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Is Bronny James underrated? Inside the phenomenon of the NBA bloodline

Is Bronny James underrated? Inside the phenomenon of the NBA bloodline

The NBA universe wants to know: Where will Bronny James go? The Los Angeles Lakers are widely expected to take LeBron James’ son at the 55th slot in the 2024 NBA Draft if he’s still on the board. Other teams might take him sooner and try to make James’ free agency decision this summer — the four-time MVP can opt out of his contract June 29 — a bit more interesting.

Some believe Bronny is taking a shortcut to the NBA. The McDonald’s All American from Sierra Canyon played just one season at USC, averaging just 4.8 points and 2.1 assists, after suffering cardiac arrest in July. To skeptics, Bronny is the overhyped beneficiary of the James bloodline, but time and time again, history tells us the opposite: NBA bloodlines are continually underrated. If anything, it seems the NBA pedigree actually hurts draft status rather than helps.

Jalen Brunson, for example, wasn’t even a first-round pick despite being the National College Player of the Year and the son of former NBA player Rick Brunson. Nowadays, GMs across the league are kicking themselves for passing on Jalen, who finished fifth in this year’s MVP vote.

As we talk about Bronny’s candidacy, it’s worth pointing out that the success of second-generation players like Brunson isn’t the exception; it’s the rule. Jalen Brunson (33rd in 2018; son of Rick), Domantas Sabonis (11th in 2016; son of Arvydas) and Stephen Curry (7th in 2009; son of Dell) exceeded expectations — not to mention perennial All-Stars like Kobe Bryant (13th in 1996; son of Joe “Jellybean” Bryant), Klay Thompson (11th in 2011; son of Mychal) and Devin Booker (13th in 2015; son of Melvin) weren’t even top-10 picks.

(Amy Monks/Yahoo Sports Illustration)

It’s a market inefficiency that NBA GMs would be wise to correct. After studying the results of over 2,000 draft selections since 1989, new research suggests that second-generation athletes are vastly underrated compared to their pedigree-free peers. Many of the nepo-ballers slid on draft night. Some of them — Seth Curry, Gary Payton II and Wes Matthews Jr. — weren’t drafted at all. An Eastern Conference GM reasoned, “You don't want to rank him high just because of his father, so maybe you underrank.”

The longtime exec dubbed it, “The Seth Curry Phenomenon.”

The question is, if we know second-generation NBA players have genetics and other built-in advantages on their side, like growing up around the game, why do teams keep passing them up?

NBA front offices spare no expense to find a diamond in the rough. With NBA draft picks locked in for basically seven years or more on team-friendly rookie contracts, hitting on draft night can change an entire franchise’s fortunes and even help kickstart a dynasty. With such high stakes, teams send scouts zig-zagging across the globe and to faraway gyms in order to discover the next big thing.

In some cases, NBA teams only had to look under their own roof. All along, the next great NBA prospect could have been bumbling around the locker room with their father some 15 years ago.

“It’s a ridiculous advantage,” one GM told Yahoo Sports about nepo-ballers growing up around the game. “You have a much better chance to make it if you have a parent who played in the NBA.”

Jalen Brunson grew up around the game when his father, Rick, played in the NBA. (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

It happened to Jalen, Steph and Domantas. It’s not out of the question that Bronny, in time, could surprise in a similar fashion.

Since the modern two-round draft was established in 1989, about 2,000 players have been selected to enter the top pro league on the planet. Veteran scouts and fancy statistical models try to identify and analyze dozens of variables and traits — wingspan, college coach, nationality — that can signal future success amid the noise.

After crunching the data, it’s hard to find a trait that has mattered more than the answer to a simple question:

Did your dad play in the NBA?

If yes, that player tends to be a draft night steal. According to data-tracking from Basketball-Reference’s researcher Jay Hutchinson, dating back to the 1989 draft, there have been 68 draftees whose fathers played in the NBA. On average, legacy picks have done exceptionally well compared to their peers. We can measure that by tracking every draft slot’s tally of win shares — a well-known advanced metric on Basketball-Reference that estimates a player’s contributions to winning through his box-score statistics — and accounting for years played in the league. Once we determine the output of every draft slot since 1989, measured as annual win shares, we can then apply a regression analysis to determine the expected value at each slot.

It’s a ridiculous advantage. You have a much better chance to make it if you have a parent who played in the NBA.NBA GM

Of course, if every second-generation player was selected No. 1 overall (like, say, Andrew Wiggins, whose father, Mitchell, played six seasons in the league), we’d expect them to outperform their non-legacy peers. But even once we account for draft slot, the second-gen draftees shine above the rest, outperforming the expected value at their draft slot by a whopping 30%.

The legacy draftees, based on where they were drafted, were on average expected to generate 1.65 annual win shares in their NBA careers, the equivalent caliber of the 16th pick. Instead, they yielded 2.15, a 30% bump, which was more indicative of a No. 10 pick. Said another way, players with NBA bloodlines have performed six slots better than their actual draft spot.

How impressive is that? Consider this: a 30% edge for legacy picks was larger than any college program in the study that sent at least 25 draftees to the league — even higher than the University of Kentucky (+26 percent).

Not only are legacy players better performers on average, as a group they tend to have longer careers. Of the 20 legacy players selected in the 1989-2005 drafts, the average career length was nine seasons. All other draftees averaged 6.7 years in the league. Ten players lasted at least 10 years, names including Jalen Rose (father Jimmy Walker); Mike Dunleavy Jr. (father Mike Sr.); Jon and Brent Barry (father Rick); and Luke Walton (father Bill), who was selected in the second round. Even if we account for draft slot positioning, nepo-ballers tend to enjoy longer careers than first-generation players.

Dads who played in the '90s are seeing their sons thrive in the league. Consider the Portland Trail Blazers’ roster that made the playoffs in 1996. It featured three athletes whose sons would go on to become NBA players; Arvydas and his son, Domantas; Gary Trent and his son, Gary Trent Jr.; and Harvey Grant and his two sons, Jerami and Jerian.

Notice anything about those sons? None of them was a top-10 pick. Domantas Sabonis, picked by OKC at No. 11, leads his draft class in career rebounds by over 2,000 boards and has been named to the All-Star team three times — tied for the most in the class. Gary Trent Jr. fell out of the first round and has since scored nearly 5,000 points in the league. Fun fact: The only second-rounder in Trent Jr.'s class who has scored more points in his career is a fellow second-gen player, Jalen Brunson.

Despite a fruitful pedigree that includes his father Harvey’s 11-year career and his uncle Horace’s 17-year career, Jerami was also passed over in the first round; he has averaged 20 points per game in three of the last four seasons — a level befitting of a lottery pick. Jerami’s brother, Jerian, was drafted 19th in 2015 and played five season in the NBA. (He currently plays in Greece.)

Meanwhile, Jerami’s current Blazers teammate Jabari Walker, son of 10-year veteran and NBA champion Samaki Walker, was selected 57th; he logged 11 double-doubles this past season and has tallied more rebounds than any 57th pick in NBA history through his first two seasons, per Basketball Reference.com. But Walker may not hold that distinction for long. Last year’s 57th pick is on pace to pass him: Golden State big man Trayce Jackson-Davis. That’s right, the son of former All-Star Dale Davis.

Jackson-Davis is the most recent example of a second-generation player outperforming expectations. And, if you ask him, explaining the historical success of second-generation players is pretty simple. They have been motivated their whole lives to clap back against the notion that they won’t be as good as their father.

“It’s fuel,” Jackson-Davis says. “They want to prove the haters wrong, and they want to prove doubters wrong, right? That’s what fueled me.”

It could be argued that the Golden State Warriors built their dynasty on the foundation of the NBA Family principle. Curry, famously, is the son of Dell Curry, who was considered one of the best shooters of his era. Klay Thompson is the son of two-time NBA champion and former No. 1 overall pick Mychal Thompson. The Warriors selected both future Hall of Famers without needing a top-five pick, and the result is four Larry O’Brien trophies.

The Splash Brothers are second-generation ballers. (Photo by MediaNews Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images)

In recent years, Warriors brass has emphasized the second-generation dynamic to greater lengths than any other organization. In the fourth quarter of a March 18 game at Chase Center, the Warriors had Curry, Thompson, Wiggins, Payton II and Jackson-Davis on the floor together. According to Basketball Reference’s Jay Hutchinson, it marked the first time in NBA history that an entire five-man unit was played by sons of NBA players.

Maybe it isn’t a coincidence. The team’s president of basketball operations, Michael Dunleavy Jr., is the son of NBA 11-year player and longtime coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. In Mike Jr.’s first draft without former president Bob Myers, Dunleavy went hard to work to acquire a second-round pick in the 2023 draft so he could grab a fellow second-gen player, Jackson-Davis.

Like Brunson before him, Jackson-Davis’ draft profile seemed ripe for a lottery pick. He was a McDonald’s All American in high school and a first-team All-American at Indiana playing for former NBA coach Mike Woodson, averaging 20.9 points, 10.8 rebounds, 4 assists and 2.9 blocks per game.

His older age — he was 23 on draft night — anchored his borderline first-round stock in mock drafts. But his actual selection came much later at No. 57, the second-to-last of 58 picks. He struggled to understand why.

“I got picked 57th and I was upset,” Jackson-Davis said in an interview with Yahoo Sports. “I felt like I was lied to by some of the scouts and people in my circle telling me things I wanted to hear. I still felt like I should have been a first-round pick. And so I went out there and showed what I should have been. It’s really a mentality.”

It’s a mentality that he’s taken his whole life — proving he belongs.

Though Jackson-Davis is quick to point out that he didn’t face half the scrutiny as Bronny did, he says he understands the path that Bronny is taking, what it’s like to follow in the footsteps of an NBA father.

Jackson-Davis’ father, Dale, an All-Star with the hometown Indiana Pacers, played 16 seasons in the NBA and was a household name in Indianapolis, where Trayce grew up.

“When you have a father that played in the NBA, and you’re in that city, and you grow up in that city, you have expectations,” Jackson-Davis told Yahoo Sports. “When I got there [at Indiana] it was, ‘That’s Dale’s kid, that’s this, this and this.’ By my senior year, the things that I was doing on the court, the way that I have handles, the way that I pass, I did a lot of things that he didn’t do. And so I kind of made a name for myself.”

Though Trayce was raised by his mother and stepfather — former NFL player Ray Jackson, hence the Jackson-Davis last name — Trayce says he learned from an early age that he’d be living in his father’s shadow, for better or worse.

He kept it real. He told me I was a sorry-ass basketball player.Gary Payton II on his Hall-of-Fame father

Once he started getting on the national radar, Jackson-Davis says the doubters only got louder, hoping the criticism would tear him down. That’s the thing about second-generation players. They’re often told they get it easy, but they’re hardened by the hate.

“As I got older and older, it was, ‘You’ll never be what your dad was.’ … ‘You’ll never be an NBA player.” … ‘You’ll never be this … that …,’” said Jackson-Davis. “I know for me, I played with a chip because I felt like I was disrespected.”

The disrespect can even come from inside the home. That was the case for Jackson-Davis’ teammate Gary Payton II, whose chip on his shoulder came in large part from the criticism he took from his own father, Gary Payton, a Hall of Fame point guard and trash talker.

When the Golden State Warriors guard talks about his childhood around the game, he speaks glowingly about Vin Baker and Shawn Kemp, his father’s Seattle teammates who would take him fishing or to the arcade. He would follow them to practice and watch them work out, and they would put their arm around him and show him the ropes. But he says he has less fond memories with his father, Gary, who was his son’s loudest critic and was convinced GP2 wouldn’t ever make it in the league. Payton II went undrafted in 2016 but has played eight seasons in the NBA.

Gary Payton II’s toughest critic was his father, Hall of Fame point guard Gary Payton. (Photo by Brian Murphy/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Looking back, GP2 said his father’s venomous words motivated him far more than the taunting crowd.

“Growing up, my dad and I didn’t have the best relationship,” Payton II said. “So I wanted to prove both of them wrong. More him than the critics.”

“[Gary Sr.] just does what he does, he kept it real,” Payton II added. “He told me I was a sorry-ass basketball player.”

Payton II’s mother, Monique, who was a basketball star at Merritt College and ran track-and-field in high school, raised him in Las Vegas, partially to allow GP2 the space to make a name for himself.

At first, the constant negativity from his father drove Payton II away from the sport of basketball. At an early age, he focused on swimming and football more than his dad’s profession. As he grew up, Payton II learned to turn his father’s disapproval into motivation. His father was the loudest voice in the gym, and it wasn’t positive. GP2’s trainer, Darrell Jordan, leveraged that negativity into a source of fuel.

“From there, I just focused strictly on proving him wrong,” Payton II said. “Just to show him I can make it. And I wasn’t a sorry-ass basketball player.”

Payton II went to JuCo before transferring to Oregon State, where he was an honorable mention All-American. Besides the name and alma mater, Payton II is quick to point out that he’s his own person — something he struggled to get across both inside and outside the home.

“My journey wasn’t going to be like what he did, in his way,” Payton II said. “And that was another thing I had to show him and kind of teach him, like, ‘Dawg, my journey isn’t like your journey. I didn’t grow up and I didn’t go through what you went through. I don’t understand what you went through, and you don’t understand what I went through — what I’m going through.’"

Now eight years into the league with a championship ring, GP2 has enjoyed a much longer and prosperous career than the typical undrafted player. It’s certainly more than his father ever imagined.

“Now, he doesn’t talk,” Payton II said about Gary. “It’s a good feeling. Clearly, I’m doing something right. I don’t want him to start talking again, so I have to stay on my P’s and Q’s.”

As the son of LeBron James, Bronny has faced scrutiny his entire hoops career. (Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images)

This past season, there were 34 second-generation NBA players in the league (see list at the bottom), tied for the most in NBA history set in the previous season. More are coming.

Bronny isn’t the only second-generation player who is projected to be drafted in June. In her latest mock draft, Yahoo Sports draft analyst Krysten Peek has projected Bronny to be selected with the 55th pick by the Los Angeles Lakers, but also Kentucky’s Reed Sheppard (son of Jeff) and Providence’s Devin Carter (son of Anthony) as potential top-10 picks.

It remains to be seen where Bronny will be drafted, but it should be emphasized that, at 19 years old, he’s the youngest of the three nepo-ballers in the draft projections. Still a teenager, Bronny is roughly three years younger than Jackson-Davis when he made his debut and four years younger than Gary Payton II.

When asked by Yahoo Sports if he had any advice for Bronny, Jackson-Davis indicated that Bronny doesn’t need much help.

“With him, he’s handled it so well,” Jackson-Davis said. “For someone that, especially, had all the underlying conditions, the heart stuff, all that just to be able to come back in a year and be able to perform at the combine and perform well. It just shows like who he is as a competitor, who he is as a person. I think that he is going to continue to grow and get better and better. And obviously all eyes are on him, but he has handled himself really well.”

While Jackson-Davis’ father was an All-Star, it pales to the Truman Show-esque career of Bronny’s father. Even still, Jackson-Davis preached patience.

“I can’t even put myself in the shoes that he’s in,” Jackson-Davis said. “Just take it one step at a time.”

There’s a certain kinship between second-generation players. GP2 and Jackson-Davis have shared their stories together along with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins. They talk about their mothers and how they’re just as responsible for their NBA success as their ball-playing fathers. (Notably, the mothers of Curry, Thompson, Wiggins and Payton II were distinguished college athletes.)

GP2 has already talked to Bronny about it all. The 31-year-old has continually offered his support, from one NBA son to another.

“Whatever you need, anything, bro — hit me,” GP2 said he told him. “[Bronny] already know what it’s like — just be yourself.”

Payton II has followed Bronny’s draft process and feels for him. Some have charted Bronny’s path as one that will flow through the G-League. If so, it could be a lot like GP2’s journey. An undersized tenacious defender at 6-foot-3, Payton II struggled to find a full-time spot in the league, but stayed the course, undeterred by the doubters.

“He’s been getting this criticism probably since he can remember,” Payton II said of Bronny. “I think he’s already handling it good. He understands that he’s his own player. His journey is different than my journey. Bronny knows that. 'Bron knows that. We’re all different.”

Payton II then took a moment to reflect on his own childhood.

“The best thing that 'Bron can do is sit back and just support and help him in any way he can, which I know he will, because that’s the type of dude 'Bron is and that’s the type of relationship they got,” Payton II said. “So, that’s not what I’m worried about with Bronny. Bronny knows he’s going to figure it out himself. He’s going to be a role player and he’s not going to be the same role that Bron does. Bronny has good IQ. He’s a smart, smart kid. I’m not worried about him.”

It’s a myth that the life of a son of an NBA player is an easy one. Whether the criticism emanates from the grandstands, the Internet or the dinner table, sons of NBA players can deal with the NBA lifestyle because they lived it themselves. Their success in the NBA can be about nurture just as much as it is nature.

“I don’t know how to explain it, but we understand the life, we get it,” Payton II said of fellow second-generation players. “It’s just like, as a kid, you don’t understand what you’re learning and picking up. But you are. And then once you’re older, it just opens up the floodgates and everything is understandable.”

If Bronny joins the Lakers, he’ll be the only second-generation player currently on the roster. The New York Knicks — who hold the 24th and 38th picks in the 2014 draft — could also give Brunson a second-gen running mate.

Or there's a chance that Jackson-Davis and Payton II won’t have to resort to text in order to lend their support to Bronny. They could share advice in their locker room. The team that holds the 52nd pick is the Golden State Warriors, the organization with the largest track record of betting on NBA bloodlines. Would LeBron follow Bronny to Golden State? Talk about a draft day steal for the ages.

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