Through no fault of his own, Bronny James found himself at the center of a debate this week.
It commenced when the rosters for the 46th annual boys McDonald’s All American Games were announced, and the oldest son of LeBron James was among the 24 players picked for the prestigious all-star game.
The exclusion of highly regarded players such as Mikey Williams, AJ Johnson and Caleb Foster helped fuel the talk of whether Bronny James deserved a spot in the game to be played March 28 at the Toyota Center in Houston.
“We’d be having this same conversation if he didn’t make it,’’ said Frank Burlison, an original member of the selection committee for the McDonald’s All American Games, “because it would have elicited as much conversation or debate either way just because of the nature of who he is.’’
The argument for Bronny
He is no clone of his father.
While LeBron James is chiseled at 6-9, Bronny is far less imposing, listed at 6-3 on the McDonald’s roster. But the highlight-reel plays have been impressive for the senior captain at Sierra Canyon High School in Chatsworth, California.
Footage of Bronny’s breakaway dunks have aired on ESPN, gone viral on social media and demonstrated he has enough athleticism to deliver spectacular moments.
“His vert has improved as much as any kid in the class,’’ said Brandon Clay, who has been involved in grassroots basketball for more than two decades and joined the McDonald’s voting committee for the boys and girls games in 2015.
Over the past two years, Clay said, he has seen Bronny play in person more than a half-dozen times.
“Every time I’ve seen him play live, he’s been really good, man,’’ Clay said. “He’s played great competition. He always looks like he belongs at the table. He doesn’t look out of place.
“He’s a very different player obviously than his father. If you’re judging (Bronny) by that lens, I think it’s unfair to the kid.
“But if you’re talking about a kid that plays the game the right way, makes the extra pass to the corner kid, can shoot the 3-ball, I feel like he played his way into the discussion.’’
Adam Finkelstein, director of scouting for basketball at 247 Sports, said, “What is counterintuitive is that LeBron James’ son and namesake isn’t necessarily the guy who’s going to go out and put 30 points on the board on any given night. That’s the part that I think surprises people at first glance who haven’t been watching him.
“What I think is most impressive is given the microscope he’s been under for his entire high school career, he has always played the right way. It means he’s shared the basketball, hasn’t forced bad shots, hasn’t forced himself into a starring role, plays within the flow of the game, doesn’t overdribble. It means he is engaged and competitive defensively.
“Even though he may not go out and get you 30, he does things that will impact winning not just at this level but at the next level.’’
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But Bronny would not have merited discussion for the McDonald’s team unless he’d shown progress since the summer, said Van Coleman, a member of the selection committee and longtime scout. Since the end of summer, in Coleman’s national rankings, Bronny has moved up to No. 29 from No. 41.
“Now it’s not 24,’’ Coleman said, referring to the 24 roster spots available for the McDonald’s game. “But the difference between No. 20 and No. 30 (in the national rankings), shake a hat.
“He’s become a player where I can see down the road he is a draftable player and will be eventually.’’
The argument against Bronny
Burlison, who was inducted into the U.S. Basketball Writers Association’s Hall of Fame in 2005, said being the son of LeBron James had a clear impact on Bronny being selected.
“I don’t want this to sound negative about what I think of (Bronny) as a player,’’ said Burlison, the last original member of the selection committee still voting. “But if he wasn’t LeBron’s son, and I’d seen him at a different high school, I’d say, ‘He’s a good player. He’s top whatever in California, he’s a D-1 guard.’
“But we wouldn’t be debating whether he’s a McDonald’s All American or anything like that, that’s for sure. I don’t know if that sounds negative or hating, but so be it. That’s just the way it is by the mere fact of who his daddy is; he’s always going to have a huge spotlight on him positively or negatively.’’
What some critics say about Bronny: a complementary player who lacks the killer instinct, a pretty good shooter who lacks consistency, a player who’s good at a lot but rarely spectacular – barring those occasional breakaway dunks, that is.
But Burlison wanted to clarify his thoughts on Bronny’s inclusion to the McDonald’s All American game.
“There was a multitude of guys that I didn’t vote for that made it, so I don’t want to say it just on Bronny,’’ he said. “There were other guys I didn’t vote for that I thought were less-deserving than Bronny. Bronny’s a good player.’’
How the voting works – or doesn’t
There are roughly 35 to 40 voters, according to Burlison and Coleman. There are multiple ballots, with a composite list of about 100 players being pared down to 20.
It’s unclear who selects the final four players, and that creates murkiness, according Clay Kallam, a former member of the selection committee for the girls game.
“No one ever sees the votes or understands how the process works,’’ said Kallam, a longtime girls basketball coach and scout.
Kallam said the voting process was discussed during a meeting in Chicago about a decade ago and afterward, he wrote a letter to a McDonald’s representative who attended. “I wrote the guy and said, ‘Your process is flawed and not transparent, and how you pick a team makes no sense,’ ” Kallam said.
Kallam said he was removed from the committee two years later.
Joe Wootten is the committee chair and his wife, Terri, is the director. Attempts to reach them for comment by phone were unsuccessful.
But Burlison rejected the idea that Bronny made the cut in hopes of increasing ratings for ESPN, which televises the games, or due to any other “chicanery.’’
“They’re honorable people,’’ he said of the Woottens.
Without offering specifics, Coleman said McDonald’s and ESPN have some influence on the voting process.
Regardless of the actual process, Finkelstein of 247 Sports said, “Bronny James is the most recognizable name in high school basketball. So from a visability standpoint, if I’m McDonald’s I probably want him in the game.”
The most controversial snub
Bronny being in the mix has amplified the debate. But debate is nothing new given the reality of the process.
“There’s going to be a kid missed every year,’’ Coleman said.
Williams, Johnson and Foster will vie for the mythical title of most unforgivable snub by being left off the rosters.
Then there’s Jackson Shelstad, a point guard from West Linn (Oregon) High School. He went head-to-head with Bronny on Dec. 30 at the Les Schwab Invitational, a top-tier tournament in Oregon. In the semifinals, Shelstad led West over Sierra Canyon, 86-69, with a game-high 32 points on 11-of-16 shooting from the floor. He also had seven rebounds and three assists.
Bronny had 10 points on 3-of-10 shooting along with four rebounds and two assists.
In the finals, Shelstad led West Linn past then-No. 1 Duncanville (Texas), 62-50, with a game-high 30 points.
“It’s not just about highlights and videos and social media,’’ Burlison said. “It’s what you do, and to me, nobody in high school basketball has had a better senior season than Jackson Shelstad.
“Would I have put Shelstad on there over (Bronny)? Yes. I also would have put him over a bunch of guys.’’
Like father like son?
That could be tough for Bronny.
In 2003, LeBron James won MVP honors at the McDonald’s All American game after leading the East to a 122-107 victory over the West with 27 points.
Father appears to be more focused on his oldest son than on feats from 20 years ago.
“So damn proud of you!’’ James wrote on Instagram when the selections were announced. “Continue to be you through it all no matter what!! You’re truly AMAZING!!!’’