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Top prospect Amari Bailey is changing perceptions on his way to UCLA, the NBA

Elite Class of 2022 guard talks about handling social media fame, his relationship with LeBron James, how his single mother influenced his game and more

PORTLAND, Ore. — After the Team USA squad completed practice Tuesday night in preparation for the Nike Hoop Summit, every superstar teen but one went to get up some extra shots while a media-only crowd watched. Before Amari Bailey joined his teammates, he walked over to the 30 or so media members on his own accord to shake hands with each one, look them in the eye and introduce himself.

“I’ve been taught to just introduce myself,” Bailey told Andscape at the Portland Trail Blazers’ practice facility. “I don’t know who knows me, so I’m just leaving that impression on people that I at least went out of my way to introduce myself. Whether you know me or not, I could really not care less. It’s the deed that goes a long way for me. … My mom instilled that in me.”

There is already a lot to know about the 18-year-old Bailey.

Bailey is ranked as the No. 2 boys high school basketball player by ESPN 100. The UCLA signee departed his hometown of Chicago so he could play at powerhouse Sierra Canyon High School in the Los Angeles area. The 6-foot-4 guard has more than half a million Instagram followers and has been the high school teammate of the sons of Los Angeles Lakers great LeBron James, former NBA star Dwyane Wade and several NBA players.

Bailey says proudly he was raised by a single mother, Johanna Leia, a former Ford and Wilhelmina model, a former cast member with her son on the Lifetime reality series Bringing Up Ballers, and who previously dated the rapper Drake.

Amari Bailey shakes hands with media members at Nike Hoop Summit practice in Portland, Oregon.

Marc J. Spears/Andscape

Even among a bunch of high school basketball stars who came together to compete in the Nike Hoop Summit on Friday against a team of stellar international teens, the spotlight shines brightest on Bailey. And amid it all, Bailey believes there is a “misconception” about who he is and hopes those who do get an opportunity to meet him or educate themselves more about him will get beyond the surface.

“I would say you can get a misconception of who I am just with there being a lot of questions around me,” Bailey said. “Like, what do I care about. People don’t know I got hurt, and I wasn’t posting as much basketball. People are like, ‘Well, is he a basketball player? Is he an influencer? Is he trying to be a rock star?’ I’m just being Amari, so I can’t please everyone.

“But I feel like the positives are, the kids that may look at me, to be yourself. I’m not trying to be anyone else but myself, and just promote positivity. You can take good and bad out of anyone or anything, but I feel like all of it’s honestly just positive. All of it’s positive.”

The following is a Q&A with Bailey before the Hoop Summit on Friday where he talks about what he has learned from James and his son, Bronny, the mentoring he has received from his mother, dealing with the spotlight and much more.

“There are a lot of questions that you could have. And I’m just at a point now where mentally I’ve damn near seen it all.”

— Sierra Canyon guard Amari Bailey on dealing with attention at a young age

What advice has LeBron James given you on and off the court?

On the court, he’s just given me advice on how to play the pick-and-roll. Just be patient in the roll, knowing that the strong side is going to stay, but the weak side of that is always there in the corner. Just making my reads, being patient with my floater against the Rudy Gobert [types] and all of the other 7-footers down there against my floaters, or using my jump shot more. Shoot the ball with my eyes. I’m just going to keep shooting it.

And then off the court, just being clean. You haven’t heard anything about LeBron, honestly. If there’s anyone you could look at to learn how to be clean, and there’s nothing in the papers, LeBron’s a great role model to look at, just how he handles his business or how he conducts himself. People try to get under his skin. He plays the mental game within a game, and that’s something that I admire. And that’s what I’ve been trying to take with me. I feel like a lot of attention was brought to me at one time after my junior year, and just handling that was mental. All of that was mental. And just overcoming and learning how to stay sane through all the stuff that doesn’t matter.

Do you and Bronny James talk much about dealing with all the attention at such a young age?

Bronny and I are close. Honestly, I’ve learned from watching Bronny. Bronny has it worse than any high school kid, any kid growing up. Anything that he does is under the microscope. And I’ve gotten to study it for three years, how he handles it. He’s very mellow. He’s very chill with it. He doesn’t get rattled much. I feel like you can see that in me, as well. Let’s keep it candid. With my mom and everything that’s going on around me there, there are a lot of speculations. There are a lot of questions that you could have. And I’m just at a point now where mentally I’ve damn near seen it all. And everything now is like a new situation. I haven’t been here in any of it. I’m just going in, head-on and ready to work, honestly.

Amari Bailey played with a bevy of Division I- and NBA-caliber talent at Sierra Canyon High School. “I just pick their brain all the time,” he said.

Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Has all the pressure and attention you’ve dealt with on and off the court prepared you for what is to come at UCLA and in the NBA?

That gave me a really good head start. And I don’t mean this in an ignorant way, but it’s like you’re coming into your second life. If I haven’t been through this exact thing, I may have been through something that may have been similar to it. I can relate to it in my past life. Even if I haven’t, I’m going to ask questions. I’ll go in head-on, just try not to make decisions off of emotions, take my time with everything. I have a support system that is going to tell me right from wrong. And I think those are some of the best support systems that you can ever have.

You went from Chicago to winning a California State Open championship at Sierra Canyon as a freshman with the likes of Houston Rockets forward Kenyon Martin Jr., G League Motor City guard Cassius Stanley and Vanderbilt guard Scotty Pippen Jr. You have played at Sierra Canyon with Bronny James, G League Salt Lake guard Zaire Wade, son of former NBA star Dwyane Wade, Memphis Grizzlies forward Ziaire Williams and LA Clippers guard B.J. Boston Jr. Did you feel you needed to come to Sierra Canyon for a bigger challenge?

I definitely needed a bigger challenge. Going in as a freshman, people told me, ‘You’re a freshman that’s not going to play yet.’ My thing is everything has a big picture. I just want my overall development to get better, work on what people think I need to work on and what I’m being told I need to work on. And just attack my deficiencies, get into a rhythm of what I’m trying to do, knowing that I just got to lay a brick every day. Rome wasn’t built in a day. So, brick by brick, it’s going to be a good brick, it might be a bad brick, but it’s going to even out eventually because I’m just going to keep going.

B.J.’s in LA, so I get up with him quite often, and just picking his brain. He’s been my big brother ever since basketball brought us together, and our friendship and the brotherhood, and much beyond basketball. Ziaire Williams, I’ll check in with him. Just all my teammates, honestly, especially the ones that are at that next level that I’m trying to get to. I just pick their brain all the time, like what to do, what not to do. I try to just watch the path of some of my favorite players and how they’ve kept themselves in the league.

“Your perception of me? Everyone has a perception of everyone, whether it’s LeBron, Allen Iverson. You can’t please everyone. But I can just keep being respectful.”

— Amari Bailey on how he handles perceptions of his fame

What has your mother meant to you?

My mom, she’s done it all for me, if I’m being quite frank. She played basketball when she was in high school. She’s a lefty, just like me. So, she was with me going to the gym, working on my shooting stroke. She’s taught me a lot of mental games on how to deal with people. Knowing that there’s a game within a game that you’re playing, and just keeping your head on straight and not letting anyone see. I feel like we’re human, we all go through things, but I’m being healthy with it.

You used your name, image and likeness [NIL] money and bought your mother a 2022 Porsche Cayenne last Christmas at the age of 17. Can you talk about that moment and your ability to get her that gift now?

Oh, well, thankfully, with the NIL coming into play, I was able to save up and get my mom a car. Honestly, I felt like it was the least I could do for her. I’ve never really been into, ‘Oh, I need this car, I need this car.’ But definitely, it felt good being able to get my mom a car before I even do anything else. So, at least looking out for my mom, grandma, little sis, making sure that they’re good.

I got help getting it done. I wouldn’t take all the credit for it, but I was just put in the position to be able to get my mom a car, and that’s exactly what I did. I’m going to do it again. She’s going to be surprised with the next one. That was a great day. I’m not going to lie. Because I was out of town in Hawaii when she got the car. And she FaceTimed me.

You have spoken about wanting to help single mothers in Chicago. Can you elaborate on that?

I’m trying to have a foundation for single mothers. But I can’t do it all. That’s more of a summer project, but I’ve been working on it the whole year. But I’m trying to build a foundation for just single mothers in general. I know how it is for a single mother, watching my mom go through it all on her own, for the most part. So, I feel for you, and I have sympathy and empathy for them. So, anything that I can do to help when I get to that level, I would feel wrong if I don’t.

Do you always have to fight with people you think have a perception of you?

People that haven’t met me, some of them, even some of my teammates, they had a preconceived notion. They’d be like, ‘Oh, my gosh, you’re way cooler. You are way doper than what people may think of you through your social media,’ or what people may have told them about me just because I have a very small circle. You see the social media following, I hang out with three people, four people. It’s very sacred. Not a lot of people know what’s going on. I show you only what you can see on my [social media] page. That’s the only thing you can really go off of. I’m not in the news. I stay out the way. I’m a regular 18-year-old kid. I’m just out here having fun.

I can’t control the following, the attention I get. All I can do is make it positive. And there are people that view it negatively. It’s not so often that you come across too many kids with that big a social media following until they get to where they’re trying to go. And I’m not nearly as close to where I want to be. But to have that social media following, I feel like I can handle it. All I can do is keep being the humble kid that I am. Your perception of me? Everyone has a perception of everyone, whether it’s LeBron, Allen Iverson. You can’t please everyone. But I can just keep being respectful.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.