MIAMI — As a youngster, LeBron James had no idea what it meant when his favorite players reached their prime or peak.
He just appreciated their ability.
"Growing up, you don't know what a prime is or someone in their prime or ceiling," James said. "You just watch them for their greatness and what they're doing."
James prefers the same when questions surface about what stage he is at in his career. A year after putting up what most called his best season, James is on pace for an even greater encore. With the exception of scoring, his numbers in all statistical categories are better than his 10-year career averages.
"I'm playing good basketball," said James, who is averaging 26.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.1 assists. "I'm at my highest peak. I don't know if I can continue to improve. I want to. I'm going to study the game. I'm going to continue not to take anything for granted and keep working on my game each and every day."
It remains too early to tell if James had indeed reached his peak. He says free throw shooting is the only area that needs improving, even though his 72 percent clip this season is right around his career average (74 percent).
"The reality is we don't know what his ceiling is," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "So why would we even put a ceiling on it? … He's in the prime of his career. He just turned 28. Most players are just starting to come into their own at that point."
Guard Dwyane Wade said it's unfathomable to think of James playing at a higher level, but knows it's possible. Wade went so far as to question why James on Twitter referred to South Carolina defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney as freakish after his monster hit on Michigan running back Vincent Smith.
"(James) tweeted out last night that there's a "Freak Part Two" in college football," Wade said. "He's a freak as well. Three out of the last four years, he's been MVP and arguably he could have won it the year in between."
As for James reaching new heights, Wade said, "I would hope so. But he's damn good. If he doesn't get any better, he's still damn good. Who knows, I think he's playing as complete as he's played. … If he get any better, then …"
James grew up idolizing Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, but was too young to realize when Johnson reached his prime. He caught the end of Jordan's second three-peat with the Chicago Bulls, noticing an increase in play.
Still, James is unsure if he's reached a similar stage or even on pace to top last season's performance, leading the Heat to a championship while collecting the third of his most valuable player awards.
"I could make a case for it," James said. "When you look at the numbers, I'm shooting less, my numbers are up, all of them, except for my free throws, which are getting back to I'm finally where I want to be. I could make a case for it, but there's still a lot of time left in the season. We still got two-thirds left."
Perhaps the most eye-popping of James' stats is he's shooting 54 percent from the field. He is the only non-center to rank among the league's Top 10. James said he's made an effort to play more efficiently, choosing his scoring attempts carefully.
"I take some contested shots, some fadeaway shots, some shots I wouldn't teach my son to shoot," James said. "It's not fundamentals. I'm just comfortable in any shot that I take. I work on it. I believe every shot that I take is going in no matter where it's from. It's not that I'm taking better shots. I'm just confident in my ability."
Now, it's just a matter of wondering if this is peak performance for James or is there another step on the ladder. The Heat would rather watch it unfold rather than analyze it during the process.
"You can't really know what somebody is capable until everything is said and done," center Chris Bosh said. "You never really know what that ceiling is. When it's done, it's like, 'Look what I did.' When was Jordan's ceiling? Was it his last shot in the (1998 NBA Finals)? Was it getting 50 points as a 40-year-old? LeBron is unique in a sense in everybody wants to know how great he's going to be, but you just have to play every game and see where you stack up at the end."
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