LeBron James’ love for Zion Williamson and Ja Morant is how things should be

LeBron James came face to face with the future of the NBA this past weekend and met the challenge … with a welcoming smile.

James remembers what it was like to come into the league, all the way back in 2003, with a hailstorm of hype enveloping his every move. He remembers the loneliness of being an 18-year-old on an island, and how mentorship from the greats was missing.

He remembers aspiring to be like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant and how those ultra, ultimate, all-time competitors were not exactly forthcoming with the hand of friendship as he tried to step into their shoes.

So, as Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, the top two picks in last year’s draft, embark upon their own path, there is a clear and conscious effort from James to do things a little differently. And, if you don’t like it, well, he has a message for that, too.

“Anybody that says that, ‘LeBron, why would he do that while he’s playing? It’s a sign of weakness,’” James told reporters. “’He’s buddy-buddy with the guys he’s going against.’ Tell them to kiss my (expletive).”

James was most effusive with his support for Morant, the No. 2 pick out of Murray State who continues to blossom in his rookie campaign, with slick ball handling, a fearless approach and exceptional court vision. Morant was starstruck at squaring off with James on Saturday, but was still able to help the Memphis Grizzlies subject the Los Angeles Lakers to a rare loss, dropping them 105-88 at FedEx Forum. Afterwards came the lovefest of all NBA lovefests:

“Whatever you need, on and off (the court),” James told Morant.

“The kid is super special,” James added, addressing the media nearby. “Memphis got a great one. The sky’s the limit for the kid.”

“That’s big bro — the King,” Morant said post-game. “He’s just one of a kind. I don’t think there can be another LeBron.”

The NBA is a friendlier place these days. Bryant mellowed in his later years and became a mentor to several younger players, passing on his wisdom about life, technique and even business matters.

Players are generally imbued with more awareness about the mental difficulties and challenges of NBA life, meaning there is less propensity to make things tougher for colleagues just for the sake of it.

“This is why LeBron is the best,” Nick Wright said on FS1’s First Things First. “LeBron is everything for people that he never had. Always. Never had a dad, so I’m going to be the most involved father imaginable. I bounced around to different schools, all of which were underfunded, so how about I build a school.

“And now in the NBA. He didn’t have someone doing for him what he’s doing for these guys. I am still going to try to beat you guys, but I am going to be there for you guys, because he thinks it is his responsibility to the game.”

It is a touch more complicated with Williamson. Heading into the Lakers’ victory over the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday night, there seemed to be some frost in the air. Wiliamson has not gone out of his way to seek a relationship with James and the pair each talked about how … they had never really talked.

It all seemed a bit off, given how they had been in the same building on several occasions. The Athletic wrote a story about it speculating about a potential “cold war” between them and wondering if it had something to do with Williamson declining to sign with Rich Paul’s Klutch Agency.

However, after Sunday’s game, there was effusive praise from James towards the Pelicans’ top pick.

“You have to actually be out on the floor to actually feel the strength and the speed that he plays at,” James said. “It’s my obligation and it’s my job to continue to pass on the game to the guys that’s coming in after me. That’s just my responsibility. No one told me to do that. I just feel like it’s my responsibility to leave the game in a better place than when I had it.”

Not everyone was convinced. FOX’s Skip Bayless insisted that Williamson is still deliberately avoiding becoming too close with James and backed his reasoning for doing so.

“LeBron seems off balance because Zion won’t suck up to him the way other young stars do,” Bayless tweeted. “I love Zion for keeping a competitive arm’s length from LeBron.”

Next is where things get really interesting. The Lakers, barring an unthinkable late season collapse, are going to claim the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. The top seven teams are essentially guaranteed a playoff place. The final eighth spot is up for grabs — and guess which teams are leading the way in the fight to meet the Lakers in round one?

That’s right. Morant’s Grizzlies and Williamson’s Pelicans. The friendliness and praise from James seems truly genuine and there is no cause to doubt it. But will it extend to a postseason series?

Perhaps it will. James does everything with commitment, whether it be basketball or mentorship. If he meets one of the NBA’s rising stars in the playoffs it will be the ultimate chance to show how it is possible to play hard — but support just as strongly.