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“This is going to be your league in a little while” — Tim Duncan predicted the rise of LeBron James

Duncan reflects on what he saw in James that made him believe he was destined for greatness, even after he had only been in the league for four years
Miami Heat forward LeBron James drives to the basket against San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan

LeBron James and Tim Duncan

For about 15 years, from the late ’90s to midway through the 2010s, the San Antonio Spurs dominated the NBA. A significant reason for their domination and success was Tim Duncan. “The Big Fundamental” never missed the playoffs during his 19-year career while winning two MVP awards and five championships.

Duncan is widely regarded as one of the greatest players in NBA history. He wasn’t always the flashiest player, but his unique scoring prowess and lockdown defense powered the Spurs to much of their success during their 15-year dynastic run. So it’s safe to say that when Duncan said somebody was good at basketball, he knew what he was talking about.

Well, that’s precisely what Duncan said to LeBron James after the Spurs swept the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2007 NBA Finals. It was just James’ fourth season in the NBA and his first Finals appearance, but Duncan saw something in James 15 years ago that ended up being quite prophetic.

“This is going to be your league in a little while, but I appreciate you giving us this year.”

Duncan’s prediction for LeBron was spot on

At the time, James was still in the early stages of his career. He had shown the ability to be a dominant scorer, but nobody knew that this was just the tip of the iceberg. James has maintained his high standard of play throughout his 19-year career, and “King James” has shown no signs of slowing down. When asked to reflect on his passing quote to James in 2007, 14 years later in 2021, here’s what Duncan said he saw in James that made him believe he was destined for greatness.

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You could just tell what he was going to be and who he was going to be, and he was going to be such a dominant player for such a long time. It was great playing against him early and again late in my career, and just watching the trajectory of his career, you could see it coming. Playing against a young LeBron, and an older LeBron, it’s two totally different players, and it was fun to watch and be a part of.” Tim Duncan, The Jump

LeBron has evolved his game to maintain his success

Duncan’s quote on The Jump provides a unique insight that helps put James’ greatness into perspective. He mentions how the young LeBron and the older LeBron are entirely different players, and he’s correct. And when looking at it closer, it makes you appreciate James’ greatness even more.

James relied heavily on his driving and mid-range game for most of his points when he entered the league. Bron was a skilled finisher who used his speed and strength to get to the rim whenever he wanted while also using that same skillset to create separation for middies. And it worked out pretty well, as opponents were usually unable to find ways to slow down James for very long.

And while LeBron still possesses the slashing ability he did when he was younger, LBJ has come to rely more on his three-point shooting as he’s gotten older. James’ three-point attempts per season have gradually increased as he aged and peaked with the eight threes per game he took during the 2021-22 season.

LeBron doesn’t have the same burst he had earlier on in his career, but his increase in three-point shooting also reflects how he’s adapted to the ever-changing landscape of the NBA. In today’s game, the three-point shot has never been more critical, and you can typically carve out a roster spot even if all you can do is make your threes at a high clip. James has improved his three-point shot throughout his career to help him adapt to his age and the changes in the NBA.

Even though James and the Los Angeles Lakers missed the playoffs in a disappointing 2021-22 campaign, LeBron was still as solid as ever. His 30.3 points per game were the second-highest average of his career, and he appears set to continue his high standard of play into his 20th season. Duncan was more than right when he said James would run the NBA in 2007, but even he couldn’t have predicted all that James would accomplish during his legendary career.

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