Bronny James’ best option is still entering 2024 NBA Draft, not returning to college

Bronny James has always dealt with a level of scrutiny reserved only for those whose government name is literally LeBron James Jr. As the son of one of the greatest players of all time, Bronny has played under harsh spotlight since he first entered the public eye playing in grassroots tournaments before he entered high school at Los Angeles’ Sierra Canyon.

James has consistently acquitted himself well along the way. He played a winning role alongside talented teammates early in his high school career, and slowly built himself into a five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American by the time he was a senior. James could have done anything he wanted after high school, including turning pro in the G League or Australia, but he made a measured decision to play college basketball and stay close to home at USC.

College was never supposed to be the big destination for James; it was always more of a pitstop. With his famous father publicly saying he wanted to play with his son in the NBA well before Bronny ever graduated high school, his arrival in the NBA draft was a massive point of interest beyond his own evaluation as a prospect. On one hand, you could see Bronny as the ultimate nepo baby: a player who was very likely looking at increased NBA opportunities because it possibly meant an avenue to signing his father. On the other hand, his egoless game and eagerness to do the little things that impact winning were highly admirable regardless of what anyone else wanted him to be.

Unfortunately for James, his freshman season at USC has been a nightmare from the very start. James collapsed at practice in July because of a terrifying heart issue that quickly became national news. He’d eventually be cleared to return for USC, but missing more than four months of training time drastically threw off his rhythm. By the time he made his debut in the second week of Dec., the Trojans were already failing to meet expectations, and their season was starting to fall off the rails.

Only weeks before Selection Sunday, USC’s season is already over save for a miracle run in the conference tournament. The Trojans are 11-16, and own the second-worst record in the Pac-12. USC is outside of the top-100 of DI in both offensive and defensive efficiency, per KenPom. James isn’t the only highly-touted freshman who has disappointed: Trojans point guard Isaiah Collier was thought to challenge for the No. 1 pick in the 2024 NBA Draft coming into the year; now most mock drafts (including our own) have him struggling to hang onto a spot in the lottery.

Both James’ numbers and his tape show how rough his freshman year has been. Through his first 19 games, he’s averaging 5.5 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game while shooting 37.1 percent from the field and 27.5 percent from three-point range. As USC’s season has unraveled, James’ draft stock has plummeted, and fans have started to mock him.

At this point, it’s hard to continue pegging James as a first round pick in the 2024 NBA Draft. His season just hasn’t been good enough for that. Bronny was projected as a late lottery pick in our preseason mock draft, but he was left out of our latest update. ESPN dropped James from its 2024 mock draft entirely, and instead put him in the early second round of their 2025 mock draft.

ESPN’s Jon Givony explained why he dropped Bronny to 2025 on SportsCenter.

That’s about as fair and balanced of a Bronny James evaluation as you will find. It didn’t stop LeBron from angrily chiming in, though.

The conversation around Bronny’s draft stock has of course caught the eye of his famous father. LeBron fired off a string of now-deleted tweets criticizing mock draft projections.

Of course, no one has done more to inflate Bronny’s draft stock than LeBron.

After a Lakers loss in Jan., LeBron was overheard yapping in the locker room saying Bronny could play for his team right now.

Last March, while Bronny was still in high school, LeBron tweeted that Bronny could play over some NBA players right now.

It’s not a crime for LeBron to love his son and pump up his basketball future. It did put some unnecessary pressure on Bronny, though. We all know LeBron wants to make himself and his son the basketball version of Ken Griffey Sr. playing with Ken Griffey Jr. The real question is if that’s what Bronny wants, too.

Bronny is going to have plenty of appealing options after this season ends. He could return to USC for his sophomore year. He could transfer to another school. He could take a year off and train for the 2025 draft. He could also declare for the 2024 draft in June and try to grind his way into a roster spot.

There’s risk to every pathway, but turning pro now might be the most sensible choice. College basketball isn’t doing anything for Bronny at the moment. While his numbers don’t suggest that he’s a one-and-done caliber prospect, he’ll still get every opportunity to make a roster if he does declare for the draft, whether he’s selected or not.

Here’s the case for why Bronny should turn pro after this season and enter the 2024 draft.

Bronny’s game scales down better than it scales up

I wrote an in-depth scouting report on Bronny James’ game back in 2022 when he was finishing his junior season at Sierra Canyon. His skill set hasn’t changed much since then.

Bronny has always been wired like a role player. He wants to space the floor, take spot-up jumpers, defend his ass off, and make quick passes along the perimeter. He spent his formative years in high school playing alongside several future NBA players like Ziaire Williams, Amari Bailey, and Brandon Boston Jr. and learned how to be a complementary player. While he did spend more time on-ball as a senior, it’s never been the strength of his game.

Bronny is at his best playing off other great players. That’s more likely to be his role next season if he turns pro rather than returns to college.

If Bronny goes back to USC or transfers to a different college, NBA scouts are going to want to see a big scoring leap. They’re going to want to see him improve his shake and creativity as a ball handler. They’re going to want to see him consistently pressure the rim and get to the foul line. They’re going to want to see point guard skills from a player who is the size of a point guard.

In reality, Bronny has always played more like a tiny wing than a true initiator. He wants to fight to get over screens defensively and dive for loose balls. He doesn’t want to take 20 shots per night. He’s more content doing the little things that influence winning. Bronny has the type of skill set that allows star players to be the best version of themselves by complementing them with floor spacing, connective passing, and tough defense. It’s almost like LeBron designed his son’s game to complement his own.

The risk of going back to college is real

If Bronny enters the 2024 draft, he has a few excuses that work in his favor. The preseason heart incident is very much a legitimate one, and derailed his chance of having a successful freshman year. Teams will be able to see that USC was just a bad situation even before he got back on the court. Teams will say, well, he was only a freshman. They could chalk up his poor outside shooting to a small sample.

If Bronny comes back for his sophomore year, the excuses will be gone. He’s going to have to average double-figures in scoring. He’ll have to shoot better from three. In more of a leadership position as an upperclassman, he’ll also have more responsibility for his team’s record.

There’s also a chance USC head coach Andy Enfield gets fired this offseason, which means there will be a new coach coming in who didn’t recruit Bronny if he chooses to stay there.

College basketball is a great option for many players, but it’s not for everyone. Matas Buzelis and Ron Holland — the top recruits in Bronny’s grade — decided to bypass college for the G League Ignite. Players like LaMelo Ball turned into elite prospects playing overseas. Many more players have grinded their way into NBA opportunities through the G League. Bronny is going to get more opportunities than most just because of who his dad is — but he has the game to play in the NBA too if he finds himself in the right situation.

In reality, LeBron is Bronny’s best leverage for turning pro right now. LeBron is having an amazing season at age-39, and he holds a player option with the Lakers after this year. Given LeBron’s stated desire to play with Bronny, it’s all but guaranteed that some team will take a chance on Bronny in hopes that it might lure his dad, too. The Lakers would also feel a lot of pressure to secure Bronny’s rights. Right now, the Lakers would hold the No. 55 overall pick towards the end of the second round.

Yes, Bronny has had a tough freshman year. Entering this June’s draft still feels like his best option.

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