malone different players from James, and their pro leagues lacked the depth and substance of the NBA at the time.

Hawkins comes with an additional asterisk as well after spending one non-basketball season at Iowa, for whatever that time was worth to his development.

As a 19-year-old forward with the Pittsburgh Rens of the ABL, the unofficial precursor of the ABA, Hawkins earned the league’s MVP award in the 1961-62 season, averaging 27.5 points and 13.3 rebounds.

Yet Hawkins, like Malone, was a frontcourt player with considerably fewer decision-making responsibilities than a guard like James, who is one of his team’s primary ball-handlers.

Malone, who made the professional jump to the Utah Stars of the ABA in the 1974-75 season just after breaking the heart of Maryland coach Lefty Driesell, averaged 18.8 points and 14.6 rebounds in his rookie season.

The reach to yesteryear is necessitated by the absence of comparable figure to James in the modern basketball era.

No one from the high school ranks in recent times — not Kobe, not McGrady, not Kevin Garnett — ever flashed the kind of poise James has shown from the outset.

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