LeBron James: 'Icons' like Reese, Clark lifting women's hoops

ByDave McMenamin ESPN logo
Thursday, April 4, 2024

WASHINGTON -- Count LeBron James among the scores of viewers tuning into the women's NCAA tournament this spring. The Los Angeles Lakers forward, considered by many to be the face of the NBA, has a theory on why women's college hoops is having such a moment: the star power.

"I don't think there's much difference between the men's and women's game when it comes to college basketball," James said after the Lakers' 125-120 win over the Washington Wizards on Wednesday. "I think the popularity comes in with the icons that they have in the women's game. You look at Angel Reese, you look at JuJu [Watkins], you look at Caitlin Clark, you look at Paige [Bueckers]. You look at the young girl that's at Iowa State, the freshman there [Audi Crooks]. You look at [Cameron] Brink ... at Stanford. And that's just to name a few. And the freshman that's at Notre Dame [Hannah Hidalgo]. Because they're not allowed to go to the NBA [after their freshman year]."

Monday's Elite Eight game between Clark's Iowa Hawkeyes and Reese's LSU Tigers attracted an average of 12.3 million viewers on ESPN. Only one game in the men's NCAA tournament accounted for more:Dukevs. NC State,with a trip to the Final Four on the line, at 15.1 million viewers.

While the barrier for players to enter the NBA is to complete a year of college or be 19 years old, the WNBA requires NCAA players to turn 22 in the calendar year of the draft they intend to enter to be eligible or to have exhausted collegiate eligibility. International players must turn 20 the year of the draft they intend to enter.

James said the benefit of required longevity before turning pro is obvious for the college game.

"You're able to build a real iconic legacy at a program," James said. "And that's what we all love about it. That's what we all love. We love the girl's game because of that moment you actually get to see those girls [build to]. That's what makes the girl's Final Four and the Elite Eight so great. Yeah, Iowa was a great team; Caitlin Clark is the reason we tuned in. You're going to watch Purdue because of Zach Edey, because he's a great player. We watched that Purdue-Tennessee game because of Zach Edey and [Dalton] Knecht.

"Players, depending on who they are, will drive the attention when it comes to viewership."

However, James pointed out what he perceived to be a catch to the situation the current batch of women's college stars find themselves in. They are growing interest in their tourney to unprecedented heights, but is it at the expense of their personal opportunities?

James brought up Watkins, who signed with the same agency that represents him, Klutch Sports, and averaged 27.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.3 steals per game in leadingUSCto the Elite Eight, where the Trojans lost to UConn.

"It's just a different time between the men's and women's," James said. "And men can come out after their freshman year. If I have a big-ass season after my freshman year of college basketball, I'm going to the league. If a girl has a great season -- like JuJu. JuJu, she can't come out. If she could, you think she might. Maybe. But that's the difference."

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