Bronny James’ freshman year wasn’t supposed to go like this. 

The son of perhaps the best basketball player to ever live, James entered his first year at USC with nothing but expectations — both because of who his father is, but also because of the legitimate first-round upside scouts said he possessed as recently as a year ago.

But that upside hasn’t materialized for Bronny at USC. The 6-foot-3 guard is averaging just 5.5 points per game and is shooting only 27.5% from 3-point range for a Trojans team that is near the bottom of the Pac-12 standings. 

As a response to James’ production this season, ESPN’s Jonathan Givony — one of the top basketball scouts anywhere in the public sphere — pushed the talented freshman to his 2025 NBA mock draft this week. Givony reasoned that while he still believes in James as a prospect longterm, his production hasn’t been good enough to justify his inclusion in the 2024 NBA Draft.

“The fact of the matter is that Bronny James has not produced like a one-and-done player this season,” Givony said on ESPN on Monday. “He’s been playing hot-potato with his teammates, moving the ball left and right. He’s really lacked assertiveness and is missing opportunities to really put himself into the game when they’ve had injuries and when they needed him to step up and show that he’s an NBA player.”

That’s harsh-but-fair criticism coming from Givony, who was notably very high on James coming into the 2023-24 collegiate season. Last February, James landed at No. 10 on Givony’s early 2024 mock draft.

Givony’s updated comments drew the frustrations of LeBron James, who had this to say in a social media post that has since been deleted:

“Can yall please just let the kid be a kid and enjoy college basketball. The work and results will ultimately do the talking no matter what he decides to do. If y’all don’t know he doesn’t care what a mock draft says, he just WORKS! Earned not Given!”

And while another Tweet from James last March claiming that Bronny could play in the NBA immediately is unfortunate in light of his performance at USC, there’s significant context often missing from the discussion. 

James suffered cardiac event back in July that doctors later said they believe was the result of a treatable congenital heart defect. While James was eventually cleared to play, the medical issue caused him to miss several months of important development time — including the first 8 games of the 2023-24 season. 

He is far from the first ballyhooed prospect to fail to meet expectations as a college freshman. The vast majority of the players who fail have excuses, but some have reasons. The distinction there is important — and James certainly falls in the latter category. 

There are few — if any — prospects in this class who would be able to overcome what James did this offseason and maintain their status as a projected lottery pick. The fact that Bronny hasn’t done so speaks virtually nothing to his quality as a longterm prospect. It also shouldn’t necessarily feed any criticism of LeBron himself for how he has handled Bronny’s rise as a potential NBA talent — how could he have known his son’s freshman year would be derailed by a major medical scare?

Long before Bronny committed to USC, his status as a draft prospect was a lightning rod for discussion in NBA circles. That was largely because James, 39, has been open about the fact that he hopes to play with Bronny in the NBA before he retires.

“I need to be on the floor with my boy,” James told ESPN last year when asked what he still hopes to accomplish in his NBA career. “I’ve got to be on the floor with Bronny. Either in the same uniform or a matchup against him.

“That would be ideal for sure. Being with him, spending a full year with him, in the same uniform. That would be the icing on the cake.”

James can enter free agency this offseason by declining his $51 million player option if he so chooses. The timing of his contract situation, in addition to his comments about playing with his son, has fueled speculation that James could join whichever team drafts Bronny.

However, that no longer seems to be the most likely outcome. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst — who has covered James since his high school days in Akron, Ohio — reported on Monday that James is looking to sign a multi-year deal with the Lakers this summer. Depending on the details of the contract, that could significantly delay any possible scenario where father-and-son team up.

Perhaps that’s for the best. At this point in time, it’s clear there’s little to be gained by Bronny if he choses to enter the 2024 NBA Draft with such lackluster numbers on his freshman résumé. Critics would be quick to say he wouldn’t be on any draft boards if not for the name on the back of his jersey — and they’d be right. Bronny — who changed his name from LeBron James Jr. in an effort to distinguish himself — would be much better-served by returning to school for another year to showcase his enormous upside.

Don’t take my word for it regarding his upside — here’s what Givony said about Bronny’s abilities in that same ESPN segment on Monday:

“I love Bronny James’ game still,” Givony said. “He’s one of the best defenders in this freshman class. He’s phenomenal at getting over screens. Mirroring 1-on-1. Busting up hand-offs. Locking up. Generating turnovers. He’s physical, he’s competitive, he’s got a great feel for the game.

“I think if Bronny James comes back for his sophomore season, we’re going to see a completely different guy. We’re going to see someone that really could be a lottery pick still.”

Bronny deserves a chance to be picked in the NBA Draft on the merits of his own game — and there’s no shame in waiting until 2025 to make that dream a reality.