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NBA Preview 2013: The Evolution of LeBron

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From high school phenom to MVP to NBA legend, we look back at LeBron James's career after his first 10 seasons in the NBA

The cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED read THE CHOSEN ONE. And the photo on it was of a 17-year-old basketball player from Ohio with a look of surprise on his face.

He should have been surprised. I'm the what? Was this a joke? Since the legendary Michael Jordan took over the NBA in the mid-1990s, the search had been on for basketball's next superstar. Plenty of players seemed destined to be the heir to Jordan's throne. All of them had flopped. This high schooler from Ohio with the French-sounding name? Why should anyone believe he was the chosen one?

As Good as Advertised

After being selected first overall by his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2003 draft, the anticipation for LeBron James's NBA debut was incredible. Leading up to the game Nike ran a commercial titled "Pressure," an imagining of LeBron's first moments in the NBA (complete with Cavs teammates, Kings opponent Mike Bibby, and a host of celebrities). After the opening tap, LeBron (18 years old, and definitely skinnier than he is now) catches the ball on the wing and freezes with a stunned look on his face. Teammates and opponents trade confused looks. A heckler calls him a joke. Another holds up a sign that says ALL HYPE. Commentators say he has collapsed under the pressure. After 50 seconds frozen, James looks at the camera, lets out a laugh, and drives to the basket, announcing his arrival in the NBA.

When he took the court in Sacramento that October night, his performance was less dramatic, but plenty impressive. Showing his skills as a scorer and natural playmaker, he delivered 25 points and nine assists. A star was born.

Becoming a Legend

While LeBron was always an amazing physical specimen, his mind might be his biggest strength. It's the way he sees the court — the way he knows where the other nine players are at all times, allowing him to find passing lanes and set up teammates for easy shots. Oftentimes, you'll see James drive on one side of the court, elevate, twist his body, and fire a cross-court pass right on target to an open teammate. He makes passes that no one else in the league can.

Over the years, he has polished his jump shot. He added a low-post game. He has bulked up, giving him a bigger build than most power forwards. Along with his speed and athleticism, he's often unstoppable going to the basket, even when defenses start clamping down in the playoffs.

More recently, he has evolved into one of the greatest defenders the NBA has ever seen. He can shut down any opponent, from point guard to center. He can protect the rim as a shot blocker. And no one is better rotating on defense, preventing shots that would be wide-open against most defenses.

The most common criticism of James is that he doesn't take over in big games. Wrong.

In 2007, facing the mighty Detroit Pistons in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, James scored 48 points, including the Cavs' final 25 and the game-winning basket in double-overtime. One win later, Cleveland was in the NBA Finals for the first time. In 2012, the Heat had their backs against the wall as they went to Boston, trailing 3–2 in the Eastern Conference finals. James scored 45 points in Game 6 and then the Heat clinched Game 7 at home.

And he would have never gotten title Number 2 this June if not for an out-of-this-world performance in Game 7 against the Spurs. Along with his offensive output (37 points), James also guarded All-Star point guard Tony Parker for stretches.

James has had his missteps. In July 2010, he had a TV special to announce he would sign with the Miami Heat. Cleveland fans were stunned and hurt, both by his departure and the cruel way he announced it to them.

Most fans have forgiven him for The Decision. He eventually apologized, and his LeBron James Family Foundation is still based in Akron. But mostly, anyone who loves basketball can't help marveling at what he does on the court.

It's been almost 12 years since that famous SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover shot. Over 10 NBA seasons, James has won back-to-back MVP awards twice, two Finals MVPs, two Olympic gold medals, and has provided so many unforgettable moments for fans. And he's done it all under the kind of pressure that no player has ever faced before. LeBron James was, and still is, The Chosen One.

Track the evolution of LeBron through key moments in his career in the A Decade of Greatness slideshow.