LeBron James is one of the greatest basketball players of all time. He has achieved tremendous success over his 20-year NBA career, including 4 NBA championships, 4 NBA MVP awards, and 18 NBA All-Star selections. But before all of that, he was just a talented high school basketball player hoping to make it to the NBA. So what pick was LeBron James in the NBA draft when he first entered the league in 2003?
LeBron James’ High School and Early Career
LeBron James first made a name for himself as a high school basketball phenom at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. As a freshman, he quickly became a starter on the varsity basketball team. Over his 4 years of high school, he led St. Vincent-St. Mary to 3 state championships and was named Ohio’s Mr. Basketball 3 times. LeBron gained national attention during his junior year after becoming the first high school player to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He would appear on the cover again as a senior.
With his rare combination of size, athleticism, and court vision, LeBron was considered the best high school basketball prospect since Kobe Bryant. He was named the Naismith Prep Player of the Year and Gatorade National Player of the Year as a senior after averaging 31.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and 3.4 steals per game. The hype surrounding LeBron led him to declare for the 2003 NBA draft directly out of high school rather than play college basketball. He was the first preps-to-pros player to be selected with the #1 overall pick in the draft.
2003 NBA Draft
The 2003 NBA draft was one of the most anticipated drafts in NBA history thanks to LeBron James. It was considered a 3-player draft with LeBron, Darko Milicic, and Carmelo Anthony as the clear top prospects. The Cleveland Cavaliers held the #1 overall pick after winning the draft lottery and selecting LeBron was considered a no-brainer.
On June 26, 2003, LeBron James officially became an NBA player when the Cavaliers selected him #1 overall in the 2003 draft. Darko Milicic went #2 to the Detroit Pistons and Carmelo Anthony went #3 to the Denver Nuggets. LeBron was the first high school player to ever be drafted #1 overall.
By being selected #1 overall, LeBron immediately became the face of the Cavaliers franchise and was expected to turn around the struggling organization. He signed a $12.96 million rookie contract, the largest initial amount for a rookie in NBA history at the time.
LeBron James’ NBA Debut
On October 29, 2003, LeBron James made his highly anticipated NBA debut against the Sacramento Kings.Playing 40 minutes, he recorded 25 points, 9 assists, 6 rebounds and 4 steals to lead the Cavaliers to a 106-92 win. He became just the third player in NBA history to have at least 25 points, 9 assists and 6 rebounds in a debut, joining Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson. His 25 points were the most ever scored by a prep-to-pro player in a debut.
LeBron would go on to average 20.9 points, 5.9 assists and 5.5 rebounds per game as a rookie, joining only Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan as the only rookies to average at least 20-5-5 for a season. He was named NBA Rookie of the Year, becoming the first Cavalier and youngest player to ever win the award at just 18 years old. He was also selected to play in the All-Star game, becoming the youngest All Star in NBA history.
While the Cavaliers struggled to a 35-47 record in 2003-04, LeBron laid the foundation for the future as the new face of the franchise. His legendary NBA career was just getting started.
NBA Draft Lottery
For the Cavaliers to be in position to draft LeBron James #1 overall in 2003, they needed some luck in the NBA draft lottery. The draft lottery determines the order of selection for the upcoming NBA draft for the 14 teams that did not qualify for the playoffs the previous year. Each team has weighted odds to win the #1 pick based on their regular season record. Entering the 2003 draft lottery, the Cavaliers had just a 22.5% chance of securing the #1 overall pick despite having the league’s worst record at 17-65.
The 2003 draft lottery took place on May 22, 2003. In a suspenseful televised event, each team was assigned random 4-digit combinations that represent their lottery odds. Four ping pong balls marked 1 to 14 would be drawn to the determine the first 4 picks. When the lottery results were revealed, the Cavaliers combination came up for the #1 pick, defying the odds to give them the chance to select local star LeBron James.
Winning the lottery and the right to draft LeBron was a franchise-altering moment for the Cavaliers. Some have even speculated that the lottery results were rigged in favor of Cleveland securing the hometown hero LeBron, though the lottery is conducted and audited to prevent any tampering. Regardless, it paved the way for LeBron James to begin his legendary NBA career with his home state team.
Impact of Drafting LeBron James #1 Overall
Drafting LeBron James with the #1 overall pick in 2003 immediately transformed the Cavaliers franchise. They improved by 18 wins in LeBron’s rookie season as he became the face of the organization and gave Cleveland an electrifying superstar talent to build around. Some key impacts of drafting LeBron #1 overall for the Cavaliers:
- Brought hope and excitement to a struggling franchise – The Cavaliers had made the playoffs just once in the 5 seasons before drafting LeBron.
- Immediately competitive team – The Cavaliers had the largest single-season turnaround in 2003-04 with 18 more wins.
- Foundation to build a contender – LeBron attracted other talent to Cleveland and made the Cavaliers an attractive free agent destination.
- Revitalized Cleveland basketball – The Cavaliers went from one of the worst home attendances in 2003 to completely selling out in 2004.
- Playoff runs – LeBron led the Cavaliers to the playoffs in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010.
- Trip to the NBA Finals – In LeBron’s 4th season, he led the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals in 2007 at just 22 years old.
- Back-to-back NBA MVPs – LeBron won the NBA MVP award in 2009 and 2010 as a Cavalier.
In selecting LeBron James #1 overall in 2003, the Cavaliers brought in the most hyped NBA prospect in a generation. He was immediately productive as a rookie and developed into the league’s best player during his time in Cleveland. The Cavaliers went from the lower rungs of the NBA to title contenders largely thanks to drafting LeBron.
LeBron James’ Accomplishments with the Cavaliers
LeBron James spent the first 7 seasons of his legendary NBA career with the Cleveland Cavaliers after being drafted #1 overall out of high school in 2003. His individual accomplishments and achievements with the Cavaliers include:
- NBA Rookie of the Year (2004)
- NBA All-Rookie First Team (2004)
- 7x NBA All-Star (2005-2010)
- 2x NBA All-Star Game MVP (2006, 2008)
- 5x All-NBA First Team Selection (2006, 2008-2010)
- All-NBA Second Team Selection (2007)
- 2x NBA MVP (2009, 2010)
- NBA Scoring Champion (2008)
- 6x NBA Player of the Week
- 36 Triple-doubles (5th All-Time)
In addition to his individual accolades, LeBron led the Cavaliers to team success that far exceeded anything they had achieved before drafting him:
- 5 Playoff appearances (2006-2010)
- NBA Finals appearance (2007)
- 127 Playoff games (1st All-Time in Cavaliers history)
- 3,925 Playoff points scored (1st All-Time in Cavaliers history)
LeBron fulfilled his massive potential and developed into a truly legendary player during his time in Cleveland. His combination of production and team success cemented him as the greatest player ever to suit up for the Cavaliers franchise.
Why Did LeBron James Leave the Cavaliers in 2010?
After 7 highly successful seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James made the infamous “Decision” to leave the Cavaliers in free agency and sign with the Miami Heat in 2010. This move left Cleveland fans feeling betrayed after he failed to deliver the championship he promised to bring to the city. There were a few key factors in LeBron’s decision to leave his home state team:
- Championship opportunities – LeBron wanted to win championships and believed teaming up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami gave him the best chance to do so.
- Lack of strong supporting cast in Cleveland – Despite their regular season success, LeBron felt the Cavaliers lacked enough talent to win championships.
- Chance to play with friends – Wade and Bosh were some of LeBron’s closest friends so the opportunity to play with them was appealing.
- Big market appeal – James sought being a star on a global stage which he felt Miami offered more than Cleveland.
Ultimately, LeBron decided his best opportunity to cement his legacy with championship rings was alongside other superstars in Miami. He broke the hearts of Cleveland fans with The Decision special on ESPN but would eventually return and deliver the city its first sports championship in over 50 years.
LeBron James’ Return to Cleveland
After 4 seasons, 2 NBA championships, and 4 NBA Finals appearances with the Miami Heat, LeBron James made the decision to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers in free agency in 2014. This marked a redemption story for James after the way he left Cleveland in 2010. Some key factors in his decision to return home:
- Unfinished business – LeBron felt like he had unfinished business in Cleveland after failing to deliver a championship.
- Chance to redeem his image – Returning gave LeBron a chance to repair his image after the scorn of The Decision.
- Promotion of Northeast Ohio – LeBron wanted to live up to his promise of promoting the Akron/Cleveland area.
- Young talent in Cleveland – Rising stars like Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson made the Cavaliers’ future look bright.
- Family – LeBron wanted his family to be around Akron again.
In an essay published on Sports Illustrated, LeBron wrote “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have. I’m ready to accept the challenge.” He signed a 2-year $42 million deal to return to Cleveland as a more mature player on a mission to deliver a championship.
NBA Championships with the Cavaliers
After coming up short in his first stint with the Cavaliers, LeBron James fulfilled his promise in 2016 by leading Cleveland to its first major sports championship in over 50 years. Some key facts about the Cavaliers 2016 NBA Championship:
- They became the first team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals, defeating the Golden State Warriors 4-3.
- It was the Cavaliers’ first ever NBA championship in franchise history.
- LeBron James was named Finals MVP after leading both teams in all major statistical categories – points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.
- J.R. Smith made the go-ahead 3-pointer with 53 seconds left in Game 7 to help seal the 93-89 victory.
- The city held a championship parade with over 1 million people attending to celebrate.
Delivering this long-awaited championship cemented LeBron James’ legacy in Cleveland sports lore. He fulfilled his promise to bring a title to his home state. The Cavaliers have since raised a banner to the rafters commemorating the 2016 championship team led by native son LeBron James.
LeBron James entered the NBA with unmatched hype as the first overall pick in the 2003 draft selected by his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. He immediately became the face of the franchise and developed into one of the most dominant players in NBA history over 7 seasons in Cleveland. After a controversial departure in 2010, LeBron returned as a mature champion on a mission in 2014. He finally delivered the city’s first major sports championship in over 50 years in 2016 to cement his legendary status. Drafting LeBron James #1 overall in 2003 forever changed the trajectory of the Cavaliers franchise thanks to selecting one of basketball’s greatest talents.