Image: LeBron James
Aly Song  /  Reuters
LeBron James had more than $100 million in endorsements before he played a minute in an NBA game.
By
NBCSports.com contributor
updated 11/6/2007 6:10:08 PM ET 2007-11-06T23:10:08

Finally, after a summer of scandal, the NBA can once again promote the linchpin of the league — its players — as another season begins.

And, out of the 360 or so players on 30 teams, which handful captures the eye of Madison Avenue?

Here is a list of the 10 most marketable players in the NBA today:

1. LeBron James: Just a teenager who had never played a minute of pro basketball in 2003, James had already inked more than $100 million in endorsement pacts, with Nike and Coca-Cola among others. More companies have thrown millions his way since, with others dearly wishing he would accept their offers. James phenomenal performance in last spring’s playoffs (where he scored 29 of Cleveland’s last 30 points during Game 5 at Detroit to help lift the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals), his lack of scandal, his promotion by the media (he hosted Saturday Night Live) and his likeability make him the most marketable player in the NBA. The big question: Can he eventually surpass Michael Jordan in endorsement income?

2. Dwyane Wade: A joy to watch on the court, and fans everywhere love him. Need proof? Wade’s Heat jersey was the top NBA seller in Europe last season. His shoes are also big sellers. A new one, Converse's Wade3, has just arrived. Wade’s only drawback may be the team he plays on — an aging Shaq does not bode well for Miami’s future.   

3. Kevin Garnett: One of the best players during the past 11 NBA seasons, Garnett’s marketability suffered from playing for the Minnesota Timeberwolves. Unlike some of the top NBA players, including James, his salary — nearly $30 million three years ago — would annually top his endorsement income. One problem: changing shoe deals from Nike to And1 and then to Adidas by the time he was 27 raised questions. Having joined the fabled Boston franchise, whose fans have been yearning for a title for more than a generation, expect Garnett to make a killing in Boston-area endorsements if he can help revitalize the Celtics.

4. Shaquille O’Neal: The big man may have lost a bit on the court at age 35, averaging eight points less per game during the 2006-2007 season than his career average, but he remains a large presence on the endorsement side. Just last year, he signed a five-year deal with Li Ning, a Chinese sportswear brand, to launch a line of Shaq shoes in China. A survey of sports business executives by Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Daily places Shaq at No. 8 among all athletes for marketability.

5. Kobe Bryant: The fallout from allegations of sexual assault nearly derailed Bryant’s endorsement career — McDonald’s was one big company who cut ties — but he has bounced back. In 2006, Nike launched a new shoe backed by Bryant, the Zoom Kobe 1. He plays for a big-market franchise, the Los Angeles Lakers, that are always in the spotlight. Granted, it doesn’t help when owner Jerry Buss says he would listen to trade offers for Bryant, but as the years go on and the scandal recedes in memory, Bryant will gain more endorsements – he is at the top of his game and he is not even 30 years old.

6. Yao Ming: The 7-foot-5-inch Houston center started quickly in the endorsement field, nabbing a Super Bowl ad for Visa as a rookie. But the Rockets have not contended for a championship with him in the middle, and the uniqueness of being a Chinese player dwindles this year as first-round draft choice Yi Jianlian plays for Milwaukee.

7. Tony Parker: Never hurts to be on a team — the San Antonio Spurs — that has captured three of the last five NBA titles. The point guard from France also married well, at least from a marketability perspective, when he and "Desperate Housewives" actress Eva Longoria exchanged vows.

8. Kevin Durant: The Seattle Sonics rookie and No. 2 draft pick overall got a boost when knee surgery took the top selection, Greg Oden, out for the season. His play on the court will have no competition in the Pacific Northwest this season, and he can quickly establish himself as the NBA’s rookie to watch.

9. Yi Jianlian: He got off to a rocky start when it became clear he had no interest in playing for the Milwaukee Bucks, but the rarity of Chinese players in the NBA and the upcoming Beijing Olympics give the No. 6 draft choice overall a leg up.  

10. Eduardo Najera: Though he is not a nationally known name, the Denver Nuggets forward has landed more than half a dozen endorsements. Why? He is the only NBA player from Mexico.

Msnbc.com contributor David Sweet can be reached at dafsweet@aol.com.

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