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LeBron brings strength, leadership

Like everyone else, LeBron James went into his mega-hyped NBA debut a year ago, wondering how good he would be as an 18-year-old rookie.

Following a mesmerizing 25-point, nine-assist, six-rebound, four-steal performance on national TV against the Sacramento Kings, James — and the rest of the world — had a much better idea.

“I knew I could play in this league, I just didn’t know how well,” he said. “After that I felt like I knew I could do this. That first game really helped me.”

Now as the league’s reigning rookie of the year, James begins his second pro season tonight as the Cleveland Cavaliers open the 2004-05 season by hosting the Indiana Pacers.

One year since his scintillating start, James has changed and so have the Cavaliers, who missed the Eastern Conference playoffs by one game last season but are expecting to get back to the postseason for the first time since 1998.

There’s no reason why they shouldn’t. A 6-19 start and a late-season injury to point guard Jeff McInnis derailed Cleveland’s playoff hopes last season. They’re hoping to start better in 2004-05, and an opening-night win over a quality opponent like Indiana would boost Cleveland’s confidence.

“We certainly want to get off to a good start,” Cavaliers coach Paul Silas said. “It’s an important game for us.”

The Pacers, who lost to the eventual league champion Detroit Pistons in the conference semifinals last season, will not be at full strength. Reggie Miller will begin the season on the injured list with a broken right hand and center Jermaine O’Neal is expected to miss the game with a sore left foot.

The absence of Indiana’s two superstars can only help Cleveland, but the Cavaliers aren’t counting on a win just yet.

“Will it be easier for us with those guys out? Yes. But it’s still going to be a tough game,” center Zydrunas Ilgauskas said. “Emotions will be high because it’s opening night.”

They certainly were a year ago.

James, fresh out of high school as the No. 1 overall draft pick, entered his first pro season saddled with bigger expectations than had ever before been placed on a first-year player.

He was supposed to instantaneously transform the downtrodden Cavaliers into playoff contenders, outshine a stellar rookie class and live up to the hype.

And, lo and behold, James did it all. Cleveland won 18 more games than it did a year earlier, finishing one game behind Boston for the eighth playoff spot. James averaged 20.5 points, 5.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game, joining Oscar Roberston and Michael Jordan as the only rookies to post 20-5-5.

James, who has moved from the backcourt to small forward this season, is a year older, wiser and better prepared for the rigors of an 82-game season. But there’s a bigger difference in his game: The Cavaliers have better players around him.

Although they did lose Carlos Boozer as a free agent, the Cavaliers’ supporting cast has been upgraded significantly. McInnis didn’t arrive until late January last season and nearly carried the club to the playoffs anyway.

He’ll be joined in the backcourt by shooting guard Lucious Harris, who signed with Cleveland as a free agent in October. Eric Snow will not only back up McInnis but he’s a defensive stopper and has already emerged as one of the team’s leaders.

The additions have reassured James, who was upset by the team’s bungling of the Boozer situation, that the Cavaliers are headed in the right direction.

James’ belief is vital for the franchise, which needs to keep its young star happy until they can sign him to a maximum contract in 2006.

“We know we got a team now,” he said. “There’s no more wondering about who’s going to be here or who’s not. I didn’t know how things were going to go last year. This year there are no more questions.”

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