- Cleveland Cavaliers assistant coach Phil Handy says that there are six factors that make LeBron James an extraordinary athlete.
- Handy says the Cavs small forward has an elite combination of physical, mental, and technical attributes.
- LeBron James is a “freak athlete” according to Handy and has a basketball IQ that rivals the intelligence the NBA greats had.
LeBron James is one of the most recognisable names and faces in sports.
The 32-year-old “small forward” has won three NBA championships, is a Cleveland Cavaliers legend, an all-time basketball great, and one of the highest-paid athletes in the world — second only to Real Madrid striker Cristiano Ronaldo.
But what is it that makes the NBA star so extraordinary?
Business Insider met Cavaliers coach Phil Handy earlier this month while he was in England to host the “Beyond The Contracts Skills Development” clinic for elite UK players.
A professional athlete himself, Handy represented the Golden State Warriors and the Portland Trailblazers before competing in Europe and Australia in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
In 2011 he joined the Los Angeles Lakers as director of player development but was snapped up by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2013.
Handy, therefore, knows talent when he sees it.
During his run as an NBA coach, he’s worked with five-time NBA champ Kobe Bryant, two-time MVP Steve Nash, gold medal Olympian Kevin Love, Cavs point guard Kyrie Irving, and, of course, LeBron James.
Here’s what Handy told us about the athletic “freak of nature” that is LeBron James, a player he’s “really enjoyed getting to know over the last few years.”
1. He’s a coachable professional.
“LeBron James is the ultimate professional and is just a dream for people like me because, despite being the best player in the game, he remains very coachable,” Handy said.
“You would expect guys like that to be hard [to coach], but he knows the game, is a student of the game, studies, wants to be challenged, and he wants to be coached. Every day he strives to be better than the day before.”
That attitude has been a constant throughout his Cleveland Cavaliers career and even serves as inspiration to his younger team-mates.
2. He’s a natural born leader.
“LeBron and [Cavs point guard] Kyrie [Irving] are both great with their team-mates,” Handy told BI. “They do individiual work during training but they also work with their team.
“LeBron is one of the first guys in the building,” Handy said. “That in itself is something that makes the younger guys think they have to live up to that. You can’t get to the gym just ten minutes before practice. You can forget about the coaches [disciplining you], it will be the players who will get on you.
He added: “Our culture in Cleveland is good as we have veteran guys and they show you how you need to work. So it’s a big help [to have guys like LeBron James in the locker room and on the court].”
3. He’s ultra-powerful.
“LeBron James is six foot nine inches tall and weighs 265 or 270 pounds — so he’s a big boy!”
To put that in perspective, think of world heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua. Well, James is three inches taller and between 15 and 20 pounds heavier.
LeBron James is one of the most physically impressive specimens in sport. He’s also “powerful” and has “speed and agility.”
“LeBron has all of those things,” Handy said. “He’s a freak, man… he’s just a freak of nature.”
4. He has a high ‘basketball IQ.’
James’ best assets are not just physical, but mental. “LeBron has a very high basketball IQ,” Handy said. “He’s smart.”
His appreciation of basketball is something he shares with the greatest modern-day athletes in all of sport.
FC Barcelona midfielder Andrés Iniesta has a great soccer IQ, Novak Djokovic possesses a high tennis IQ, and unbeaten boxer Floyd Mayweather has tremendous ring smarts.
Elite basketball is no different, as those who have the physical, technical, and mental attributes are the ones who rise to the top of the game and achieve an all-time great legacy.
For Handy, James is on top right now.
“The greatest players throughout the history of the game — Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Larry Bird — all had a basketball IQ that was far higher than the rest of the talent. Not only were they physically talented, their IQ was just so far ahead.”
“They see the game a lot slower, they can see a lot faster, and they see things happening before they happen,” he added.
James, just like the greats, demonstrates a high basketball intellect on and off the court. “LeBron can sit down at a table and tell you what plays every team will run, how they will defend, and where the defence is going to come from.”
“It’s phenomenal to see how smart these guys are,” Handy said. “LeBron is no different. He’s just a very smart individual.”
5. His best years could still be ahead of him.
LeBron James is 32 years old and has 15 years of professional basketball experience, but Handy believes the player’s best years are ahead of him.
“LeBron right now is just reaching his peak… he’s not coming down at all. The stuff he does every day with his body, before practice and before he gets on the court — he’s just a well-oiled machine.”
“Most guys just don’t go through what he does with his body,” he added. “Michael Jordan and Kobe [Bryant, who Handy worked with at the Lakers between 2013 and 2015] were the same way. They really invested into their bodies.”
Handy talks like he expects James to enjoy career longevity and continue playing at an elite level “for another five or six years.”
For that, James could thank the Cavs coaching staff — Handy included — but he could also thank Golden State Warriors and its point guard Stephen Curry.
6. He has a rival in Stephen Curry.
“I think you need [a competitive rival],” Handy said. “And when you think of the greatest players, they all had a rival. Magic Johnson had Larry Bird. Michael Jordan came in at the end of that Magic-Bird rivalry and was searching for a nemesis of his own. But throughout his whole career, Jordan never had that one guy.”
“Now you have the Cavs and the Warriors and the LeBron and Curry thing that has grown.”
He added: “I think as a top level player you need somebody across the way to help you continue to push and strive. To say ‘I want to stay at the top of this food chain’. You have self motivation, but it’s good to have somebody on the other side to keep you going.”
There are many other examples of this in elite sport, such as the soccer rivalry between Real Madrid striker Cristiano Ronaldo and FC Barcelona forward Lionel Messi. In Formula One, Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton has Ferrari racer Sebastian Vettel and in mixed martial arts a company rivalry has emerged between market-leading UFC and developing threat Bellator.
Of this, Hardy said: “That’s epic right there — epic.”
So how helpful to James and to the Cavs is the presence of Curry and NBA rival the Golden State Warriors?
“The rivalries really help your career,” Handy said. “Either a player, or a team. It’s great to have that feeling of ‘I really don’t like that team and we need to prepare for them.'”
“It’s what’s happened with Cleveland and the Warriors. It’s got to a point where we want to beat them and they want to beat us and there’s nothing friendly in between.”
And as far as who benefits the most out of the rivalry?
“Hey, you know what… it’s just great for the sport of basketball.”
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