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Still riding high
by Bruce Meyer / January 8, 2003

THE GAME

LeBron James' play thus far has done nothing to dissuade anyone that he won't be the No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft -- unless, of course, he surprises the entire nation and doesn't go pro.

But the most impressive thing about his play this season is that his focus really has been on his team winning. If he wanted to, he could clearly be scoring 50 points a game, but as LeBron has said all along, that's not what he's about.

And with a supporting cast that obviously is better because of what LeBron can do on a basketball court (read: pass like Magic Johnson, see the game like Larry Bird, control the boards when he needs to), James and his St. Vincent-St. Mary teammates from Akron, Ohio, finally rose to the top of the USA Today Super 25 High School Boys Basketball rankings on Jan. 6.

St. V. climbed from the No. 9 spot after beating then-No. 6 Columbus (Ohio) Brookhaven and then-No. 4 Mater Dei of Santa Ana, Calif., the latter a team featuring Darryl Strawberry's son and at least two Division 1 college recruits.

That's not to say, though, that LeBron's game has been flawless. In the game against Brookhaven, with the game tied in the waning seconds, a Brookhaven player stole the ball from LeBron but missed two free throws after being fouled with less then three seconds left on a breakaway attempt. The team, which kept the ball because of the intentional foul, then missed a shot at the buzzer and St. V. won in overtime.

Against Mater Dei, LeBron didn't go inside nearly enough in the second half until the game got close. He was unstoppable when he got the ball on the block, but was 0-9 from three-point range in the game. The fans in L.A. were disappointed they didn't see any of the high-flying dunks that were included in the ESPN2 game against Oak Hill Academy, but his line still read 21 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and three blocked shots.

But once he got back home to Akron on Tuesday, against a team below .500, James was back to his high-flying ways with 40 points and a spectacular dunk where he took the ball between his legs with his left hand and slammed it home with the right.

Of course, when it comes down to LeBron's game, all questions eventually come to how his game will translate into the NBA. The scouts point out his passing ability, his NBA-ready body and his court smarts, while noting that his jump shot can be worked on and defense will be more intense in the pros.

But most everybody has an opinion of some sort.

Amare Stoudemire was the only high school player drafted by the NBA this year, and his game has translated well to the pro level. A 6-10 power forward weighing 245, the Phoenix Suns rookie has averaged about 12 points and more than eight rebounds a game. Stoudemire said he adjusts pretty quickly on everything, but playing just two years of high school ball made it tough on him. "You have to come to the game with a business aspect, that is your job and you have to work hard everyday," he said after a recent game in which he was dominating against the Cavs with 19 points and 13 rebounds.

Stoudemire saw LeBron play on ESPN2 and thought he looked pretty good, but the decision about going pro is all up to him. "It's his decision. If he feels he's ready, he should go ahead and make the jump. But if not, then go ahead and go to college."

The Cavs have two players -Darius Miles and DeSagana Diop- who skipped college and went right to the pros. Diop has struggled, with injuries basically wiping out his rookie year. Just recently has he started to show signs of promise.

Diop played against LeBron in high school on an Oak Hill Academy team that defeated James and St. V. and said LeBron can do whatever he wants to do. "I think he's got game, but it will be tougher than LeBron imagines it," Diop said.

Cavs rookie Carlos Boozer, who played three years at Duke, thinks LeBron has enough people advising him, so he wouldn't throw his two-cents in. Boozer has seen him play a couple of times and thinks he's a very talented player. But for himself, Boozer wouldn't trade his college experience. "I enjoyed college, I had a blast in my three years, a lot of fun. College is a great time and I enjoyed it. For me, if I had it to do over again, I'd still go to college."

THE HYPE

If the hype for LeBron seemed strong before, his performances over the Christmas holidays did nothing to ease up the media crunch. Since St. Vincent beat then-No. 1 Oak Hill Academy in a nationally televised game that brought ESPN2 its largest audience in two years, James and his team have:

Played in Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, with several Pittsburgh Steelers, including Jerome Bettis, coming to see LeBron play after the Steelers had played a game earlier in the afternoon.

Won before a sold-out audience at the Palestra in Philadelphia that included Allen Iverson and Larry Brown in attendance.

Beaten national Top 10 teams Columbus Brookhaven in front of more than 18,000 at Ohio State's arena and Los Angeles' Mater Dei before a sold-out Pauley Pavilion crowd.

The game at Pauley Pavilion was the second LeBron contest on ESPN2 and, while the audience was lower than the earlier contest, the sports television network said it is looking for another St. V game to air. At least with only Bill Walton and not Dick Vitale on the broadcast, there was more concentration on the game itself and not which of the star broadcasters got to pontificate the most.

With some of the celebrities expected to attend not showing up -including legendary UCLA Coach John Wooden- the star quality in attendance wasn't what it could have been. But the game still attracted Nike Chairman Phil Knight, who was in the front row along with George Raveling and the usually large lineup of coaches, scouts and reps from Nike and adidas.

And if anyone thinks the hype will ease up, just consider that LeBron and his team still have on their schedule the "Fast Break to the Lake" on Jan. 12 in Cleveland against national No. 18 Detroit Radford; the "Prime Time Shoot Out" on Feb. 8 in Trenton, N.J., that will be televised by George Steinbrenner's YES cable network; and games Jan. 20 at the Dean Dome at the University of North Carolina and Feb. 16 at the University of Dayton that are part of the four-game "Scholastic Fantastic Hoops Tour featuring LeBron James."

All of this, of course, does nothing but fuel debate over whether it's right how everyone else seems to be making money off LeBron except LeBron. That, however, is a mistake that should be rectified come "King James" graduation day. It's not yet known whether or not Nike's Phil Knight and adidas' Sonny Vaccaro have reserved front-row seats to see LeBron get his diploma.

Bruce Meyer is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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