The LeBron James Generation of young players grew up admiring him, but won't let him off easy

SALT LAKE CITY — A timeout in the opening quarter of Jabari Smith Jr.'s first career game against Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James offered the Houston Rockets rookie an icebreaking opportunity.

"Hey," the 19-year-old said, "you played against my dad your first NBA game ever."

As the league introduced its Rising Stars on All-Star weekend, three participants — Smith, Scotty Pippen Jr. and A.J. Griffin — are sons of players whose careers also coincided with James' two-decade run. A fourth, Jalen Duren, is the first NBA player born after James debuted for the Cleveland Cavaliers in October 2003.

"I've been around LeBron since I was a kid at All-Star games, seeing his kids, so going to work with him every day is definitely a crazy experience that I'm still not used to," said Pippen Jr., who signed a two-way contract with the Lakers this past summer and whose father retired after James' rookie year. "It's definitely a dream come true. I grew up watching this guy, so getting on the court with him is a cool experience."

The next generation of NBA stars is one raised on James as the face of the league. Someday, they will usher him out of it, as they make names for themselves, and they will not let him off easy in the meantime.

"It's wild to grow up watching LeBron at 6 years old, and then my first time in Staples, growing up a huge Lakers fan, to actually play him when he's about to break the scoring record shows the greatness and longevity he's had in the league," said Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Jalen Williams, whose 25 points in victory put a damper on the night James passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. "That was really a surreal moment.

"That's one of those records we don't think will be touched in our lifetime, so it was cool to be on the court for that. I'm really happy we won," Williams added. "There was a point where I was like, 'OK, he's going to get the record, so now we've got to win.' It was a cool moment, something I won't forget, and our team won't forget it either."

Prior to being drafted sixth overall by the Indiana Pacers this past June, Bennedict Mathurin, 20, made headlines when he told the Washington Post of James, “A lot of people say he’s great. I want to see how great he is. I don’t think anybody is better than me. He’s going to have to show me he’s better than me.”

When the two first met in late November, Mathurin outscored James, 23-21, and his Pacers (and Rising Stars) teammate Andrew Nembhard delivered a game-winning 3-pointer to beat the Lakers at the buzzer.

"It was pretty much a normal game," said Mathurin. "I think a lot of people pretty much overreacted over the 'famous' quote, but it was great, to be honest, playing against LeBron James, who's currently leading the league in [career] points, and ... who might retire as the biggest basketball legend of all time."

In the end, Mathurin concedes that James has shown him his greatness. There is reverence for James, but since he is still playing, they are not so much The LeBron Generation as the one that will inherit his legacy.

"I wouldn't say I was not a LeBron guy, but I was definitely a huge Kobe fan," said Williams, who wears No. 8 and sports a tattoo on his leg in homage to Bryant. Williams was 9 years old when Bryant won his last title.

"I was a Kobe guy," said Toronto Raptors forward Scottie Barnes, a South Florida native who was 8 when James joined the Miami Heat. "Of course, growing up, LeBron was always the main guy and my brother's favorite player, so that's probably why I became a Kobe guy, because I just wanted to go with the rival."

"I always respected [James'] legacy," said Duren, "but I wasn't a diehard fan. I was a fan of [Kevin Durant]."

Admiration for James absent adoration is not universal. "He's a guy that a lot of guys idolized growing up," said Sacramento Kings rookie Keegan Murray. Reigning No. 1 overall pick Paolo Banchero said earlier this season, "That’s been my favorite player since I was a young kid," and Smith said the same on Friday. He and Williams respectively described feeling "jittery" and "extremely nervous" when they first faced James.

Sentiments from the game's Rising Stars suggested that what the players who grew up watching James will remember most are not the championships or his unparalleled combination of brawn and athleticism, but rather the example he has set in his relentless pursuit of prolonged greatness. James was dubbed the "Chosen One," tattooed it on his back, and even in the face of doubt and criticism, he lived up to the hype.

Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James dribbles against Toronto Raptors forward Scottie Barnes during Barnes' rookie season. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James dribbles against Toronto Raptors forward Scottie Barnes during Barnes' rookie season. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) (Ronald Martinez via Getty Images)

"He's been a real pioneer and the face of this league for a long time. He has a clean image," Barnes said of James, "so everything he's done, he's a great role model for kids growing up and kids in my era as well."

"He broke through any wall people put up," said Smith. "Through the bad decisions, the bad games, good games, he always remained the same, always got better, and he just paved the way. He just showed us that he can do anything with his game, no matter what people think. He's an idol to people coming up now."

"That is the craziest thing about my journey," said Mac McClung, whose pursuit of the NBA dream has included a single appearance for the Lakers in 2022, a training camp invite from the Golden State Warriors and now a two-way deal with the Philadelphia 76ers. "Starting off from a small town in Gate City [Virginia], and then every team I've been on has been like the best players of all time, arguably — LeBron and Steph Curry. Being around those guys really helped me get acclimated. The nerves aren't the same anymore when you've been around your childhood heroes. I've definitely looked up to those guys, but I've definitely learned a lot from them as well. ... Learning how they work and how they prepare themselves is inspiring."

For all the criticism he has received from the outside for his well-earned ego, James has shared his stage — and the lessons he has learned on it — with peers who now span generations, reaping their respect.

"That's me and my dad's favorite player. We've been watching him," said Smith, whose father attended his son's debut against James. "He was actually drafted the year I was born, so he's been doing it for a while, and that's kind of our favorite player. After the game, I told him to go over there and show some love to my dad, and he did. My dad will never forget it. ... He was thanking him for everything he did for the game."