LeBron James, the NBA's most dazzling young standout, ought to have a place in the All-Star game.
He deserves to be in the game on merit, and he has the stats to back him up. But putting that aside, he belongs in the game because there is no more compelling figure to watch this season than this teenage rookie out of high school.
Without him, the game loses significant sizzle.
As big as the hype was that attended his leap to the NBA at 18, James has delivered. He looks like a man, plays like a man and has taken the league's sorriest team into playoff contention faster than anyone could reasonably expect.
The Cleveland Cavaliers' guard is a young Magic Johnson with springy legs and a better outside shot. He's got the no-look passes and intuitive read of the court, seeing over smaller guards. He's got high-arcing three-pointers, like the threesome he swished in overtime Wednesday night against the Los Angeles Lakers. His dunks are joys to behold, such as his spinning, two-handed, reverse jam on a breakaway early in the game.
On this night, before another sellout at home against the Lakers, James had 32 points, four rebounds and four assists. He is one of only four NBA players averaging at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists this season.
He went jaw to jaw with Gary Payton, the notoriously gabby guard, and escaped the grasp of "The Glove" for all but one crucial moment at the end of regulation.
Payton matched him with 30 points, six rebounds and six assists in the Lakers' 111-106 victory. The Lakers had one very large advantage -- Shaquille O'Neal. Back from a game's suspension, O'Neal threw his considerable weight around for a season-high 37 points as the Lakers played again without Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone.
James has shown he belongs with players of that caliber. He is not merely gifted with talent and court sense, he is selfless while possessing the Jordanesque quality of cranking up his game when he's needed most.
He also has a sense of humor and showmanship. In the second quarter, James dunked on an alley-oop pass and imitated his good friend O'Neal's celebration.
James came up one shot short against the Lakers this time with a rookie misjudgment -- letting the clock tick down too much and shooting a fadeaway jumper over Payton that grazed the net at the buzzer with the game tied at the end of regulation.
"It was right on line," James said. "It just fell short."
Cavs coach Paul Silas wished James had taken the ball strongly to the basket instead going for the 21-foot fadeaway.
"This is a game of habits," said Silas, who has been encouraging James to drive more often. "Maybe it's a habit that needs to be broken. But he has to figure that out."
Even when he's off -- as he was scoring 12 points the previous night shortly after learning he'd been spurned by the coaches for a spot among the All-Star reserves -- James still draws eyes to his multifaceted game.
Fans voted Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady as starting guards, and there's no quibbling with those choices. They're the top two scorers in the East and they're established stars.
There's less defense for the coaches picking guards Paul Pierce and Michael Redd, along with Jason Kidd and Baron Davis, ahead of James. Or for the 29 coaches voting not to find room for James among the other reserves.
Hall of Famer Bill Walton watched James' performance against the Lakers, as he has many times for ESPN this year, and shook his head at the teenager's omission from the All-Star game.
"If LeBron James is not one of the 12 best guys in the Eastern Conference, then I need to go and visit the psychiatrist," Walton said.