This summer, Thon Maker became the first player since Gerald Green in 2005 to skip directly from high school to the first round of the NBA Draft. However, these days players like Maker are literally exceptions to the rule rather than the commonplace occurrence they were for about 10 years, kicking off with Kevin Garnett in 1995 and wrapping up with Green and Andrew Bynum in 2005.
It was sort of an odd time in NBA history, when this explosion of prep-to-pros hopefuls took their stab at the big leagues. Some landed in a major way and will ride their early success straight to the Hall of Fame, while others fell flatter than plywood. Either way, it was a fascinating era for the league that we probably will never see again, and we’ll also never get to know what certain NBA stars would have done had they actually chosen to attend college. Carmelo Anthony won a title at Syracuse in his lone year. Would LeBron James or Kobe Bryant have done the same?
The following is a look at where many of the biggest high school NBA stars would have gone to college had they chosen that route for themselves. Some of their hypothetical selections are pretty surprising, and they definitely would have changed the course of NCAA history:
Kevin Garnett, University of Michigan or University of Maryland (1995)
While there were a handful of players who skipped college before Garnett, his success definitely set off the movement in the late ‘90s and early aughts that saw so many other young players do the same in hopes of replicating his early achievements. Interestingly, though, Garnett’s head coach at Farragut Academy didn’t seem to believe at the time that Garnett was planning on attending college. “He is not thinking of going pro,” he said in 1995. “He wants to prove that those saying he can’t make it academically are wrong. Going pro would be more a cop-out than anything.”
Unfortunately, Garnett was unable to earn the minimum qualifying ACT score to play college ball, which forced him into his NBA path, but what if he had played college ball? Where might he have gone?
According to Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck, who assembled a really nice oral history of Garnett, Sonny Vaccaro believed he was headed to Michigan.
“He may or may not admit to this, but he was going to go to Michigan,” he said. “The Fab Five guys, that whole era, Juwan Howard being from Chicago—I would’ve bet a million dollars that’s what he was going to do.”
That 1995-96 Michigan team wasn’t a stunner, but Garnett might have changed that. He would’ve been on the same team as Maceo Baston, Maurice Taylor and Tractor Traylor.
Years later, Garnett said he actually was planning on pulling a shocker to play under Gary Williams at the University of Maryland, which would have put him on the same team as ‘90s college stud Laron Profit.
Kobe Bryant, Duke University or the University of North Carolina (1996)
For years, the story about Bryant has been that had he gone to college, he would have played under Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. That would have been a Trajan Langdon/Roshown McLeod team, and it would have made for quite a daunting group of Blue Devils. However, in a later interview with Jimmy Kimmel, Bryant revealed that his real intentions were to play for that other really good college basketball team in North Carolina.
“I love Coach K,” Bryant said. “But the truth has to come out.” He then revealed that he would have rather played for those mid-90s Tar Heels squads that also featured Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison, which actually makes a ton of sense. That could have been one of the better college teams of all-time, which lends at least some credence to Bryant’s claims that UNC really would have been his choice.
Jermaine O’Neal, University of South Carolina (1996)
There’s no mystery to O’Neal’s potential college decision, as the former McDonald’s All-American had already committed to the University of South Carolina as he was leaving high school in 1996. Considering how little he played his first year as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers, going Gamecock for a year or two might have been a better option for him.
Even without O’Neal, South Carolina won the SEC championship that season and actually was named a 2-seed in the 1997 Final Four tournament. Coppin State pulled off the tourney’s most shocking upset in the first round that year, however, which is something that may not have happened had O’Neal taken a different route to the NBA.
Tracy McGrady, University of Kentucky (1997)
Over and over again, McGrady has said he’d have gone to Kentucky had he attended college in the late ‘90s, which would have been pretty incredible considering that 1997-98 UK Wildcats won the NCAA championship even without T-Mac’s help.
Adding him to a team that already featured future NBA players like Tayshaun Prince and Jamaal Magloire would have made for some high ratings, but consider this: Dirk Nowitzki, who was drafted in 1998, also made an official college visit to Kentucky at a time when McGrady already could have actually been there. Scott Padgett and Tubby Smith made such a strong impression on Nowitzki that he still roots for the Wildcats even though he never went there.
The bottom line here is that there could have been a version of the 1998-99 University of Kentucky team that featured both McGrady and Nowitzki (and, of course, Scott Padgett). That would have made for even better television!
Amar’e Stoudemire, University of Memphis (2002)
Coming out of high school, Stoudemire had plans to team up with other future NBA players Dajuan Wagner and Qyntel Woods at the University of Memphis to compete for a national championship. Wagner was already at the school, while Woods was considering transferring from a community college, and the three of them would have made for quite a super team that also would have included other future NBA players Rodney Carney and Earl Barron.
It didn’t work out that way, as Stoudemire, Wagner and Woods all ended up declaring for the 2002 NBA Draft and were selected in the first round, but it would have made for a rather impressive Memphis team that, by the way, still hasn’t won a national championship.
LeBron James, Ohio State University (2003)
Honestly, if an alien from outer space dropped directly into the Ohio State campus right now, they would have more than enough evidence to support the fact that LeBron James did actually attend school there. When the university’s new basketball practice facilities opened in 2013, James was inexplicably given a locker with his name and number located in the team’s locker room. He also stops by to hang out with the basketball team once in a while, and those players very often can be found wearing his gear. The man never went to that school, but still acts like an esteemed alum.
Of course, were he not a man of superhuman ability, he probably would have gone there – even though in 2003 the Buckeyes had not made the NCAA Tournament in a decade. James obviously would have changed that, no matter who else was on those teams, and it’s very likely he would have turned recruiting around for the school pretty quickly too. Alas, he’ll just have to settle for being the single greatest prep-to-pros star in the history of basketball.
Dwight Howard, University of North Carolina (2004)
Not that eventual national champion UNC needed Howard in 2004-05, but adding the future No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 NBA Draft certainly wouldn’t have hurt what was already an extremely loaded Tar Heels crew. Raymond Felton, Sean May, Rashad McCants and Marvin Williams were part of that team, and had Howard committed to UNC as he claims, they would have been even more legendary.
Howard reportedly considered Duke very seriously at the time, as top prospects have been doing for decades, but between those two powerhouses Howard has said UNC would have won out.
There also have been rumors over the years of serious interest in Georgia Tech, a team that would have allowed Howard to play baseball. Had he been on that particular team, he would have joined forces with Jarrett Jack and Will Bynum.
Al Jefferson, University of Arkansas (2004)
Despite being the No. 4 high school prospect in the country back in 2004, Jefferson wasn’t originally considered a no-brainer prep-to-pros leaper when draft experts started doing their mocks that year. But a lot of that likely came as a result of his playing in a small school down south that simply didn’t garner him the amount of attention as Howard, Shaun Livingston or Sebastian Telfair.
Had Jefferson decided to attend college, he would have joined Ronnie Brewer as a member of the Razorbacks. He would have made them a considerably better team for the year or two that Jefferson remained on the squad.
There were, of course, many other high school kids who skipped college for the glitz and glamour of the NBA’s big stage. Rashard Lewis was reportedly all set to attend Kansas University. Andrew Bynum could have joined Rudy Gay, Marcus Williams and Hilton Armstrong at UConn. Tyson Chandler would’ve attended UCLA, Darius Miles would have gone to DePaul and J.R. Smith would have been a Tar Heel.
Any of these decisions could have changed the course of NCAA and NBA history, but instead the ink is dry on the stories of these guys’ careers. The last of the old prep-to-pros crew is very close to entering their career twilights, so soon it probably won’t matter much that they skipped college.
But what if Jahlil Okafor had skipped college? Does Duke still win their title in 2015? What about Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist potentially skipping their year at Kentucky in 2011-12?
NBA hypotheticals are fun, especially in the offseason, because there’s just no telling how things may have changed. That won’t stop us from wondering though.
NBA Daily: The Golden State Warriors Need to Enter Rest Mode
With a bevy of injuries to their stars, the Golden State Warriors should rest up the remainder of the regular season to avoid any playoff letdowns.
After a three-year-long run of dominating the NBA, the Golden State Warriors are showing some cracks in their armor.
Granted, those cracks aren’t a result of a botched system or poor play, but rather the injury bug biting the team in full force as they come down the regular season stretch.
First, it was Steph Curry and the ankle that’s bothered him all season — and for most of his career — when he tweaked it yet again on March 8 against the San Antonio Spurs. Golden State announced he would miss at least four games. Then it was Klay Thompson, who fractured his thumb three days later against the Minnesota Timberwolves — he’ll miss at least two weeks.
Now it’s Kevin Durant. Last year’s Finals MVP suffered an incomplete rib cartilage fracture and was ruled out of Friday’s game against the Sacramento Kings. Durant is expected to be sidelined for at least two weeks. The Warriors would go on to lose that contest 95-93.
In about two weeks time, the Warriors went from having one of the most formidable offenses and scoring trios in the entire league, to having Quinn Cook and Nick Young logging starter minutes.
Luckily for the Warriors, they’ve built up a big enough lead in the standings to achieve a 52-17 record, good for second place in the Western Conference. But the issue for the remainder of the season now becomes how healthy will the Warriors be come playoff time?
Curry and Durant have injury histories. Curry particularly has been bothered by this ankle since he entered the league. Without either of them, the Warriors — while still incredibly talented — will be on a completely even playing field with the Houston Rockets, and possibly other teams in the gauntlet that will be the Western Conference playoffs.
The bigger issue on top of the pending injury concerns becomes whether the Warriors should just pack it in for the rest of the regular season, and regroup for another expected title run.
Steve Kerr doesn’t seem to be thinking that way, however.
“All these injuries seem to be temporary,” Kerr told reporters. “A couple weeks, a week, two weeks – whatever. We’re in good shape. We’ve just got to survive this next slate of games and hopefully, start getting guys back and get rolling again for the playoffs.”
That’s true. None of the aforementioned injuries seem to be anything more serious than a few weeks of rest and relaxation. But that’s assuming the best case scenario for these players.
Should we assume that the Warriors are without their scoring trio for the next couple of weeks as their health updates have indicated, that would put their return roughly around April 1. At that time, Golden State would have six games remaining on their schedule. Four coming against playoff teams (Oklahoma City, Indiana, New Orleans, and Utah) with the other two games against Phoenix.
After missing the last few weeks on the court, with injuries that most likely won’t be at 100 percent, tossing their most valuable contributors back into the fray against a slate of playoff teams probably isn’t the smartest idea.
At this point, the Warriors postseason position is locked up. They likely won’t take the top seed away from Houston, and their lead is big enough to keep their second seed intact regardless of who’s on the court. The only thing left now is the determining who Golden State will play in the first round. With the revolving carousel that is the playoff standings out West, that’s anybody’s guess right now.
The only thing that’s certain is whichever team coming into Oracle Arena for that first round will be battle tested and talented based off of the dogfight they had to survive just to make the playoffs. The last thing the Warriors need to be is a banged up in a postseason with their first opponent smelling blood in the water.
In all likelihood, the Warriors — should everything go according to plan — will play the Houston Rockets for a chance to return to their fourth straight NBA Finals. Only this time, a potential Game 7 won’t be at Oracle Arena. It will be in downtown Houston, at the Toyota Center.
An advantage as big as the Warriors’ homecourt can never be understated. Operating in a do-or-die situation away from home will be newfound territory for this bunch. Regardless of talent or team success, at that point, it’s anybody’s game.
It won’t be easy for the Golden State Warriors as they try to extend their dynasty’s reign. This might be their most difficult year yet.
Durant, in his own words, can’t even laugh right now without feeling pain. The league’s only unanimous MVP is operating on one and a half ankles, and the team’s second Splash Brother has an injury on his shooting hand.
Resting up the team’s stars should be the team’s top priority right now, at risk of entering the postseason hobbled. Track record means nothing if the Warriors don’t have their full arsenal at disposal when the games matter most.
Hey, a 16-seed finally won a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament. Anything is possible on a basketball court, and the Warriors should do everything possible to ensure they’re not the next major upset candidate in line.
Fixing The Detroit Pistons
David Yapkowitz looks at how the fading Pistons can turn things around moving forward.
We wrap this week up with another installment of our “Fixing” series here at Basketball Insiders. The next team up is the Detroit Pistons.
The Pistons came into this season with playoff aspirations after a disappointing 2016-17 campaign that saw them regress instead of building on their playoff appearance the season before. To begin the season, they looked like they were on their way to accomplishing that objective. Then Reggie Jackson got hurt and the season began spiraling out of control.
They tried to inject some life into the team by trading for Blake Griffin, but it hasn’t worked out as expected. The Pistons have gone 8-12 since acquiring Griffin and the postseason looks like a pipe dream at this point.
What Is Working
Not a whole lot. Despite trading for a superstar player, the Pistons have tumbled down to the point where playoffs are looking extremely unlikely.
If there’s one thing that’s a welcome sight, it’s the bounce back of Andre Drummond. After being named to his first All-Star team in 2015-16, Drummond had a bit of a let down the following season. This season, he was once again an All-Star while putting up career-highs in rebounds (15.7) and assists (3.2). Drummond is still only 24 years old and has his best basketball years ahead of him.
The Pistons have also received encouraging signs from rookie Luke Kennard. A lottery pick in last summer’s draft, Kennard he’s been one of the few bright spots at times for the Pistons. About a week ago, his playing time had diminished some and he racked up a few DNP’s, but Stan Van Gundy has since reinserted him into the rotation.
They’ve also gotten solid production out of Reggie Bullock. When Bullock came over to the Pistons in a trade with the Phoenix Suns almost three years ago, he was little more than a seldom-used wing with the potential to become a solid 3&D guy. This has been his year, however. He’s the best shooter on the team at 43.5 percent from the three-point line. His numbers, 10.8 points per game and 49.1 percent shooting from the field, are career-highs.
What Needs To Change
Quite a bit. Acquiring Griffin was a move the Pistons needed to make. On the verge of losing control of the season, they needed to make a move to try and turn things around. It’s been a disaster thus far, however. They are 2-8 in their last 10 games and although they’re in ninth place, they’re falling farther and farther away from eighth.
Who the Pistons are really missing is Reggie Jackson. Ish Smith, who has proven himself beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is an NBA player, just isn’t Jackson. They desperately need Jackson’s playmaking abilities to help take the pressure off everyone else. Even if he returns this season, it’s already too late. The Pistons need to focus on getting him healthy and ready for next season.
The Pistons also need to improve their offense. They’re in the bottom half of the league in both points per game (25th) and offensive rating (24th). A big part of that is Jackson’s absence, but they could also benefit from additional outside shooting. Right now they have one long-range threat on the roster and that’s Bullock.
Focus Area: The Draft
To make matters worse, the Pistons will likely give up their draft pick to the Los Angeles Clippers as part of the Griffin trade. The only way the Clippers wouldn’t acquire the Pistons’ pick this year is if it falls in the top four, and that’s not going to happen.
The Pistons will have a second-round pick though. The draft is never 100 percent guaranteed, and the second round is even more of a crapshoot, but talented players can definitely be found. That’s what the Pistons’ main objective in the draft should be. It sounds silly, but they truly need to buckle down and do their homework in hopes of finding that one overlooked guy in the second round. That’s pretty much all they have to look forward to come draft night.
Focus Area: Free Agency
The Pistons are going to have a couple of minor decisions to make this summer regarding their free agents. Jameer Nelson, James Ennis, and Anthony Tolliver are all unrestricted free agents. Out of the three, Ennis has given the team the best on-court production, but it isn’t necessary that any of them are brought back.
Bullock and Dwight Buycks have non-guaranteed contracts, and those are the two guys that the Pistons should work towards bringing back in the fold. Both should have their contracts guaranteed for the following season. Bullock is their only three-point threat. Buycks began the season as a two-way contract player splitting time between the Pistons and the Grand Rapids Drive of the G-League. He’s since been converted to a standard NBA contract and has done enough to earn his spot on the team next year.
In terms of adding new players to the roster, as mentioned before, the Pistons need outside shooting. Marco Belinelli and Wayne Ellington are possible options that the Pistons might be able to afford. Joe Harris is another option, but it will be interesting to see what the market is for him after the strong season he’s been having in Brooklyn.
It’s tough to gauge the Pistons’ true potential without Jackson. If he returns before the season ends, it will be too small a sample size to accurately assess the team. There are only 14 games left. Although things look pretty bleak right now, it can’t be argued that injuries haven’t played a big role in the Pistons disappointing season.
The team deserves a shot at seeing how a healthy Jackson, Griffin, and Drummond trio looks on the court together. If they start off next season the same way despite all three being healthy and in the lineup, then it would be time for serious changes.
Fixing The Chicago Bulls
Spencer Davies says the Bulls have a long way to go, but they’re taking steps forward. In year one without the former face of the franchise, that’s about all they can ask for.
Next up on Basketball Insiders’ “fixing” series is a stop in the Windy City.
In spite of the criticisms over last summer’s Jimmy Butler trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves, it feels like the Chicago Bulls at least have a sense of direction. Many members of the media—including this one—expected them to finish dead last in the NBA, yet they have 23 wins, with seven other teams worse off.
Obviously, the goal for the organization this season was to establish an identity and see what they had with their new cornerstone pieces. To a good extent, there’s optimism regarding those players because of the potential they’ve shown.
There’s still a good chunk of the year left, but the Bulls are 12th in the Eastern Conference standings with 15 games to go.
What Is Working
If it weren’t for the spectacular seasons by Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons, Chicago stretch big man Lauri Markkanen might be the Rookie of the Year. Even with some second-half struggles, the entire body of work is impressive.
The 7-foot Finnish forward continues to stay aggressive with a high usage and great mentality in snatching up those boards. It’s normal for a first-year player to go through those ups and downs. Add in a back injury that’s been bothering him as of late and the slump make a little more sense. Markkanen has shown the skill and consistent effort that it takes to be a mainstay in this league.
Bobby Portis is another member of the frontcourt who’s made a noticeable impact off the Bulls’ bench. In his third year, you can see the confidence continue to grow as a versatile offensive threat with a ton of touches. He’s taken a responsibility upon himself to lead the second unit and the proof is in the pudding. According to Cleaning The Glass, the team is a net plus-11.5 per 100 possessions with him on the court.
Second-year swingman Denzel Valentine has filled the stat sheet in multiple games as one of the most unselfish players on the roster. David Nwaba’s role from the beginning was to be a defensive menace and he’s come through for the majority of the year. Even two-way contract rookie Antonio Blakeney has shown flashes as a volume scorer in stretches.
Recently, Chicago has given a couple of cast-offs opportunities to display their skills. In 10 games, Cameron Payne looks as comfortable as he has in quite some time coming off a major foot injury. Noah Vonleh has been an effective late addition playing next to Portis and filling in for Markkanen. Let’s not forget that these two were lottery picks and are still in their early 20s.
What Needs To Change
Looking at what Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine have done, it’s been a mixed bag. With that being said, there’s clearly untapped potential between the both of them.
Dunn proved in very little time that the narrative of him being a lost cause was far from the truth. Hoiberg’s trust in him to be Chicago’s floor general has gone a long way. He’s been in attack mode with the ball in his hands, has seen his outside game get better and has been bothersome with his length defensively. It hasn’t resulted in wins, but remember—it’s this group’s first season together.
As for LaVine, it’s difficult to judge where a player is using a 23-game sample size. Yes, it’s a good amount of playing time, but let’s not forget he’s coming off a devastating left ACL tear. His defense has been subpar, but the bounce seems to still be there. The jumper is on and off, but he hasn’t been bashful at all. Starting the year off fresh in 2018-19 will benefit him.
Speaking of next season, the goal for the front office of Gar Forman and John Paxson should be simple—get younger. Currently, Robin Lopez is the highest paid player on the Bulls and he’ll have one year left on his deal going into the summer. The same applies to Justin Holiday. These are two veterans who could contribute on teams ready to win now, and it would be logical to part ways considering the direction the franchise is going.
Focus Area: The Draft
Due to the Nikola Mirotic trade on February 1st, Chicago acquired a first-round draft pick from the New Orleans Pelicans. That gives them two chances to add to their young talent pool in the upcoming 2018 NBA Draft.
Typically you’d go with the best player available when you’re slotted in the top ten, but the Bulls should feel good about their backcourt and the power forward position. What they really are lacking are reliable shooters and perimeter defenders, as well as a player with a bulldog mentality.
Chicago doesn’t get to the free throw nearly enough and they don’t convert looks that they should. Considering a true wing is amiss, it’d be the ideal scenario for Michael Porter Jr. to fall right into their lap. The Missouri freshman just returned after missing basically the entire season with a back injury. He was a top name coming into the class because of his size and could be a steal with the eighth selection.
If Porter Jr. doesn’t make it to them, Miles Bridges would make for a heck of a consolation prize. Unlike Porter, he has a more muscular frame at 6-foot-7, 230 pounds that allows him to bully the opposition. There’s a relentless nature and fearlessness about him that will translate to the next level.
Using that Pelicans pick, the Bulls would be happy to see Duke sharpshooter Gary Trent Jr. fall to them in the early-to-mid 20s, but that seems more unlikely with Anthony Davis continuing to carry New Orleans to new heights. If they end up selecting towards to the back end of the first round, Arizona junior guard Allonzo Trier could end up being a good fit as well.
Focus Area: Free Agency
Entering the summer, Chicago doesn’t have too many decisions to make on the contract front.
The trade exception from the Butler deal expires on June 22nd. If it’s not used by then, the amount will be renounced if the team goes under the salary cap. The deadline to present Noah Vonleh and David Nwaba a qualifying offer is June 29th.
Everybody’s going to keep an eye on LaVine because of restricted free agency, but the Bulls have indicated they prefer him to be a part of their core. They’ll in all likelihood look to bring him back on a long-term contract. If he doesn’t approve of the terms, he can always choose to play on his qualifying offer and bet on himself.
Chicago has to decide whether or not to guarantee Paul Zipser’s $1.5 million salary for next season by July 18th. The extension deadline for Payne, Portis, and Grant is the day before the first day of the 2018 campaign and team option deadlines for Dunn and Markannen come on Halloween.
There probably won’t be too much activity on the Bulls’ part regarding free agency. The focus will lay on improving their young core and getting guys who are just getting on the upswing in the pros. There are talents out there who fit the bill. It just all depends on what comes from the draft.
All in all, Chicago has a long way to go to get back into the postseason conversation, but they’re taking steps forward. In year one without the former face of the franchise, that’s about all you can ask for.