LeBron James Defends Role as Mentor of Young NBA Stars and Fires Back at Critics: 'Tell Them to Kiss My Ass'

LeBron James issued a strong response to the critics who claim he's not as fierce a competitor as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

The three-time NBA champion shared a moment with Zion Williamson on the court on Sunday, following the Los Angeles Lakers' 122-114 win over the New Orleans Pelicans.

After missing the first three months of his rookie season with a knee injury, Williamson, the first overall pick of the 2019 NBA draft, has taken the NBA by storm and James offered the 19-year-old a few words of encouragement.

When asked whether he was afraid his chat with the Pelicans rookie could attract further criticism, James didn't mince his words.

"Anybody that says that, 'LeBron, why would he do that while he's playing? It's a sign of weakness. [...] He's buddy-buddy with the guys he's going against.' Tell them to kiss my ass," the four-time MVP said as he concluded his postgame locker room session.

"All right? With a smile, too."

As a veteran in his 17th season in the league, James clearly takes his mentorship role very seriously and insisted he feels it's part of his duty to pass on advice to younger players.

"It's my obligation and it's my job to continue to pass on the game to the guys that's coming in after me," he explained.

"That's just my responsibility. No one told me to do that [speak to Williamson on the court]. I just feel like it's my responsibility to leave the game in a better place than when I had it."

Williamson wasn't the first rookie James has had words with this season as the Lakers star had a similar exchange with Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant on Saturday night.

The second overall pick of the 2019 NBA draft, Morant finished with 27 points, 14 assists and six rebounds as the Grizzlies defeated the Lakers 105-88.

A leading candidate for the Rookie of the Year award, Morant described James as a "big brother and a great role model" and the 35-year-old was similarly effusive in his praise.

"The kid is super special," he explained. "Memphis got a great one. They got a great one. So, the sky's the limit for the kid."

Following the win over the Pelicans on Sunday night, James again spoke glowingly of the young contingent in the NBA, singling out Williamson, Morant along with second-year Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic and 2017 first-round draft Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum.

"The league is in a very good place, and if I'm able to give my wisdom and game and pass it down, no matter while I'm playing or after I'm playing, I feel like it's my job," he elaborated. "Because the game has just given me so much since I started playing when I was 8 years old. So it's my responsibility."

While the young generation may be full of promise, James is not quite ready to give up his throne yet. The three-time NBA Finals MVP finished with 34 points, 12 rebounds and 13 assists on Sunday as the Lakers improved to 46-13.

The purple and gold remain top of the Western Conference with a 5.5-game gap over the second-place Denver Nuggets and are poised to return to the playoffs for the first time in six years.

Zion Williamson, LeBron James
Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans as LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers embrace before their game at the Smoothie King Center on March 1 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Jonathan Bachman/Getty