The last image of LeBron James on the court with the Lakers for public consumption was him gritting his way through a foot injury, playing nearly all 48 minutes in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals despite being clearly limited.
Sure, he could still bully his ways to his spots — his strength mostly unmatched among the players at his position. But when he’d go to press the gas pedal all the way down, the sports car acceleration was gone. The electric athleticism was dimmed. And with it, some of his “wow” factor disappeared.
But for the people inside the gym during the Lakers’ first two days of training camp, that version of James is a memory. The reality they’re dealing with now is one where the 38-year-old James is back to defying time with his speed and explosiveness.
“He’s 100% healthy,” Darvin Ham declared. “He looks fine. He looks like third- or fourth-year LeBron.”
James certainly didn’t look that way late into last season after he returned following a serious foot injury. But through this summer and the early days of camp, his teammates are seeing the more ageless version of the league’s all-time leading scorer.
“He’s been looking good. Just energy level, his activity. Him changing ends of the floor, he definitely looks like he has a little bit more bounce and pep to his step,” Jarred Vanderbilt said after Wednesday’s practice. “We’re glad to have him back at 100%. Like I said, he’s still moving looking a freight train.”
James said Monday during media day that he was ready to test things out.
“A lot of my attention this summer was with my foot and getting that back to a pre-injury, the pre-Dallas game, where I pretty much tore the whole tendon on my right foot. This summer has been a lot about rehabbing that and getting that back to where it needs to be,” he said. “But my foot has been reacting very well on my offseason workouts. Looking forward to seeing how it reacts during training camp and all preseason going into the regular season. Excited to see where I am as it stands today.”
Ham said that even with James looking like his old self, the team around him has evolved. If things go according to the Lakers’ plans, James will have plenty of help around him like he did during the team’s Western Conference finals run. During the playoffs, James ceded big moments to Anthony Davis, Austin Reaves, D’Angelo Russell and the since-departed Lonnie Walker IV.
“He’s able to pick his spots now. He’s an elder, wise man on the court, as well as off the court. He’s very calculated in the way he chooses his spots to do that and to show that,” Ham said. “And now he has a ton of help. It’s only gonna make him and allow him to play and have that burst for longer stretches during games, during the season. So now when we get to our destination, he’ll be clicking on all cylinders.”
And after last year, the faith to fully count on that help should be there.
“He’s gonna quarterback. He’s going to help us decipher what we need to decipher in terms of strategy and how we attack our opponents. The same as he did last year,” Ham said. “But this year, we just saw Gabe Vincent in today’s scrimmage with a huge 3-pointer to put his team up 1 and ultimately win the scrimmage. AD making big plays. D-Lo making big shots. Austin … he has help. Rui [Hachimura]. Christian Wood. There’s help everywhere. Guys have made big shots, game-winning shots in big moments. Just based on that fact, he’ll be able to pick his spots when he needs to be aggressive. We want him to be aggressive, but also, again, he’s probably the most selfless elite superstar I’ve ever seen. He’s just going to make the right play.
“He got dogged for it early in his career saying he was afraid of the moment. Nothing could be further from the truth. He just takes his time and makes the right basketball play. And now, these guys who’ve been assembled to go around him and AD, are only going to make that even more.”