Bronny James is ready to be himself, but the NBA still sees LeBron James Jr.

The wall of cameras and reporters focused on Bronny James against the blue back drop, the diamond stud in his right ear reflecting the lights as he answered different versions of the same question at the NBA scouting combine.

“To be honest,” he said with a soft smile, “It’s a lot.”

No one flat-out asked — it would’ve been too rude, too direct — “Bronny, aren’t you just here because of your dad?”

It’s the question that has followed him wherever he has gone.

Did he really deserve those minutes at Sierra Canyon? Was he really a five-star recruit? Did he earn that spot on the McDonald’s All-American team?

Why in the hell is he entering the NBA draft after averaging 4.8 points as a freshman at USC?

And earlier this week at the NBA combine, every time a question encroached on that topic, James answered confidently.

LeBron James and LeBron James Jr. share a name. They don’t necessarily share a basketball future.

“My dream has always just been to put my name out, make a name for myself, and of course, you know, get to the NBA,” Bronny said. “… I never thought about just playing with my dad, but of course he’s, he’s brought it up a couple times.

“But yeah, I don’t think about it.”

Bronny James bites on a finger nail as he listens to a reporter’s question during his draft combine media session Tuesday. (Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press)

At the combine, he might be the only one.

In Chicago, Bronny James made it clear he wanted to be judged on his own, independent of any other factor. He wanted to be his own man.

“You know, everything that follows my dad, people just try to link me with that, and the greatness that he’s achieved,” Bronny answered. “Like I haven’t done anything yet.”

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Yet according to NBA executives and scouts from around the league, that’s impossible.

Despite Bronny‘s statements, despite word from LeBron James’ agent Rich Paul and even James himself, the father and son remain inevitably linked, Bronny’s draft stock and LeBron James’ free agency tied as tightly as ever.

Forget second-round evaluations, multiple NBA executives told The Times their teams have discussed drafting Bronny James in the first round in an effort to lure his father to their team in free agency.

“If you’re a contender and you’re not having those conversations, it’s irresponsible,” said one executive, who like other NBA personnel spoke on condition of anonymity because teams don’t share their draft strategy.

It’s doesn’t matter if anyone believes a plan like that will work. It shows what he’s facing.

Bronny James can want to make his own name; the NBA letting him is a completely different thing.

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Bronny James smiles as he looks toward a reporter asking him a question during his media session Tuesday. (Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press)

Off the court, he’s unavoidable. On the court, he blends with the background.

“What’s going on with Bronny,” the general managers, scouts and personnel types want to know.

Bronny entered the NBA draft combine last week somehow both wildly famous while still being a basketball mystery. He left it as a more serious draft prospect, but that’s mostly relative.

The scouting of him began well before his season at USC, his play at events such as the Nike Hoop Summit leaving him as a one of the most desired prospects in the 2023 recruiting class.

Before this week, teams had James ranked in the late second round if he was draftable at all.

“He’s not ready,” one evaluator told The Times.

There were still believers.

His proponents in the NBA scouting community would point to a variety of factors to explain the gap in his production at USC with his potential future as a pro in the NBA.

Those scouts like Bronny’s defensive willingness, his toughness on that side of the ball. They point to his athleticism and physicality as the tools that can make a difference in point-of-attack defense.

While he didn’t make spot-up shots at USC, the sense was that he’d shoot the ball fine with time because of his work ethic and mechanics.

The first alarm at the combine went off when Bronny measured at just 6 feet 1 ½ inches in socks — “they don’t play in socks,” scouts like to say.

“If he was 6 foot 5, we’d be talking about him in the first round,” one NBA executive told The Times.

But he’s not, those inches making the road to success even harder to navigate. It’s not an impossibility — players such as Philadelphia’s Tyrese Maxey and New York’s Jalen Brunson measured similarly during their pre-draft processes. However both players were far more productive in college, helping mitigate some of those size concerns.

Both also were regarded as point guards, and most people in Chicago don’t see Bronny as that kind of offensive player.

Athletically, Bronny helped himself early in the combine, his 40.5-inch vertical tied for sixth best. And Monday, with scouts getting a look at him on the court, some for the first time, he burned the nets to give him some buzz going into Tuesday.

But in his first scrimmage, he fell flat. Bronny faded into the game, flashing some fire only when he allowed offensive rebounds or turned the ball over. Most disappointingly to some scouts, he didn’t look as if he played with a lot of effort.

Bronny James, center, drives to the basket past Cam Spencer, left, during the NBA draft combine Tuesday during the first day of five-on-five scrimmages. (Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press)

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“He’s too timid,” one scout familiar with Bronny for years said before the combine.

After Tuesday, that scout looked to be a prophet.

Still, the expectation in Chicago was that Bronny would eventually declare for the draft and forgo his remaining college eligibility.

Playing in one final team setting Wednesday, he showed why. Bronny attacked closeouts, he played decisively and competed on the defensive end.

It was best-case scenario for teams looking to see what he could do in more of a pro setting.

But it didn’t answer the biggest questions.

Those are too difficult to understand.

USC’s Bronny James battles Arizona’s Caleb Love for a loose ball during a Pac-12 conference tournament game. (John Locher / Associated Press)

“That time.” “This issue.” “Everything you went through.” “A thing that happened.”

No one — reporters or Bronny — could bring themselves to say “cardiac arrest” either.

While the focus during Bronny‘s first media session in nearly a year centered on his basketball future with his father, an undercurrent of gratitude, perspective and fright flowed from one answer to another.

“I still think about everything that could happen,” Bronny said.

And that has to be terrifying.

Last July, Bronny fell to the court inside USC’s Galen Center and no one could be sure he’d ever get up.

He’d lost consciousness. His heart stopped. Trainers used a defibrillator to electrify his heart back into movement.

He bounced back faster than anyone could’ve thought. Teammates remembered him sitting up and joking 15 minutes after he collapsed lifelessly to the court.

By the time he arrived at the hospital, Bronny was “neurologically intact and stable,” according to his cardiologist.

He would later undergo surgery to correct a congenital heart defect.

At the start of the combine, NBA doctors cleared him to compete. But Bronny still hasn’t gotten clear from the fear.

“It’s still lingering,” he said.

How that incident, this issue, that thing that happened, affected what happened last season at USC and affects what happens next can’t be ignored.

What happened that day in July, you don’t shake it. It changes you. And in Bronny James’ case, it made him appreciative.

“It’s just, it’s just a great thing to happen to me in terms of just being grateful for everything and stuff like that,” he said. “… I put in the work and stuff like that to get back. So I feel like I’ve earned the opportunity.”

LeBron James, right, and his wife Savannah watch son Bronny from the stands during a scrimmage at the NBA draft combine. (Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press)

The way this will all go at the NBA draft and how it should go are probably two different things.

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Bronny’s arrival in the NBA was to be the final chapter in LeBron’s career. He said that in 2018, and two years later, called the idea of teaming up with his son “a dream.”

Yet as that dream increasingly began to look like a reality, there was a shift. Privately, people around James began to walk back those desires, trying to unbundle his future from his son’s. Publicly, he did the same.

And this week in Chicago, Bronny clearly articulated that his goal was to make the NBA — not to make the NBA as his father’s teammate.

But is anyone hearing them?

Contending teams have discussed drafting Bronny as early as the 20s despite not having cap space to make LeBron a max offer. Maybe, the thinking is, James would actually consider signing for the midlevel exception if they drafted his son.

“Honestly, I feel like this is a serious business. And I don’t feel like there would be a thought of, ‘I’m just drafting this kid just because I’m gonna get his dad,’” Bronny said. “Like, I don’t think a GM would really allow that.”

Maybe not, but it’s being discussed.

The prevailing wisdom around the NBA is that LeBron will eventually decide to remain with the Lakers in free agency this summer regardless of who drafts Bronny.

The Lakers, who have the No. 55 overall pick in the draft, conducted a prospect interview with Bronny and are seen by league sources as Bronny’s floor.

If teams decide to draft Bronny solely on his skills and projections, they’ll undoubtedly be accused of trying to lure LeBron ahead of his 22nd season.

 

It’s a guarantee — one of the only ones to be found in the pre-draft process.

In his first audition for life as a professional basketball player, Bronny said he wanted to be siloed from the success of his father. He wanted his future to be about his game and not his name.

But like the children of the ultra-successful and ultra-famous know, that’s never really part of the deal.

Maybe Bronny will get his chance to show that he can help a NBA team win, that he can be the kind of defensive role player who can shoot that teams crave.

Or maybe he’ll be a pawn in a scheme — a calculated risk in a poorly regarded draft.

It’ll be a hard road, and he has gotten up from tougher.

But Bronny James said he’s ready.

And for now, all anyone can do is listen to him.

Staff writers Ryan Kartje and Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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