The NBA I Grew Up Watching: Stars of the 2003 Draft – Part 1

I had watched several NBA Drafts before this. But there was something special to me, and to a lot of people, about the 2003 version.

It changed the way I view the draft as well as the way I look at prospects and their NBA potential. It was also a big part of the reason I pursued becoming an NBA Draft writer.

Leading up to June 2003, the basketball world was fascinated with some of the most intriguing prospects in recent memory.

LeBron James was electrifying the country as the latest high school hoops sensation, with prep-to-pro expectations loftier than any teenager since Kobe Bryant. Meanwhile, Carmelo Anthony was carrying the Syracuse Orange to an NCAA title during his dominant freshman campaign. Other intriguing storylines popped up that year as well, including the emergence of Serbian 7-footer Darko Milicic and Marquette’s NCAA Tourney standout Dwyane Wade.

It was a perfect storm for one of the most highly anticipated drafts in league history. And unlike many drafts, the 2003 class delivered on the hype. It produced nine different All-Stars, 22 different NBA Finals participants, and a total of 26 rings so far.

As a Syracuse fan, I watched Melo closely all season during his march to the college hoops crown and the draft. And like everyone else, I was fascinated by King James and whether he would live up to the “Chosen One” expectations. We knew these youngsters could be great, and that fueled interest in the 2003 draft as a whole.

As part of this ongoing “NBA I Grew Up Watching” series, we’re reliving some of our own seminal basketball moments, both as a hoops journal of sorts but also with the benefit of hindsight. It’s time for me to return to what was so captivating and special about these standouts—as well as a time and place that has cast its shadow on my entire basketball experience:

Carmelo Anthony: One-and-Done Before it Was Cool

Feb 23, 2017; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) defends New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (7) during the second half at Quicken Loans Arena. The Cavs won 119-104. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Melo was a premier high school prospect, posting star-caliber production at both Towson Catholic and Oak Hill Academy. He played in the McDonald’s All-American and Jordan Brand Classics. Nevertheless, many Syracuse fans and NBA fans (including myself) didn’t realize how dynamic he would be when he arrived on campus.

Anthony quickly proved that he was an uncommon talent. After attending an early-season win over Colgate at the Carrier Dome, I remember thinking, “Wow, I’ve never seen a freshman like him.”

Most of you know the rest of the story: Anthony uncorked one of the best freshman seasons in the history of college hoops and led ‘Cuse to its first national crown.

On the way, he endeared himself to Orange fans by beating rival Georgetown in all three meetings while also upending highly-ranked foes like Notre Dame and Pittsburgh. He averaged 22.2 points and 10.0 rebounds per game, including a career-high 33 points in the national semifinal against Texas. He unleashed jab steps, spin moves, in-and-out dribbles, and turnaround jumpers every night.

No collegiate opponent could contain him, and few freshmen have ever looked so polished or NBA-ready.

Skills aside, one of the biggest things Anthony taught me about basketball and the draft is the value of confidence and composure. Not only was his playing style velvety-smooth, but his demeanor was equally unruffled. Even against some of his toughest opponents, he would feel them out and figure out ways to foil them.

Syracuse’s win over Texas in the Final Four exemplified Anthony’s calm clutch-ness. He dissected the Longhorns’ defense with his already-polished offensive arsenal, executing with supreme confidence from both the perimeter and interior.

Kirk Goldsberry of ESPN noted how collected Anthony was on the NCAA’s biggest stage; The 19-year-old possessed the intangible of being an unflappable scoring assassin:

While many top prospects play with a raw, frenetic energy, Carmelo was cool. His poise stood out within the hectic, hyperactive setting of college basketball. Even in the national championship game versus Kansas, there was a knowing smoothness to his game…you’re struck by Melo’s easy smile as he puts up numbers in the biggest game of his life…he’s playing a pickup game in front of 54,000 people at the Superdome.

Anthony’s combination of versatile skills and level-headedness is impossible to coach. And as sad as it was to see him leave Syracuse, it made complete sense that he was a one-and-done prospect. He was a “sure thing.”

Melo’s gifts translated superbly to the NBA, especially on the offensive end. In hindsight, his bankable skills and persona probably absolutely should have warranted a No. 2 draft selection—ahead of Darko Milicic, of course. (And that’s not a slight against future Hall-of-Famers Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh, either.)

Anthony became one of the league’s most lethal scorers, thanks to elite offensive instincts and the dexterity to pull off nearly any move. Much like Wade and Bosh, it was Anthony’s feel for the game that made him a top-tier prospect:

Anthony’s confidence is occasionally a stumbling block, and he hasn’t gelled with every group he’s played with, especially as age and NBA scheme evolutions have neutralized some of his effectiveness.

However, it also helped him carry the Denver Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals in 2009, make the New York Knicks fun again, and kept him in the league for 16-plus seasons. He didn’t achieve that solely with skill.

His atypical self-assuredness and sharp feel for the game make him one of the most valuable scorers in NBA history.

LeBron James: FACING Lofty Expectations

Although King James had already made waves in Ohio and beyond midway through high school, I didn’t catch on to the hysteria until he was a senior.

By then, he already looked the part of a prospect ready to dominate college hoops or make waves in the NBA.

He had eye-popping agility to get buckets above the rim or make acrobatic defensive plays. His scoring repertoire included all sorts of slashing maneuverability and an improving command of pull-up shooting. But what I want to focus on is his basketball IQ as a playmaker. Even as a teenager, his passing skills stood out to scouts and prognosticators.

It’s what made him the clear-cut No. 1 prospect in 2003 and the No. 1 prospect of his generation. No one had ever seen such playmaking skills from a player that young (or that tall) since Magic Johnson.

Just a few clips from one game against prep powerhouse Oak Hill (sans Melo) illustrated his tremendous court awareness and dexterity.

He froze the defense with hesitations and no-look dimes, threaded the ball with behind-the-back passes, and found shooters on drive-and-kick sequences:

Scouts raved about many of James’ promising attributes at the time, and one common thread was his passing.

One Western Conference Scouting Director told ESPN’s Marc Stein, “(James) has the ability to be anything he wants. He has the passing skills to be a great point guard.”

An Eastern Conference general manager told Stein, “he can really pass the ball, which makes him different from a lot of high school kids.”

Another Western Conference scouting director praised his decision-making: “Of course he’s also just a super athlete, handles the ball like a point guard, makes decisions in the open floor.”

A Western Conference general manager: “He’s a 6-8 guy who can play point guard.”

Scout.com’s profile also noted his playing style: “He’s a terrific passer and is quite unselfish.”

I asked Greg Swartz, an Ohio native who covered the Cleveland Cavaliers for Bleacher Report, what aspect of LeBron’s game stood out to him in high school. He recalled James’ concerted effort to spread the ball around and keep teammates involved:

LeBron could have scored 40+ points a night in high school if he wanted, but he was always so able and willing to get others the ball…he knew it was important to share the ball. He’s always been a tremendous passer when he could have just dominated by scoring…

Fast forward to 2020, and James fulfilled all the prophecies. He’s leading the NBA in assists per game in his 17th season.

January 3, 2020; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) moves the ball against New Orleans Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday (11) as forward Anthony Davis (3) provides coverage during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

More importantly, he’s also leading the Association in potential assists (18.7) and assist points created (26.5) per game. And most importantly, he’s turning yet another franchise into an NBA Finals contender by making everyone around him better. In all four of his stops, LeBron has lifted his club via his knack for playmaking.

Every few years, the latest teenage phenom faces star-studded hype. For example, think back on how much excitement surrounded Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker in 2014. Not all of these anticipated stars meet those expectations, and even fewer exceed them.

James had created the most interest since Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady, and he proceeded to eclipse both of them along with all prognostications.

He set new standards for the sport and inspired future scouts and draft enthusiasts like myself to find the next franchise-changing prodigy.

 

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Think I forgot Wade, Bosh and some of the other key names from 2003? Nope! It’s just that LeBron and Melo were that important at the time and that influential since. Part 2 is coming to cover these other players soon…

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