LeBron James' career changed when he learned his opponents so thoroughly that he could call out plays before they happened

Mark J. Terrill/AP ImagesLeBron James.
  • LeBron James’ basketball IQ might be his greatest strength, a skill Doc Rivers said James developed over time.
  • Opposing coaches and players have said James knows their playbooks and will call out their plays before they even happen.
  • Teammates have marveled at James’ knowledge of basketball, his ability to break down plays, and know the scouting report.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Chicago Bulls rookie Patrick Williams was the latest player to witness LeBron James’ basketball mind at work.

After a 101-90 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers last Saturday,Williams told reporters that James was calling out the Bulls’ plays before they even happened.

“He was out there just making plays,” Williams told reporters. “He was making plays with his mind, with his communication, even when he didn’t have the ball. When he was off-ball, he was calling out our plays, telling guys where to be and what was coming next. You can tell that he watches a lot of film.”

This isn’t a new phenomenon for James — opponents have said this about him for years. NBA agent Nate Jones said Damian Lillard said the same thing about James after the first time they played in 2012.

Over James’ 18-year career, his athletic prowess has largely defined his time in the NBA. And while there is still no stopping James, opponents say James’ inside-out knowledge of the game and his opponents may be his true legacy.

According to Doc Rivers, now the Philadelphia 76ers head coach, James’ basketball IQ developed over time.

Speaking on a coach’s roundtable for NBA TV in 2017, Rivers said that when he was head coach of the Boston Celtics and James was still with the Cleveland Cavaliers, James wasn’t yet a basketball savant. According to Rivers, once James joined the Miami Heat, his knowledge of the game grew.

“We beat them a couple of times when he was in Cleveland. He was not that way,” Rivers said. “I’ve never seen a change in a player [like James]. I knew we were in trouble in Miami when we were coaching. When he was in Cleveland, he was just playing basketball. We get to Miami, and he’s in Miami now, and he’s calling our plays out, he’s staring over at our bench, he’s reading stuff. I remember saying, ‘This is not good.'”

James has both wowed and humiliated players with his knowledge

Few teams have been on the receiving end of James’ basketball IQ like the Toronto Raptors.

Lebron james raptors 2018Vaughn Ridley/Getty ImagesLeBron James faces the Raptors in the 2017 playoffs.

From 2016-2018, James’ Cavaliers teams eliminated the Raptors from the playoffs. Along the way, James essentially embarrassed the Raptors with his shot-making and his ability to stop their plays before they even happened.

Former Raptors coach Dwane Casey said on the NBA TV roundtable that James was staring down the Raptors and diagnosing their plays.

“The [smartest] player to coach against, and one of the most difficult, going through him in the playoffs, was LeBron James,” Casey said. “This guy was looking in your mouth right there and just calling it. He was telling the players exactly what was gonna happen on the play that you called.”

Former Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan told JJ Redick on the “Old Man and the Three” podcast in October that James even told a Raptors player where to be.

“I remember it was a play we was trying to run and one of our teammates forgot the play, and ‘Bron told him the play,” DeRozan said. “Like, it was some crazy s—. We calling a play, and [the Raptors teammate] was like, ‘What?’ And ‘Bron told him what our play was.

“It just shows you how locked in this dude be when it comes to winning time.”

Former Cavs GM David Griffin recalled the same incident on Bill Simmons’ podcast.

“I was in the gym when I watched him on the floor against Toronto tell Patrick Patterson where he was supposed to go on the play they had called out of a timeout late in the fourth quarter. He was like ‘No Pat, you’re supposed to stand over there and set a pin down for DeMar [DeRozan] over here.'”

Washington Wizards head coach Scotty Brooks told reporters after a loss to the Lakers last season that James knew the Wizards’ playbook when Brooks tried to fool the Cavs with a fake play.

A computer on learning mode and a “scary” knowledge of the game

Griffin told Simmons that James was like a “computer on learning mode.”

“He’s so cerebral. We used to joke that he was a computer on learning mode. He’s such a savant, and he figures out the angles to such a huge degree that it’s not a surprise he’s figured to game the system a little bit.”

Lebron james lakers Mark J. Terrill/AP ImagesLeBron James’ basketball IQ might be his best feature.

Griffin added: “There’s literally nothing you can show him that he can’t do. There’s no play you’ll run against him he can’t name, and then go out there and teach your players how to do it better than anyone else.”

Former Cavs guard Iman Shumpert made a similar point in an interview with Vlad TV in March of 2020. He said James’ knowledge of the game is “scary.”

“It might be his biggest superpower, his ability to get everybody on the same page. Like, it’s actually kind of scary,” Shumpert said. “He can explain this game forward and back. It’s unbelievable. You talk about someone who knows the playbook, knows where everybody’s supposed to be, knows the other teams’ coaches’ playbook, style of coaching, how his ball club is gonna play. ‘Bron’s one of them.

“Like, we’ll be going into Philly tonight, he’ll be like, ‘They just hired their new defensive coach, but he was at Georgetown for three years, and I played for him one time at camp, and this is how he’s gonna play us.’ And you’re like, ‘What?”

Former Cavs assistant coach and current Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce recalled a similar skill of James, saying that James’ mind is so sharp that he can only be paying partial attention in practice and still know what to do.

“LeBron never pays attention. Never pays attention,” Pierce said. “So as you’re telling him to walk, he’s over here talking and rapping. He’s dancing. And you’re going through the play, and then when someone messes up, all of a sudden, he’s like, ‘You’ve got to be in position’ … The whole time, he’s been rapping and talking. But he knows the play, and he knows where everyone is supposed to be. And all he has to do is glance and see (someone else) make a false step.”

Shumpert said James is also acutely aware of the scouting report on each opponent, saying, for example, that James could recite an opponent’s low three-point percentage from the left corner as a reason not to guard them closely.

“You’ll be like, ‘Yes sir,'” Shumpert said, throwing his hands up.

Shumpert’s comments are similar to what Lakers guard Quinn Cook told Sports Illustrated in March.

“He knows everybody,” Cook told Sports Illustrated’s Melissa Rohlin. “[It] could be last guy on the bench on the team, but he knows he’s left-handed, he’s a shooter, don’t go under him, he’s a driver, stuff like that. He pays attention to the game, he watches the game, and he studies.”

At 36, James’ first step or his explosion to the basket isn’t what it used to be. But his ability to bend the defence and dominate the game mentally is a big reason he may still be the best player in the NBA today.

James told reporters in 2020: “If I lose a step here, but if your mind is sharp and you have a big basketball IQ, you can always cover for these things.”

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