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Lebron James Stepping Up

Lebron James, the 20-year old player of the Cleveland Cavaliers, is putting his official stamp on the team.  Expanding on his play that earned him the Rookie of the Year Award last season, Lebron has significantly amplified his performance capabilities, as he is now understands, and feels more comfortable being the undisputed leader of the Cavaliers.  With Lebron leading the charge, the Cavaliers are 6-4, and second behind the Indiana Pacers in the Central Division. 

The Cavaliers began the season with high expectations, hoping to continue from a late season roll that saw the team go 15-14 after the all-star break, including a seven game winning streak, and just narrowly missing the final playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.  It was still deemed a successful season as the Cavaliers finished with a 35-47 record.  As dismal as that record sounds, it was a significant improvement from the team's previous 17-67 record in the season before Lebron's arrival.    

However, the Cavaliers season didn't start of on a high note as the team struggled, losing its first three games.  That was when Lebron kicked it up a notch, and decided that he wasn't going to allow any more late game collapses, a trait that has so characterized the Cleveland Cavaliers over the past few seasons as the league's doormat team.  With Lebron firmly taking over especially in the forth quarter, the Cavs proceeded to steamroll over its opposition, winning six straight games.  During that span, Lebron was named the Eastern Conference's Player of the Week.  The streak was broken in the Cav's last game, a 98-88 defeat at the hands of the New York Knicks.  So far this season, King James is leading his team in points (25.7 points per game; 5th best in the NBA), assists (6.1 per game; 15th in the NBA), and steals (2.1 per game; 5th in the league).  On top of that, he is also providing 8.3 rebounds a game (27th in the league).

All those numbers are significant improvements from the numbers that earned him the NBA Rookie of the Year last season, just nipping out his friend, Denver's Carmelo Anthony.  At 6'8" and 240-pounds, James entered the league as an 18 year old with an NBA-ready body.  Displaying awesome athleticism akin to a small guard but with the raw power of a power forward, Lebron James' talent was unquestionable.  With the ability to play both guard and forward positions, Lebron's versatility is unrivaled in the league, save perhaps the exception of reigning MVP, Kevin Garnett.  In his rookie season, Lebron averaged almost 40 minutes, 20.9 points, 5.9 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.6 steals a game.  This was no small measure considering the lofty expectations of him even before he played his first professional game.  Every game, his opponents would guard him ferociously trying to dispel all the hype.  If you don't remember, Lebron entered the league as the most highly-touted rookie in league history.  He had a multi-million dollar advertising deals already in place and had already established a fame usually reserved for NBA superstars even before he was drafted.                    

The hype machine began in Lebron James' pre-NBA days with his impressive high school play with St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio.  As a freshman, Lebron helped the high school team to a Division III state championship.  In his sophomore campaign, he became the undisputed star of the team averaging 25 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, and 4 steals, leading the school to another state championship.  In the process he was named Ohio's "Mr. Basketball" and USA Today selected him for the All-USA First Team, making him the first sophomore to be honored with such a nomination.

It was during his junior year that James began to garner national attention.  The nickname, "King" James began to circulate.  During this season, he averaged 29 points and 8 rebounds and was once again named Mr. Basketball and again had a spot All-USA First Team, despite the team not capturing the state championship as it moved to the more challenging Division II.  His talent was so great that he attempted to declare for the NBA draft after this season.  Although the NBA would not adjust a rule that stated a player must finish high school to be eligible to play in the league.  This would have made him the youngest player in NBA history.

Nevertheless, his name became nationally known when he made the front page of Sport's Illustrated and ESPN magazines, that touted him as the next great basketball player that would "transcend" the game, a la Michael Jordan.  This brought him an unprecedented level of attention for his final season as a high school senior.  The public's demand for more Lebron exposure was so great that his high school games became nationally televised on pay-per-view.  Celebrities began attending these games, and Lebron was already working out multi-million dollar shoe contracts before graduating.

Lebron's success didn't come without his share of controversy.  There was that whole getting "incentives" gifts in the form of throwback jerseys and Hummer issues, but those issues have been buried in the past now.  Critics were eager to see how Lebron would handle the public pressure once entering the glitzy life that is the NBA.  Through the whole rookie season, all the news about Lebron was about his achievements on the court, and there was barely a peep about what he was doing of the court, much to the satisfaction of Cavaliers coaches, management, and Lebron himself.  You can just see his love for the game by his intense dedication and devotion to playing and improving his own play, and ultimately driven by team success. 

The pace at which Lebron is learning, and more importantly, adjusting to, the NBA game is remarkable.  No longer just relying on his physical ability to just drive and explode to the basket, Lebron has now taken all he has observed from last season, and applied it to this season.  He has been able to read defense with amazing accuracy, reacting to the situation faster, which often leads to easy buckets.  The main beneficiary of the many Lebron passes out of traffic is the team's big men, Zydrunas Ilgauskus and Drew Gooden.  Ilgauskas, the Cav's all-star center has said that this season has been a whole lot easier to score because of Lebron's play and leadership.  While each of Cleveland's starters are posting respectable numbers, it has been their play as a team that have led them to this early success.  Lebron James is the glue that holds them together, and the engine that keeps them going.  He also knows when to take over – which will be the difference this season, as the Cavs will undoubtedly go onto their first winning season since the 1997-98 season.