Inside The Mind Of LeBron James: An Exclusive Look At his Basketball IQ

Melissa Rohlin

LeBron James has an unusual gift.

He has a photographic memory that allows him to remember the location of all ten players on the court in each moment of a 48-minute game.

"I've always had it," James told Sports Illustrated. " A lot of my friends when I was younger playing the game, they were like, 'Man, how did you remember that play? Or how did you remember that? It was so long ago.' I never thought about it. I didn't even know what photographic memory meant when I was younger until I got older. It's something that I was born with or blessed with."

That ability has made James nearly invincible on the basketball court.

At 6-foot-9, 250-pounds, James can power his way through defenses with a mix of brute force and stunning finesse. But what truly separates him from the pack is how he sees the game.

"There's a lot of people in the league with LeBron's body," Clippers' coach Doc Rivers said. "There's no one in the league with his brain."

James sees things before anyone else. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of every player in the league and their tendencies. He knows where his teammates should be, and how their defenders will likely react.

"He knows everybody," Quinn Cook said. "He 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. He helps us get prepared just with his voice."

Before the NBA suspended the season March 11 to help stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, James often chimed in during the Lakers' film sessions, explaining defensive schemes to his teammates, teaching them about a move an opposing player makes and breaking down other team's plays.

That's an incredibly unusual skill. It's hard enough for most players to even remember what they should be doing.

"There's a lot of play calls that I don't know," Avery Bradley said. "Me and Danny [Green] look at each other like, 'What play is that?' And LeBron knows where every guy is supposed to be, what you're supposed to do, the timing of everything. His IQ is just crazy."

Lakers' assistant coach Jason Kidd, who was a 10-time All-Star during his 19 seasons in the league, defined "basketball IQ" as having an all-encompassing grasp of the game.

"I think it entails understanding time and score, understanding your opponent, understanding your teammates and understanding yourself," Kidd said. "It's kind of like a movie, but playing at fast forward. I think he plays the game that way in the sense of anticipating what's next. And when you have a high basketball IQ, you understand what's going to happen next before anybody else does."

Kidd was known for having a high basketball IQ, but he never had a photographic memory. He used to remember things using a method he called "by color." In a hallway outside of the Lakers' locker room, he recently kept his eyes fixated on a reporter as he recalled who else was there in relation to two men wearing red coats.

"You can start to fill in the gaps that way and understand who is around you," Kidd said.

James' memory works differently. There's no holes or spaces to fill in. He remembers everything. He demonstrated that last month after he was asked a question about the final play of the All-Star Game five days after the event. He went on to describe what happened in shocking detail.

"They switched out on AD [Anthony Davis], and two guys went to AD, so Kawhi [Leonard] went directly to James [Harden]," James said. "[Harden] drove the baseline and threw it to CP [Chris Paul] in the corner. And then CP drove middle, kicked it back to me, and they were scrambled defensively. For a second, I was about to go one-on-one, which you saw in the picture that I posted with me and Giannis [Antetokounmpo]. But then when I saw that Kyle Lowry was on Anthony...When I saw Kyle on AD, we made eye contact, and I just knew he was gonna duck in. And it was just a bang-bang play right there."

James said his memory is both a gift and a curse.

There's things he wishes would fade away with time, such as when he lived off of food stamps in the projects of Akron, Ohio, as a child. Or when he and his mother had to move 12 times between ages five and eight.

"Some of the areas of my life that I had when I was younger, I try to forget about," James told Sports Illustrated. "At the same time, some of the things that I went through when I was younger, I also keep because it made me who I am today. I can remember a lot of things."

James has a photographic memory for many things, including movies, television shows and music. If someone names an actor, James can list which movies they've been in. And several Lakers said they haven't been able to find a song that James doesn't know.

"He knows every single song, every lyric," Bradley said. "Yes, every song that I've heard come on. It doesn't matter how old it is. LeBron knows the song, 100 percent."

James is also excellent at card games.

"You're not going to cheat him playing cards," Kidd said. "Just know he's paying attention."

Before the NBA's hiatus, James, 35, was having one of the best seasons of his career at a time when most players slow down and fade into the background. He was leading the league in assists with 10.6 a game, while averaging 25.7 points and 7.8 rebounds.

"It's going to help him play until he's 40," Kidd said. "...His IQ is always going to help him because he's going to be able to take less steps, right? Instead of running a six-mile race, he can run a five-mile race just because of his IQ."

Kidd pointed to a small adjustment that James recently made with his free-throw shooting. James is now mimicking his high school shooting form from the charity stripe.

"As you can see, his free throws right now, he's gone back more closer to his high school free throw and he's shooting over 80 percent since he's done that," Kidd said. "He's always searching to get better and is there a way to fix something. And that was probably one of the things in his game that he needed to work on."

James, a 16-time All-Star, four-time MVP and three-time NBA champion, said he put in a lot of work this offseason, both physically and mentally, to be able to play so well in year 17.

While shooting the movie "Space Jam 2" over the summer, James would go to the weight room at 3 o'clock in the morning to workout. He poured himself into rehabilitating his groin, which kept him sidelined for much of last season. And he focused on making sure he was mentally ready for the rigors of another season, studying the ways in which he could improve.

"How I take care of my body. How I take care of my game. How I take care of my mind. I want to try and continue to get better," James said. "...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."

His IQ gives him an edge over everyone on the court, even players who are a decade and a half younger than him. He can anticipate things before they've even happened. 

"If I see the defense is shifting over, and they're bringing two [defenders] to the ball, then I know I have a numbers game on the weak side and it's four-on-three," James said. "I've been in those positions so many times throughout my career. I can literally close my eyes and know where my guys are going to be at, and be able to read and react to that."

James realizes he was born was a remarkable ability. He's nurtured it and grown it over the years by being a student of the game. As a child, he read everything he could about basketball and watched film of the greats over and over again. He still studies his craft.

When asked if basketball IQ is intrinsic or whether it's something that can be learned, James said he's not quite sure.

It's something that has come easy to him.

It's his greatest gift.

"I think you can do better with the game," James said. "I think you can learn from your experiences. But I don't know if IQ can be learned. I'm not quite sure because I've always kind of had it." 

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nbalifer
nbalifer

Another player who had this level of basketball intelligence was Oscar Robertson. Which is why he admires LeBron so much. Today Oscar is remembered primarily for his triple-double stats, but ask anyone who played with or against him how much of a command of the mental aspect of the game he had. As Wayne Embry said, "Oscar knew you were open before you knew you were open." BI is not only situational awareness, as described by Jason Kidd, but it also plays into how you put a team together and build it for success in the long haul.


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