- Chad Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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LeBron or Carmelo? The question has become the hottest topic surrounding the NBA draft.
After more than a year of projecting high school phenom LeBron James as the No. 1 pick in the draft, college commentators (and even an opposing coach) have begun wondering aloud whether Syracuse freshman Carmelo Anthony might not be the better pick.
What both players have accomplished is unbelievable. But the fact Anthony has dominated at both the high school and college levels has some folks wondering whether he has as much or more upside than LeBron.
Anthony has averaged 22.4 ppg and 9.8 rpg on 46 percent shooting from the field this season. His freshman season has surpassed that of any player in Syracuse history. His exploits have brought scores of NBA scouts and GMs to watch the kid affectionately known as "Melo."
Now that Anthony has done the improbable, leading Syracuse to the Final Four, the campaign for Carmelo to be the No. 1 pick in the draft has never been hotter.
"He's the LeBron James of college basketball, and he might be a better player," Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson said last weekend after the Orangemen knocked the Sooners, a No. 1 seed, out of the tournament. "What does LeBron James do that Carmelo doesn't?"
" 'Melo's the complete package," one Eastern Conference GM told ESPN.com. "I've seen him play probably a dozen times this year. He's so smooth and confident on the court. He's one of the few young players out there that I believe can make an immediate impact in our league next season. Having a successful rookie season in the NBA is mostly about confidence. This kid is brimming with it."
His coach, Jim Boeheim, agrees.
"He has adjusted to the college game better than most anybody I've ever seen," Boeheim said. "He's never uptight, and he's a well-rounded player. He shoots well, he rebounds well, he can handle. He doesn't have any major flaws."
Given that Anthony has now proven himself on two levels, is there any chance he could leap ahead of LeBron James and consensus No. 2 pick Darko Milicic into the top spot?
"I don't think there's a chance he goes ahead of LeBron," one prominent scout said. "Anthony's a great prospect, but when you compare his game to LeBron's, LeBron wins out simply because he's just got a better feel for the game. I think Anthony will be an All-Star in the league some day, but LeBron has the chance to be a legend. He has a certain feel, a knack, for the game that just doesn't come along very often. Guys like Kidd, Kobe, Jordan have it. And that's what separates them from the pack."
"LeBron's a once in a decade talent," a Western Conference GM said. "Teams always say that you draft the best talent, you don't draft for position. It doesn't always work out that way, but in this case it will. No one in their right mind would pass on him. He's about as sure a thing as you can get in the NBA draft."
LeBron's ability to run the point, a sixth sense on the court, along with his NBA body seem to give him the edge over Anthony in the mind of NBA scouts. The rampant comparisons to Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan don't hurt his cause.
But another factor may prove to be the most important. James puts fans in the seats. With preps and foreign players, it's very rare to find a player who enters the NBA as a household name. The team that drafts James is guaranteed sellouts, lucrative luxury box deals and tons of national television exposure.
Anthony also is making a name for himself, but in terms of star-power, he isn't even close to LeBron at this point.
Still, scouts drool over the 6-foot-8, 220-pound freshman's potential. Every time they begin talking about him the names of Tracy McGrady, Paul Pierce, Shawn Marion and even Grant Hill are evoked. That's not bad company.
The scouting report on Anthony reads as follows:
He's a fluid scorer. Can score off the dribble or stick the mid-range jumper. Is very creative when he slashes to the basket. Does a good job of getting to the line. Good ball handler. Above average passer. Excellent finisher on the break. Likes to post up smaller guards. Can score with his back to the basket. A superb rebounder for someone his size, thanks to long arms and a willingness to get in the paint. A good but not great athlete. Doesn't have the hops of Vince Carter or the quickness of Kobe Bryant. His defense needs work. He needs to hit the weight room. Is a decent long-range shooter, but doesn't really have the range right now to hit the NBA 3. At times he dominates the ball too much and doesn't get his teammates involved in the flow of the game.
Most important to scouts, however, has been Anthony's work ethic. He's worked hard on filling the holes in his game. He's improved his jumper and ball handling. His decision-making on the court is growing by leaps and bounds. He's popular with his teammates and is generally considered to be a kid who won't make waves at the next level.
Anthony's improvement has his coach wondering whether he'd be better off waiting another year before bolting to the NBA.
"Some saw him as the eighth pick last year, and now some are projecting him to be a three, so he clearly has benefited from playing at least one season of college basketball," Boeheim said. "And who's to say after another season of college basketball, he wouldn't project as the top pick overall?"
Indeed, Anthony gave a handful of NBA GMs a heart attack last Sunday after his team thumped Oklahoma. Said Anthony: "This is my first time going to the Final Four and, hopefully, not my last."
Boeheim quickly chimed in, "I'll second that one." And when pressed later in the locker room, Anthony told a reporter to, "Take that as a hint."
A hint? Is the LeBron-Carmelo debate moot? Will Anthony return for a sophomore season at Syracuse?
Boeheim is realistic. Anthony is projected as a top-three pick, has struggled with his grades (he didn't make the 2.0 minimum GPA to be eligible for the Wooden Award) and his family could use the money.
"I wouldn't expect him to stay, but you never know," Boeheim said. "He's a funny kid. He likes college, is extremely popular with his teammates, and his mother, who could probably use the money, says she wants him to stay."
But another source close to Anthony confirmed to ESPN.com that Anthony indeed would enter this year's draft. "You better not believe that," the source said. "He's coming out. His performance in the tournament just sealed the deal."
Still if his mother, Mary, has her way, Anthony will graduate. Anthony often says he wants to "retire her" and get her out of the drug-infested neighborhood in Baltimore that Anthony refers to as "The Pharmacy."
"That's one of my goals," he said recently. "I want her to have a better life."
"I told him that the NBA wasn't going anyplace," his mother said. "It would still be there for him down the road. I wanted him to go to college and experience the things I missed out on. College can be the best years of your life. You get a chance to meet a lot of different people, get an education and grow in so many ways. I think it's been a great experience for him."
Chad Ford writes the daily NBA Insider column for ESPN Insider. To get a free 30-day trial, click here.