Dru Joyce: "There is no better kid that was made to shoulder all the distractions than LeBron"
Obviously, the chance to coach a player like LeBron James doesn't come along too often. What is it about him that makes him such a special player?
Dru Joyce: I think he has a unique blend of athleticism and intelligence that you find kind of rare in a lot of today's players. A lot of times you have a really intelligent player who's not a great athlete, or you have a great athlete who really doesn't understand or know how to play fundamental basketball the way it should be played. LeBron has that unique bend where he's a phenomenal athlete and yet he's skilled in fundamentals enough so he understands the game and sees things happening before they actually happen. That, along with those innate things - the God-given talents he has - makes him kind of unique and set him apart.
In a basketball sense, what are the strongest parts of his game?
DJ: His ability to see the floor and see things happening before they happen. That's what makes him a great passer. The other thing is, he just has a feel for the game. When to score, as far as from a team point; when they need passes, when they need him to get other people involved. He has a good sense of that. Also, people always talk about that he doesn't defend; and that's not true. He's a great defender. In fact, he's a very intelligent defender. When a lot of teams don't know how to play defense, they don't know, 'When my guy sets a back pick, What do I do?' He knows all that and he implements all those things into the game. Sometimes, he might take a play off defensively, but that doesn't make him not a good defensive player, it just means he took a play off. But all in all, his understanding of the defensive side of the ball is outstanding.
What areas would you like to see him work on to improve?
DJ: He needs to get better with his ballhandling. He's 6-7 so it's not like he's so close to the floor like a little guard. So he definitely needs to work on that. There are times when he uses some poor judgement, where he won't make the simple pass, he wants to make the spectacular. I think that comes along with a lot of great players. The easiest one, they'll pass it up for the spectacular, and I think sometimes that hurts him and creates turnovers that honestly he wouldn't have.
As a coach, how do you go about trying to help him improve?
DJ: I came up in this game in a non-traditional way. I was not a great player. I didn't play in high school. So I am a guy who's had to learn through reading, through film and through talking with other coaches. So I stud a lot of film. I point out to him what I'm seeing on the films, because film doesn't lie. And the other thing is, what I try to do, when I point out those things, then those are the things we try to work on in practice. Then basically, as any coach would do, you try to get guys to buy into your system, and if they buy into your system and do what you want to do, then they're going to be great, because there's no friction between you and that player. A lot of times with great players they don't want to buy into a coach's system, and LeBron has bought into what I want to do, especially this year.
So not only has he got a lot of talent, but he's coachable as well?
DJ: Yes, he's coachable. But like any great player or any guy who really knows the game, you have to know what you're talking about because they're going to challenge you if you don't. If you say something that's not good basketball and doesn't make sense to a player, he's going to challenge you. So you have to have all your ducks in a row and know what you're talking about to deal with guys like that. That doesn't make them non-coachable, that just makes you a better coach because you have to work harder at what you do.
This is your second year as head coach, but your son [also named Dru, a guard on the team] is a senior, so you've seen LeBron through all four years here at St. Vincent?
DJ: In fact, I started with him when he was nine. I first saw him play at nine, and first started coaching him at 11.
So what are the biggest differences between his freshman year and now?
DJ: The biggest difference is his size. As a freshman, he was 6-4, now he's 6-7. He's really grown into an NBA body: 6-7, 240 pounds. He's finally understanding and believing what I've been telling him about the weight room. He's been spending more time in the weight room and it shows. He's got that kind of physique where by the time wherever he plays next fall, he's going to have another 15 pounds of pure muscle on his frame.
Is he a bright kid?
DJ: Yeah. He as a 2.8 grade point average here. In most systems that would be above a 3.0, because we have a 7 percent grading scale here in the school. And he has a 2.8 with a 7 percent grading scale; with a 10 percent grading scale system, he would be a 3.0 student. There are some things he needs to get better at. He'll be the first to tell you, his reading should improve and his math skills. But I think the one thing about LeBron is where a lot of kids don't have the desire to do the work, he does the work. He turns all his work in on time. It's not an issue of him just sitting back, not doing anything. That's not who he is.
Because when there's somebody as successful as he is, you hear detractors say he gets preferential treatment and that sort of thing?
DJ: It's not true. If you ever talk to our headmaster here, he'll tell you emphatically that LeBron James from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. is a regular student at this school. He gets no preferential treatment. He goes to class like everyone else and takes his tests like everyone else, and all those things that are only for his benefit.
How does he take to being a leader on the team, helping his teammates get better?
DJ: I've challenged those guys - not just LeBron but all the seniors - to lead, both on the court and off. LeBron's a great leader on the court because he knows the game. Sometimes the younger guys are a little intimidated by him because he's such a dominant player and a dominant personality. His desire to do things correctly is so strong that he comes off hard on some of the younger guys, and intimidates them and kind of puts them in a shell so that sometimes they don't want to do anything because they're afraid to mess up. But he's a good leader because he knows how to play. And once the guys begin to understand that, you know, it's all about getting better.
Cause I let my son and LeBron - because I'm not the kind of coach who is a dictator - I believe that players see the game and play the game. As long as they go about it respectfully, listen to them, because they're out there and they're seeing things. I think any coach who doesn't listen to his players, to me is doing a disservice to both himself and the players. So I allow them to correct their peers. A lot of times their peers will hear it better from them than from me because of that coach-player relationship.
Did you set specific goals for LeBron as a player and the team?
DJ: No, I didn't set any specific goals for him. As a team, I set specific goals. Those are that we defend better and keep teams under 40 percent shooting. We've got to get better at that. We had our first opponent right at 40 percent. That we rebound better. We need to be a plus-10 rebounding. That's going to be a real challenge for this team because we really don't have a big post player. And the other thing is to shoot free throws better. In saying those three things, those are things that LeBron has to get better at because he's got to be our leader in rebounding. He's got to shoot free throws better because he's at the line more than anyone, and also last year he struggled there.
Has there been times when you the coach have had to discipline LeBron?
DJ: Oh yeah. It comes with the territory. He's no better than anyone else. We have our moments, just like any other coach and player. I've coached him for a long time, so I've had to discipline him a whole lot. When you're a young 11 year-old and learning how to play, it's always been discipline. Now, LeBron's not a bad kid, so a lot of times, correction comes very easy to him. Usually you get it once and then he's usually not going to go down that road again. But you know, it's just like any other coach and player relationship, there's always going to be those rocky moments where you have to draw the line and make sure that everyone understands who's in control and those things are done and LeBron has to toe the line like everybody else.
And he takes well to that?
DJ: You know, like any kid. The one who probably takes it the hardest on our team is my son because of that father-son relationship going on into coaching. But LeBron, he handles it really well.
Since you've coached him from such an early age, at what point was it clear that he had the chance to be something special?
DJ: That's a very good question. He was always good. He was always the kind of player when we taught something he caught on very quick. You put in a new offense, he's the first to know it. We'd teach a new skill when he was younger, if he didn't know it that day, he came back the next day with the habit mastered. So he always learned very quick. But I guess I really started to see a separation in eighth grade. After we played the eighth grade AAU season in the spring and the summer, you really started to see the separation between him and the other players on our AAU team. And then we played at the AAU Nationals, which we had done every year since he was 11.
At 14 and under, we got to the championship game, and we lost by two, but you could see over that week, where you had the best - not all the best, but I would say 75 to 80 percent of all the best players in the country playing that week - and LeBron was head and shoulders above everyone else. At that point, did I know he would be the player he is now? No. But I could see he was going to be a great, great player. And he was only 6 foot 2 then. Now he's 6-7 with all the skills he already had then, and the size - let's face if, as much as I like the little guy, and I'm a little guy, this is still a big guy's game.
Not many players in high school have had to deal with the distractions, from the national attention to the Sports Illustrated cover, the national schedule, talk about the Olympics. How is he doing with handling all the pressure?
DJ: I've said it over and over again to people when they ask me that question, I truly believe there is no better kid that was made to shoulder that than LeBron. He carries it really well. To say he hasn't changed at all would not be true. He doesn't necessarily like the negative things said about him, so that's made him kind of pull in a little bit and not be as open with the media as maybe he might have been earlier on. He's a little more guarded around other people - not just the media but other people because everyone now wants a piece of him, so now he's a little more guarded. But all in all, when he's with his friends and around us, he's the same silly kid that he's always been.
What's your opinion on kids skipping college and going straight to the pros?
DJ: I'm a firm believer that kids need an education. How they go about getting that education is a different story. When I say an education, I'm referring to a college education. I think more than anything, college teaches you how to think and how to deal with some difficult concepts. I think you need that training. Do you have to get it the traditional way and go through a four-year college program right after high school? I don't think so. I think in LeBron's case, at the end of this season when we sit down as part of a family - and I'm part of that family - and we make a decision as to which direction he goes, if he's still projected to be the overall No. 1 pick, then he's got to go to the NBA. He can get his college. The NBA now has things set up for guys to get their degrees through correspondence courses and things like that. And that would be encouraged for him to do.
Someone told me recently, it's kind of surprising that 80 percent of players - and this was in the NFL, and I'm sure the percentage in basketball may not be far off - but 80 percent of the players in the NFL when they leave the sport don't have really any money to speak of. So that's something that, no matter how much you make, you can lose it all. You need to understand and be intelligent enough to handle it. I think a college education would help him along those routes.
Do you think he's well-equipped to handle that kind of pressure?
DJ: In the NBA? He's skilled enough I think to play in the NBA. It's the NBA lifestyle that I'm more concerned about. On, there are 80 games, playing every night. Let's face it, I've not seen it but I've heard that the NBA lifestyle is one that if you're not grounded, can swallow you up, and that's the outside of the basketball.
You've mentioned that if he's still projected as the No. 1 pick, he really has to do that, because at that point if you go to college, really the only place you can go is down in terms of that?
DJ: I think that at that point, if everyone is still thinking that you're the best player coming into the leagues, then you should go. The one thing that bothers me about that is, LeBron hates losing. He's so competitive. To put him in a situation where he's got to play 82 games and lose the majority of them, I just hope that doesn't hurt him in terms of his competitive drive and his desire. I don't think it will, but I just know him, and losing is not something that comes easy for him.
Bruce Meyer is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com
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