From four-star prospect to potential lottery pick, how did Bronny James transform himself into a coveted NBA prospect over the course of his high school career?
James announced Saturday afternoon to his 7 million Instagram followers he has committed to play at USC next season, giving coach Andy Enfield a second projected lottery pick for his backcourt to pair with Isaiah Collier, ESPN’s No. 1 high school recruit and projected No. 5 pick in the 2024 NBA draft.
James is coming off an excellent spring on the high school all-star game circuit, confirming his status as a top-shelf prospect at the McDonald’s All American and Nike Hoop Summit games, as well as scrimmages leading up to those events.
James wasn’t especially highly regarded early in his career, ranked as ESPN’s No. 49 recruit in his class entering his junior year at Sierra Canyon School in Chatsworth, California. Other recruiting outlets had him ranked even lower, as the consensus at the time was that James had work to do in establishing himself as a surefire high major college player.
Fast forward 18 months and James has shown he is a top-20 player in his class and a potential NBA lottery pick in 2024.
How did James transform himself from an afterthought high school recruit into an NBA prospect over the span of two seasons?
Looking back at photos and footage from summer 2019 and the Hoophall Classic in 2020, it’s easy to see how much James has evolved physically: He grew at least two inches while toning and filling out his frame significantly, as expected between ages 14 to 18. He certainly wasn’t doing things like this early in his high school career:
Bronny James showing his explosiveness in the open floor at USA Basketball’s Nike Hoop Summit scrimmage, which they won handily. pic.twitter.com/xHro2Y0VRr
— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) April 8, 2023
He not only is more explosive vertically, he now has real power operating in the open court, allowing him to absorb and finish through contact in the lane in a way he could not a year or two ago.
With good shoulders and a strong base, it’s likely he will continue to add bulk to his already solid frame. The big question scouts have is whether he’ll continue to grow in the next year or two, as players his age at times do, or if his size and length — around 6-foot-3 in shoes with a 6-foot-8 wingspan — are what he’ll end up at for his career.
Even if he doesn’t grow, James, at 18 years, 7 months, still has comparable measurements to several NBA guards who play an important archetype, which should allow him to carve out a role in the league. This chart represents the best case (Jrue Holiday), worst case (Gabe Vincent) and varying degrees of medium outcomes (De’Anthony Melton, Josh Hart, Derrick White, Gary Harris, Malik Beasley) for the type of prospect James could potentially develop into.
James has been a capable outside shooter for much of his career. He has made 3-pointers on solid volume, dating back to the 2019 Nike EYBL as a 14-year-old going 16-for-51 from beyond the arc in 12 games.
While he hasn’t necessarily become a great deal more efficient since then, he has become a lot more confident and dynamic with the type of shots he takes. He has evolved from mostly a catch-and-shoot threat to someone who regularly makes pull-up 3-pointers from NBA range and gets himself on the hop off movement drifting to the corners or running off screens, with significantly improved footwork and quickness on his release.
He still has room to improve this part of his game, which will likely be the foundation of his offensive profile for the time being. But he has noticeably eliminated the one-handed release point and slight right leg kick he regularly showed, causing him to generate less arc underneath his jumper and leading to inconsistent results. The bulk he has added in his lower body gives him significantly more power and range getting into his pull-up jumper, as well.
James has always been known as a committed and attentive defender capable of putting strong pressure on the ball, stepping in for charges and generating turnovers with his activity. Experience, along with his physical maturation, has only helped the past few years. Growing and adding bulk to his frame has given him significantly more versatility against bigger players on switches, especially in getting over screens, where he absolutely excels.
James’ excellent feel for the game is apparent in the way he rotates off the ball, digs down for steals, slides to protect the rim and jumps passing lanes with tremendous instincts and awareness. As his relatively rudimentary offensive game continues to evolve, he should be able to carve out a niche for himself as a lockdown defender who can check guards and wings alike, helping him stay on the floor even when his jumper isn’t falling.
While not currently possessing the type of wiggle, aggressiveness or explosiveness with the ball to be a high-usage shot-creator, James is still impactful in more subtle ways with his feel for the game and unselfishness. Whether it’s moving the ball ahead in transition, making touch passes or extras around the perimeter to get his teammates open looks or executing simple drive-and-dish plays mostly utilizing the strong side, James contributes to his team’s ball movement as a connector who makes the right play more often than not.
To take the next step in his development from a 3-and-D off guard to a combo guard who can be called upon to shoulder bigger playmaking responsibilities, James will need to ramp up his assertiveness and add improved ball-handling to his ability to change speeds and seek out contact in the half-court.
He tends to let defenses off the hook by settling for pull-up jumpers and falling in love with making the right play, making vanilla passes or handing the ball off to lesser teammates. That lack of hunger for scoring hurts his team at times.
In the Nike EYBL last summer, James began to experiment with making more advanced reads out of pick and roll, be it with skip passes off a live dribble, finding the roller in stride over the top or with pocket passes. He didn’t look as comfortable with that part of his game during the high school season and in the all-star game circuit, as it’s clear he still has a lot of work to do on his ball skills and his nuance as a shot-creator.
Many in the basketball industry often wondered why James played on a Strive for Greatness Nike EYBL squad with perhaps less talent than any other team in the league, and the answer might be that the James gang preferred to take him out of his comfort zone and force him to shake free of his tendency to blend in, as we’ve seen in other settings.
Outlook for USC
Bronny James’ high school mixtape
Check out the top moments from Bronny James as he commits to play at USC.
James has always drawn an outsize amount of attention as the son of arguably the greatest player in basketball history, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James. But he needed time to develop his game and become the type of player who warrants the incredible amount of notoriety he has garnered on and off the court. While still inconsistent with his production and not possessing elite physical tools to be considered a top-shelf prospect, Bronny James has grown on NBA scouts with his defense, perimeter shooting, feel for the game and the way he contributes to winning by doing the little things on both ends of the floor. To many NBA scouts, James has solidified himself as a clear NBA player down the road.
The next year will be crucial in his development in seeing whether he can take the next step both physically and as a more versatile offensive player capable of impacting the scoreboard regularly for the Trojans.
James enters a situation at USC with an established backcourt hierarchy of Collier and Boogie Ellis, a four-year collegiate starter who has amassed over 1,500 points in 125 games. Add in 6-foot-6 Kobe Johnson, the second-leading returning scorer who started nearly every game as a sophomore for Enfield and is one of the best defenders in the Pac-12, and it’s highly likely James will come off the bench next season, a situation that actually fits where he’s at in his current stage of development.
Johnson’s ability to slide to the power forward position should allow James to find ample playing time considering James can defend point guards through small forwards, giving him a strong platform to showcase his talent on what should be potentially the best team in the Pac-12 next season.
With Collier, a pick-and-roll maestro who is a force in the open court and in downhill situations, and Ellis, a gifted shot-maker who can play on and off the ball, USC won’t need James to do more than he is currently capable of as an initiator, allowing him to accentuate the other things he does well as a spot-up shooter, defender and all-around glue guy.