Mookie Cook and Caleb McLaughlin in Shooting Stars | OLUWASEYE OLUSA / COURTESY OF UNIVERSAL PICTURES

WHEN I CAME across Shooting Stars, the new film about LeBron James’ high school team on my Netflix carousel, I was wary.

Like many NBA stans, since The Last Dance and more recently, Air, I’ve wondered when James might drop his own 10-episode, legacy-enforcing vanity project upon us. It’s probably still in the works but in the meantime, SpringHill Company, the video production outfit run by James and his business partner Maverick Carter, have opted to release a slightly different narrative — a film based on the star’s high school career.

There were plenty of ways this could have gone wrong. It could have been a TV movie with shoddy production values, second rate actors and a script that sought to portray the young high school phenom in the best possible light. But to most everyone’s surprise, it’s not.

To recap for those not familiar with James’ remarkable story, the Lakers’ star (played by acting newcomer and high school baller Mookie Cook) grew up in Akron, Ohio with single mum (Natalie Paul, The Deuce, Power). He and his three buddies, Sian Cotton (Khalil Everage), Willie McGee (Avery Wills) and Dru Joyce III (Stranger Things’ Caleb McLaughlin) are natural born hoopers, playing pick-up to all hours of the night or battling it out in video games, all the while dreaming of a life in the NBA.

Dru II (Wood Harris), initially coaches the team before advising them to enrol in the mostly white Catholic prep school St Marys-St Vincent, where the boys come under the tutelage of Keith Dambrot (Dermot Mulroney with a perm), who doesn’t initially know how to handle the God-given talent he’s been gifted.

At this stage James is not the team’s standout player, outshone by teammate McGee, who later has to deal with the fact that he peaked early and his teammates, particularly James, now rule the roost. This talented crew may only be freshmen but they soon give the team’s seniors all they can handle, duking it out in a pick-up game to upturn the pecking order. The freshmen-led team then begin cutting a swathe through high school teams across the state, as they’re joined by a fifth member, Romeo Travis, (played by G League star and probable top 3 pick in this year’s NBA draft Scoot Henderson).

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As James matures into the star of the team, things begin to fracture between the hitherto tight-knit group. James’ burgeoning fame upsets team harmony and his callowness begins to grate, not only on his teammates but also his high-school sweetheart and now wife, Savannah (Katlyn Nichol).

We won’t reveal too much more, other than to say a where-are-they now sequence in the credits is nicely done: “LeBron made it to the NBA. Word is he did okay”.

All up, it’s not the happy-ending, cringe-inducing experience many might have expected. The young actors have obvious chemistry. McLaughlin is a standout, his mouthy Dru III a livewire who’s easy to root for. As James, Cook does a great job in portraying a kid in a man’s body struggling to adjust to the glare of the brightest, most unforgiving spotlight any high school kid has ever had to endure. And frankly, Scoot Henderson, as bad boy-come-good Travis, is a revelation. If it doesn’t work out for Henderson in next week’s draft, he has a fallback career in Hollywood waiting for him.

Against the odds, the filmmakers have managed to turn what could have been treacle into trifle. Let’s hope when James does drop his inevitable 10-episode doco, it’s made with the same level of clear-eyed self-awareness.

Ben Jhoty covers sport and wellness for Esquire Australia.

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