James Harden averaged 36 points a few seasons ago. Devin Booker once scored 70 in one game.
There are many more players doing much more scoring now than when LeBron James began his NBA career in 2003-04. Tracy McGrady led the league with 28 points per game that season, a mark that nine players would currently be surpassing.
With the faster pace of play and the plethora of 3-pointers, there are plenty of chances for players to pile up the points. But a look at Harden shows how hard it will be for even an elite scorer to keep doing it long enough to challenge wherever the scoring mark is when James finally retires.
He averaged 36.1 points in 2019-20 and 34.3 the next season. Maintain those kinds of numbers for 75 games a season and a player would be flirting with 40,000 points in a mere 15 years — though that still probably wouldn't be enough to reach where James will put the record that's now 38,390.
But then circumstances changed. A trade first to Brooklyn and then Philadelphia meant having to share shots with fellow All-Stars, and a severe hamstring injury robbed Harden of much of his explosiveness. He hasn't even averaged 25 points since and now doesn't get much past 20.
Count Booker among those who think James will never be caught.
“You might be able to do it for five seasons or 10, but 20 seasons at what he’s done, I don’t think it will ever be done again,” the Phoenix Suns star said.
Still, perhaps there are some players who will have a chance. Maybe it's Luka Doncic, who like James has lived up to the hype that followed him into the NBA. Or maybe it's Victor Wembanyama, who will try to do the same starting next season.
Maybe it's a player who hasn't even been born yet, just as James wasn't when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar set the previous record in 1984.
Here's a look at some of the possibilities:
— Jayson Tatum, Boston: Tatum went toe-to-toe with James in the 2018 Eastern Conference finals, when he finished with more points in a postseason than any rookie other than Abdul-Jabbar. The All-NBA forward averaged better than 26 points the last two seasons, is at nearly 31 per game this one and doesn't turn 25 until next month. Keep up this season's average for the next 13 and he could be toe-to-toe with James again.
— Luka Doncic, Dallas. Playing professionally in Spain before coming to the U.S. had him ready to make a quick splash in the NBA, and he's averaged better than 27 points in four of his five seasons. Doncic already has racked up more than 8,500 points and he won’t even turn 24 until the end of this month. He's far more than just a scorer, perhaps more likely to surpass Russell Westbrook's career record for triple-doubles.
— Devin Booker, Phoenix. Booker can get as hot as anybody in the league, as he showed when he scored 70 points in Boston in 2017 at 20 years old, or when he had three straight with 40 or more in December. The guard just turned 26 a few months ago and already has 12,000 points. Do a little better than his 27.1 points per game this season for 12 more years and he could make things interesting.
— Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee. Perhaps he never really had a chance at the career scoring record after managing just 525 points (6.8 per game) as a rookie. But few players work harder to improve than the Greek Freak, who may have replaced James as the NBA's most unstoppable athletic force. He just turned 28 and is in his fourth straight season averaging better than 28 points. Do that for the next 10 years and he could be up near the 38,000-point range.
— Victor Wembanyama, France. The 19-year-old forward will arrive in the NBA in June as the most hyped prospect since James 20 years earlier. At 7-foot-3 but with shooting range and ballhandling skills of a player much smaller, he has numerous ways to score. And he'd need to do plenty of it to catch James.
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