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A Brief History of LeBron James’s Draft Takes

Is LeBron secretly the Mel Kiper Jr. of the NBA? We look back at his many opinions on incoming prospects.

A photo illustration of LeBron James as Mel Kiper Jr. Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If there’s one thing LeBron James is often asked about, it’s everything. The media solicits LeBron’s opinion on the state of other teams, other players, other coaches, music, rappers, politics, the Cleveland Indians, and Ohio State’s quarterback situation. There is no limitation to what LeBron gets called upon to comment on, and that includes incoming draft prospects.

LeBron did his best Jon Gruden last week when he gave spirited takes on Dennis Smith Jr. “The Knicks passed on a really good one,” James said after a Cavaliers win over the Mavericks on Saturday, “and Dallas got the diamond in the rough. He should be a Knick. That's going to make some headlines, but he should be a Knick. Dallas is definitely, I know they're excited that he didn't go there.”

New York was not happy with the comment, as it appeared to be a slight to the player the Knicks selected one pick ahead of Smith Jr., Frank Ntilikina. (James later clarified that the dis was intended for former Knicks executive Phil Jackson, not Frankie Smokes. I don’t think Frank believed him.)

But DSJ is far from the only prospect James has gone all Mel Kiper Jr. on. Just how good were his scouting reports? We tracked down every one we could find.

(A fun game: Drink every time LeBron says, “They got a good one.”)

Current Rookies

We’re a month into the youngins’ professional careers, so it’s clearly premature to say LONZO BALL IS A BUST. (Just kidding, Magic!) We won’t analyze how LeBron did with his predictions just yet, but here are all the rookies that LeBron has admired thus far, ranked in order of his enthusiasm:

First Place: Lauri Markkanen

"Very confident. Watched him a lot at Arizona. Watched him a lot. He wore my shoe a couple times. ... He wore my retro Brons a couple times. I like that. I had to stay up very late to watch those Arizona games. A very confident kid, [can] shoot the heck out of the ball. ... He's a good player." —James, in October 2017

Runner-up: Dennis Smith Jr.

Second Runner-up: Malik Monk

“He has an ability to catch fire very fast. [...] He has the ability to go off for one of those 15-point quarters. ... We’ve got to be very aware of him, but he’s going to be a very good pro, man.”—James, in November 2017

Fourth Place: Ben Simmons

"Well, I think he's a great young talent. I think the way he displays on the basketball court, we all notice. I think we all don't know just yet how great of a kid he is and how down to earth he is with the game of basketball and life in general.”—James, in June 2016

Fifth Place: Lonzo Ball

“I think he's going to be a really, really good point guard in our league, probably a great point guard if he continues to work on his craft, which it seems like he does. They got a good one.”—James, in November 2017

Non-Rookies

Steph Curry

“He's a very, very, very, very, very good basketball player. I don't know if he's coming out (in the draft) this year. When he does, he has a spot.”—James, in March 2008

LeBron probably pictured Curry winning alongside him, not beating him in two of three NBA Finals, when he got this hyped watching him in person at a Davidson game:

Evaluation of LeScout: Curry is a four-time All-Star, four-time All-NBA team member, the 2015-16 scoring champ, a two-time NBA champion, and a two-time MVP. I’d say LeBron did pretty well here.

Prediction Score: 10/10

Shabazz Napier

“My favorite player in the draft! #Napier”—James, in June 2014

This prediction ended up hurting Napier more than helping him. The Heat traded up in the draft to select Napier, presumably as a signal to their incommunicado, soon-to-be free agent that they were hearing him. After James left Miami in free agency to return to Cleveland, the rookie seemed to take personal offense, unfollowing James on Twitter and deleting all prior tweets he sent that mentioned James.

Evaluation of LeScout: Aside from whatever bitterness sprouted from this prediction, the prediction itself was also really bad. LeBron called Napier the “best player in the draft” in a class that included Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Aaron Gordon, Zach LaVine, and Jusuf Nurkic. Those all came before the 24th pick, sure. But after? Clint Capela, Nikola Jokic, Jerami Grant, and Jordan Clarkson. In his three-plus seasons in the league, Napier has averaged 4.4 points on 38.7 shooting for three teams.

Prediction Score: 1/10 (for trying)

Michael Carter-Williams

“He has been playing great basketball. Obviously he has his ups and downs like any ol' rookie, but he has been playing pretty steady basketball for his team, so they got a good one.”James, in January 2014

MCW won the 2014 Rookie of the Year award, leading his class in points, rebounds, and assists. One point for LeBron! He was then traded to the Bucks in 2015 while the Sixers were still under Sam Hinkie’s control. Carter-Williams’s stats took such a free fall that Milwaukee eventually found Jerryd Bayless to be the best starting option.

Evaluation of LeScout: When the 2015 trade happened, many criticized Hinkie for trading the best young player on the team (even though the point guard was shooting under 40 percent at the time and won ROY in a particularly weak year). Now, MCW is struggling to hang onto a backup role in Charlotte, his fourth team.

Prediction Score: 4/10

Trey Burke

“I’ve been watching him since he was a seventh grader. I’ve seen his growth over the years. ... He had the little injury to start the season, but he’s back now and he’s playing some good ball.”—James, in December 2013

Burke would go on to make the NBA All-Rookie team his first season, but that’s probably the high point of his career to date. Burke’s unathletic play never quite made up for how undersized (6-foot-1) he is, and after failing to excel at shooting or passing or … really anything, Burke is now in the G-League.

Evaluation of LeScout: “Good ball” isn’t exactly the strongest of endorsements, but if LeBron was watching Burke since seventh grade, he should’ve noticed his issues before the rest of us.

Prediction Score: 2/10

Andrew Wiggins

“He’s a great talent. We all knew that for sure. He’s very poised and very efficient. They got a good piece.”—James, in December 2014

Let’s check in on Wiggins, now in his fourth season:

Yeah. Pretty good piece.

Evaluation of LeScout: In retrospect, I’m not sure “efficient” is the best word, as Wiggins, a “former Cavalier” who was dealt two months after the draft to give James a new Big Three in Cleveland, has shot 32.9 percent from 3 in his career.

Prediction Score: 8/10

Devin Booker

"If it's someone who is under the radar right now that I believe is going to be a really, really, really good, All-Star player in the league—it's Devin Booker from the Phoenix Suns.”—James, in August 2016

This endorsement came before Booker dropped 70 points on the Celtics, so props to LeBron (and the pass-happy generosity of all of Booker’s teammates that night).

Evaluation of LeScout: At just 21, Booker looks like one of the most promising young off-guards in a league where there are very few elite ones.

Prediction Score: 9/10

Brandon Ingram

“Kid has a lot of talent. The more and more he plays, the more and more he is going to get more comfortable out there. He has the in-between game, can handle the ball. He shot a couple long balls tonight, and that worked for him too.”—James, March 2017

Ingram is only in his sophomore season with the Lakers. The forward has thus far been inconsistent offensively, but his highs make it seem like an inevitable breakout is around the corner. I mean:

Even when Ingram’s shooting is off—he’s averaging 14.7 points on 45.4 percent shooting from the field—his length and athleticism keep the doubters coming back. (Am I doing the scouting now??)

Evaluation of LeScout: Ingram’s future is TBD, but it looks bright.

Prediction Score: 7/10

D’Angelo Russell

“A special player.”—James, in March 2017

LeBron said this after the Cavs played the Lakers last March. Great praise. From LeBron! Wow.

(It turned out that, actually, the Lakers communications staff messed up the transcription, and LeBron’s kind words were in fact meant for then-teammate Kyrie Irving.)

Evaluation of LeScout: I mean, Kyrie is a special player, so …

Prediction Score: 10/10

Brandon Jennings

“Jennings is a very talented player; he’s very quick, very fast. He’s very confident in his abilities.”—James, in December 2009

By the time James made this comment, Jennings, then a rookie, had already dropped 55 points in a game. Fast-forward eight seasons, and the 28-year-old Jennings is on a one-year deal in China.

Evaluation of LeScout: Jennings suffered from an Achilles tendon tear in 2015 and hasn’t averaged double-digits in points in the NBA ever since.

Prediction Score: 3/10

Non-Basketball Takes

Johnny Manziel

“I want him to go no. 1. If that doesn't happen, wherever he lands, he's going to be a heck of a football player for that franchise. They’re going to get a good one. He's a guy that loves to play the game and he plays at a high level.”—James, in May 2014

Johnny Football played 15 games in the NFL before Cleveland cut the second-year quarterback.

Evaluation of LeScout: Factors outside of football were largely to blame for Manziel’s short stint, but no. 1 overall?

Prediction Score: 3/10

Deshaun Watson

“I think Deshaun Watson should be a Brown. Doesn’t mean that Myles Garrett is not going to be a great football player. Deshaun Watson should have been our quarterback.”—James, in November 2017

Cleveland passed on Watson not once, but twice in the 2017 NFL draft after drafting Myles Garrett no. 1 overall and trading its no. 12 overall pick to Houston. Before Watson’s season-ending ACL tear in November, the Clemson QB broke rookie, franchise, and overall NFL records.

Evaluation of LeScout: James’s comments did come after the Browns passed on Watson, so it’s not entirely fair to call this a prediction. (But I’m sure a few angry Cleveland fans would still let him pick over Sashi Brown and Paul DePodesta.)

Prediction Score: 5/10

Drake

“Unbelievable recording artist. Unbelievable talent. I'm looking forward [to] his first LP.”—James, in February 2010

Evaluation of LeScout: Aubrey has done just fine.

Prediction Score: “The 6”/10