The doors swing open. The boy with the floppy blond curls rushes into Prienai Arena. A group of Lithuanian teens, who arrived 60 minutes before tipoff, scurry over to get a closer look, but the boy ignores them. He’s locked in his own world as he spots two stone-faced security guards looking on from just outside the locker room. The boy, sporting a pair of black headphones and a Big Baller Brand sweatsuit, grins. It’s his time. Sixteen-year-old LaMelo Ball clutches an imaginary rock. Dipping his shoulders left, then right, he rushes toward the two security guards and crosses over both men. But a few seconds later, I watch fans abandon LaMelo for the man from whom he gets his smile. Here comes LaVar Ball.
Attack. That’s all Brandon Ingram is thinking. He sees LeBron James dribbling at the top of the key, crossing over, left to right. Ingram approaches James and crouches down into a defensive stance. Tiny Dog versus The King. Yes, Lakers players still call Ingram “Tiny Dog”—”Tiny” because, as a rookie, he was so skinny, so light that he looked like he might blow away in the wind. “Dog” because he isn’t afraid to challenge anyone. Not even LeBron.
Nassir Little mixes up a defensive rotation. The freshman is in the wrong spot now. Confused. Frustrated. North Carolina head coach Roy Williams halts practice. “What were you doing?” Williams asks him on this recent afternoon in Chapel Hill. Little doesn’t know the answer. Just doesn’t. He wishes he did. He lifts his chin. Doesn’t hide. Doesn’t give lip. “I don’t know,” he admits. “Where should I be?” He never found himself searching for answers like this in high school. He was so athletic that if he wanted to block a shot, he’d simply stretch his long noodle arms and swat away the ball. If he wanted to steal a ball, he’d simply roll his arms into the passing lane, and magic happened.
Jalen Green can’t go to Fashion Fair Mall here in Fresno, California, without fans spotting him. “Is that Jalen Green?!” they scream. He smiles and nods shyly as they rush to his side, looking like ants next to his gangly 6’6″-and-still-growing frame. “Can we get a picture, Jalen?!” Kids at his school, San Joaquin Memorial, take pictures of him even when he’s not looking, thinking he doesn’t see them. But he does. He’s keenly aware of the eyes that are always on him, the arms that are always reaching for him.
Robinson was the living, breathing, “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” lever teams would pull to inject energy when in a jam. But Robinson’s overflowing personality also irritated NBA coaches. Some found him disruptive and immature, especially during his early years in the league. He was the exclamation point and the run-on sentence; the behind-the-back dime when a simple chest pass would have sufficed.
Romeo Langford is clanking step-back after step-back at the elbow with his trainer, Dion Lee, here at Central High School in Louisville. Langford’s poker face doesn’t break. But Jonathan Jeanty, a family friend looking on, knows Langford is pissed. “He expects to make every shot,” Jeanty says. “He’s kind of a perfectionist.” He’s not flicking his wrist hard enough. It’s been sore since landing awkwardly in a January game. The follow through was one of the first things Tim taught his son. “Romeo, you got to feel it,” he’d say to his young son. “What do you mean, Dad?” “You got to feel it. You got to know it’s going in. It’s a feel thing.”
They used to call him Noodles. Inspector Go Go Gadget. String Bean. Brittle (short for Brittle Bones). Praying Mantis. Mikal Bridges was so skinny and lanky and his arms were so long—”freakishly long,” Bridges tells me—that his Villanova teammates roasted him with a range of nicknames. The 6’7” swingman was an easy target then: a freshman. A young freshman (17 years old). About 185 pounds. Gangly shoulders, little head (they called him “Pea-head,” too).