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.
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