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Column: Bronny James committing to Ohio State seems unlikely, but not impossible

If the son of LeBron James really wants to be a Buckeye, I’m sure Ohio State will find a way to make it happen.

Syndication: The Augusta Chronicle Katie Goodale / USA TODAY NETWORK

A basketball player with the last name James caused quite a stir in the Ohio State Twitter universe over the weekend, but this time it wasn’t LeBron.

No, it was actually LeBron’s oldest son, Bronny, who caused so much commotion among Buckeye fans Friday night, as ESPN’s Paul Biancardi reported that there is a “strong feeling” that James will take the college route — rather than playing one year in the G-League or overseas. It’s no secret that LeBron James wants to play alongside his son for at least one season before he retires, and as the years roll on and he continues to defy Father Time, it looks like LeBron and Bronny could actually overlap in the NBA in 2024 or 2025.

But none of that is breaking news. The #BiancardiBomb was actually the second part of his tweet, where ESPN’s National Recruiting Director listed the five programs that are recruiting him the hardest, “among others”:

That’s right, Chris Holtmann and the Buckeyes are in contact with James, as Biancardi listed them specifically as one of the programs pursuing the 2023 guard most aggressively. He listed the Buckeyes next to Michigan, Oregon, USC, and UCLA, “among others” to make sure everyone knows that the list of potential suitors is much larger than just the five frontrunners.

There are so many layers to James’ recruitment, and it is going to be fascinating to follow as it quickly heats up this fall. According to 247Sports, Bronny James is the No. 43 player in the country, the No. 7 shooting guard, and the No. 12 player in the basketball-rich (and just really big) state of California. That places James above every player in Ohio State’s current 2023 recruiting class except the recently-committed Scotty Middleton, who is No. 34 nationally.

Growing up in the shadow of one of — if not the — greatest basketball players ever has without a doubt been a challenge for Bronny. Playing for national powerhouse Sierra Canyon, he has been surrounded by older, more talented players his entire prep career. He’s never been the go-to scorer or the alpha on his team due to guys like BJ Boston and Ziaire Williams being his teammates. But Bronny has played his role well, and his college recruitment has pretty much flown under the radar until this week.

Many people — myself included — assumed James would bypass college and play professionally for one year before entering the 2024 NBA Draft. He could have opted to play in the G-League, like 2022 first-round pick Dyson Daniels, or he could’ve gone overseas like LaMelo Ball did before being taken third overall in the 2020 NBA Draft. If the goal was to get to the NBA as quickly as possible to play with his papa, that felt like the most efficient route.

But now we’ve been blessed with the most complicated and entertaining recruitment of any player in the history of college basketball. If LeBron James Jr. wants to play at a big-time college program for one or two years, he will have dozens of scholarship offers to choose from. While he’s not a once-in-a-generation type of player like his father was nearly 20 years ago, James is a very talented guard who is climbing up recruiting rankings as his senior season draws near. And while many of the top 2023 prospects have already committed to schools or are planning to soon, Bronny’s recruitment will be front and center pretty soon, as more and more top recruits make decisions and shut down their recruitment — leaving Bronny as one of the top players still available. Grab the popcorn!

There’s quite a bit to unpack with a recruitment of this magnitude. If a school isn’t Nike or Jordan brand they’ll be out of the running, so we can get that out of the way right now. It’s no coincidence that Ohio State, Oregon, UCLA, USC, and Michigan — all Jordan or Nike programs — are the five schools that leaked as “favorites” this weekend.

Bronny goes to school in Los Angeles and his father plays for the Lakers, so UCLA and USC will be major players thanks to proximity — in addition to the fact that UCLA is rich in college basketball history and will forever be among the “blue bloods” of the sport.

Oregon is Nike’s flagship school, and boasts a top-10 recruiting class already, including five-star forwards Mookie Cook and Kwame Evans Jr. What they don’t have in their 2023 class is a combo guard like James, so he would be able to step in and potentially fight for meaningful minutes right away next to two other one-and-done freshmen.

The idea of LeBron James’ son playing for the University of Michigan seems asinine to Ohio State fans — how could Ohio’s native son send his son to Michigan? James has said numerous times that if “he had gone to college” it would’ve been Ohio State, 100%. Can he turn around and send his kid to play for Ohio State’s biggest rival?

Here’s the thing. Relationships will be important as anything else during Bronny’s recruitment, and the head coach up in Ann Arbor happens to be a former teammate, coach, and very close friend of LeBron’s due to their shared time with the Miami Heat. So while it’s true that LeBron may not love the idea of sending his son to play for “That School Up North,” he certainly trusts Juwan Howard to watch over his son and continue his development as a player — and person — at Michigan for one season.

2013 NBA Finals - San Antonio Spurs v Miami Heat Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Additionally, Michigan does not have any commitments in their 2023 class yet — not a single one! The delayed nature of James’ recruitment will likely cause some problems with certain schools that already have their 2023 classes filled and their 2023-2024 scholarships accounted for. Michigan will not have that problem.

And that brings us to the Buckeyes.

Chris Holtmann and his staff have assembled the No. 3 recruiting class in the nation (tied with Michigan State) in the 2023 cycle. The class is made up of four players — Middleton, George Washington III (No. 60 overall), Devin Royal (No. 73 overall), and Austin Parks (No. 105 overall). Assuming that nobody transfers or leaves early, the Buckeyes have already committed 13 scholarships — the maximum amount — to the 2023-2024 team. There is not a scholarship to offer Bronny James, as of now.

Assuming there are no transfers or early departures, here are Ohio State’s scholarships for the 2023-2024 season:

  • Tanner Holden
  • Gene Brown
  • Zed Key
  • Kalen Etzler
  • Bruce Thornton
  • Felix Okpara
  • Brice Sensabaugh
  • Roddy Gayle Jr.
  • Bowen Hardman
  • Scotty Middleton
  • Austin Parks
  • Devin Royal
  • George Washington III

Those are the numbers assuming nobody transfers. But I’ll let you in on a little secret — someone is going to leave. Last season, only 10 Division-I programs kept their roster intact and avoided losing any players by way of transfer. That translates to roughly 96% of all programs losing at least one player to the transfer portal. With the amount of young talent on this roster and the amount joining next year, someone is bound to seek a new opportunity. However, that does not mean Chris Holtmann will over-commit scholarships and assume one will free up in the spring.

Even with no available scholarships, I still think Bronny James to Ohio State is a possibility. A lack of scholarships doesn’t necessarily equate to a lack of roster space. Unlike most households, $25,000 is nothing to the James family. Similar to the situation at Michigan with Juwan Howard’s son Jace, LeBron could hypothetically pay his son’s tuition and allow him to join the Ohio State men’s basketball program as a walk-on. Clearly, Bronny James would not be a practice player or fill the typical walk-on role — he would play. But to get around the scholarship limit, he could join the program and pay his own way.

It’s a wild and wacky hypothetical, but if LeBron James Jr. really wants to be a Buckeye, he’s going to be a Buckeye. Scholarship, no scholarship, it doesn’t matter — they would figure it out.

If Bronny James joined the Ohio State Basketball program, everything would change. Non-conference games against the likes of Maine, Texas-Arlington, and Niagara would become sell-outs. The price of a ticket to see the Buckeyes play Big Ten foes would spike to levels even I can’t predict. Simply the possibility — even if it’s minute — of LeBron being in the house to watch his son play would turn Buckeye basketball games into a frenzy. Attendance would skyrocket, merchandise sales would skyrocket, and the program would receive national attention it hasn’t seen since the Greg Oden/Mike Conley era.

Not to be overlooked, the pressure on Holtmann and his staff would be immense. Have you ever bought a ticket to watch your favorite professional team play, only to show up and learn that one or more star players aren’t in the lineup? The same conflicting interests would hang over Holtmann and his staff for as long as James was (hypothetically) part of the program.

With Washington and Thornton already on the roster, Bronny James would not show up and play starter’s minutes right away. He would see action off the bench, as most freshmen do under Holtmann. Five seasons in, it’s become quite clear that Chris Holtmann does not want his freshmen to sit and rot on the bench. He wants them to get involved early and have a chance to learn in big games. But make no mistake, Bronny would not be a starter right away or the focal point of that team — from a basketball standpoint.

So while 19,000 people would pack the Schott on a Monday night to see LeBron James Jr. put on a show against Nebraska, he may only wind up playing 10 minutes — much to the chagrin of the thousands of fans who are there to watch Bronny, not Zed Key or Felix Okpara. Holtmann is paid to win basketball games, not satisfy fans’ demands. Maybe it would go off without a hitch, but I could see the high-profile nature of this recruitment causing some tension between the coaching staff, the fan base, and the Ohio State athletic department.

My gut tells me that Bronny James will either end up at Michigan playing for a close family friend in Howard, or at UCLA right in his backyard. But if Bronny really wants to be a Buckeye and call Columbus home for one year, I have a feeling that Chris Holtmann and Gene Smith will do whatever it takes to make that dream become a reality. Buckle up!