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Thursday, December 12
Updated: July 22, 5:59 PM ET
No mystery to James' place in 2003 draft

By Andy Katz

There is nothing left to evaluate for NBA scouts. LeBron James has given them the goods. The scouts already know James will be the No. 1 pick in June and, for many of them, there is no reason to go to tonight's high school showcase featuring James' St. Vincent-St. Mary (Akron, Ohio) High School against national prep power Oak Hill Academy of Virginia (ESPN2, 7:30 ET).

Sure, some scouts will show up at the campus of Cleveland State, just like they will for their requisite peek at James at one of his games in Akron or one of his eight other national, guaranteed-games from the Palestra in Philadelphia to Pauley Pavilion in Westwood, Calif.

LeBron James
Nike and addidas hope to win the LeBron James sweepstakes, too.
"But really, what are you going to learn?" one Western Conference scout said. "Only a few teams will have a chance to get him and anyone else that is lucky enough to get up to No. 1 would take him in a second anyway. There's nothing more to evaluate."

So, it's over. James is booked for the top spot in the draft and has been for more than a year.

Even if someone unearthed another 7-foot-5 Yao Ming in China, James would still be the top pick. And Yugoslavian Darko Milicic, a 17-year old 7-footer, will be the second pick if he's cleared to enter the draft, but he won't jump over James. No one will.

And here's why: Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and John Stockton. James could be the hybrid of all three.

While he's only a high school senior, NBA general managers, three of the major sneaker companies and the national media are calling James one of the sport's best players before he decides who to take to the senior prom.

His mother is already interviewing three agents. The race to grab James could include Aaron Goodwin, Bill Duffy, Arn Tellem and anyone else who can put together a portfolio that shows they can market the game's best. USA Basketball is even flirting with the idea of inviting James to be a member of the 2004 Olympic team. James has the scoring ability of Kobe, the passing eye of Stockton and the toughness of Jordan, which he displayed as a high school football player.

One scouting director says age is not an issue. In fact, he adds that James is more mature than most of the draft picks from the past few seasons.

"All my life, I've never seen anybody better than him at his age," adidas amateur basketball director Sonny Vaccaro said. "I would bet my reputation that he will be one of the best players ever in the NBA. I didn't say that about Kobe or Tracy. His instincts and passing are unbelievable. He could be Magic Johnson but a better scorer.

"The first play I ever saw him make, he got a rebound, dribbled two steps and threw a bounce pass down the court to a teammate for a finish," Vaccaro added. "He has the instincts. He's the best passer I've ever seen. If he puts his mind to it, he could lead the NBA in assists. He's a 6-8 kid who can play in the backcourt. He could be the Magic Johnson of his generation."

The confidence in James is so high that adidas and Nike are willing to make him the highest-paid amateur prior to his first NBA game. Vaccaro is betting his longtime relationship with James will either get James for adidas or force Nike to pay its richest price ever -- possibly over $25 million. The only question is for how many years. That's more than Allen Iverson got with Reebok or Kobe or McGrady received with adidas up front. And certainly more than the $600,000 one Nike source said Jordan got out of North Carolina.

James isn't a gamble for Nike because his basketball IQ, verbal skills and desire for the spotlight -- and craving to even be called "King James" -- means he could be the company's next spokesperson on the heels of Tiger Woods.

Nike has recruited James for months, using even Jordan to lure him, by inviting him to play in Chicago and at his camp in Santa Barbara, Calif., last summer. Neither Nike nor adidas, or possibly Reebok, want to ruin his amateur status by signing him before the high school season ends in March. But Nike will have plenty of representatives Thursday in Cleveland and throughout his season-long, nationwide tour. Vaccaro said he won't attend. Like the NBA scouts, he says, he has seen it all before and doesn't need to evaluate anything else.

This will be the greatest investment of an 18-year-old unless you were born into wealth. It's better than being Bill Gates or Nelson Rockefeller's kid. He will get it all next year.
Sonny Vaccaro

James might lose some national fans who look at him for the first time if he doesn't wow everyone who's watching. But he won't hurt his chances in the NBA draft or, perhaps, with marketing firms. It's so early in the process that James wasn't going to get commercial endorsements this early in his senior year. But Gloria James, LeBron's mother, said last month that the family doesn't need an agent to get the shoe deal but will look for one for endorsements.

Nike is trying to massage the relationship more than just show up with loads of gear or promises of a "LeBron 1 shoe." Nike wants to find out what his goals are as a player, what he envisions in footwear and see if he fits its company as much as he feels Nike fits him. But Nike is also going after Bryant, who is no longer with adidas.

"This will be the greatest investment of an 18-year old unless you were born into wealth," Vaccaro said. "It's better than being Bill Gates or Nelson Rockefeller's kid. He will get it all next year. It's the most intriguing sports story of the year. If this were just up to Reebok or Nike, then it would be over. The deal would be done. But with me and adidas we're going against Michael and Nike."

To Gloria's credit, she hasn't moved into a new house or done anything gaudy, choosing to stay in their apartment in Akron until LeBron goes big time in the spring. His mother is interviewing agents, already three of them, instead of college coaches like Ohio State's Jim O'Brien, Louisville's Rick Pitino or Cincinnati's Bob Huggins -- who have all given up trying to recruit him. James hasn't officially said he's not going to college, but there is no way the NCAA would ever deem him eligible based on the likely violations that have occurred with his special treatment he has received from the sneaker companies. At the Nike camp in Indianapolis last summer, the James family was in a separate hotel from the rest of the campers and had a car service for the first few days.

The phenomenon isn't going away with eight of the 10 games at the University of Akron's arena being offered on pay-per-view, as well as two at St. Vincent-St. Mary.

According to a newspaper report Wednesday, all $35 seats for tonight's game have sold out but there are thousands still available ranging in price from $15 to $25.

James is unique, a franchise unto himself, and unlike any other high school athlete about to go pro. The only suspense left for James is whether he will be with Nike, adidas or Reebok, and if he'll go to the Knicks, Nuggets, Cavaliers, or any other lottery team that gets the top pick in June. Vaccaro said James has assured him that he won't pull a "John Elway" and demand to go to a specific team like Elway did when he was drafted by the Baltimore Colts, refused to join the team and ended up with the Denver Broncos.

James won't command the same marketing dollars in Denver or Cleveland as he would in New York. But the up-front shoe money will already be in place. And his game won't be altered by his destination.

"He has already outgrown high school. He's outgrown college," Vaccaro said. "He's that big."

Andy Katz is a senior writer for You can watch LeBron in action Thursday Dec. 12 on ESPN2 -- followed by NEXT -- at 9 p.m. ET.

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