The pre-NBA age limit era produced some of the league’s best players. There were plenty of flops (Google the 2001 NBA draft), but superstars such as Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, LeBron James and Kevin Garnett were elite players shortly after high school graduation. Tyson Chandler, Tracy McGrady, Jermaine O'Neal and Amar'e Stoudemire have had impressive careers, too.
They didn’t need higher education to advance on the court.
Still, their expedited paths to the NBA have left us with a series of intriguing “What if?” scenarios. What if LeBron had gone to college? What if Stoudemire had picked Memphis or McGrady had gone to Kentucky? What if Garnett had signed with Michigan?
It’s all great barbershop talk.
Bryant stirred up the discussion last week when he told Jimmy Kimmel that he would’ve played for North Carolina, not Duke, if he’d decided to go to school instead of opting to enter the 1996 NBA draft.
From the Los Angeles Times:
Defying urban legend that he was Duke-bound, had he gone to college instead of the NBA straight out of high school, Bryant said he was leaning toward North Carolina. "I love [Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski]," Bryant said. "The truth has to come out."
Why North Carolina? Vince Carter, a Tar Heel, was one of the top guards in the country at the time. "I want to play against him, every single day," Bryant said.
Oh. And ... wow.
That 1996-97 UNC squad Bryant would have joined featured a talented pair of sophomores in Carter and Antawn Jamison. Those Tar Heels lost to Arizona, the national champ that season, in the Final Four.
Carter and Jamison turned pro a year later after losing to Utah in the 1998 Final Four.
But Bryant would’ve changed everything, right? I mean, if he would’ve picked UNC and stayed two seasons, the Tar Heels might have won back-to-back national titles.
Imagine a lineup that featured Bryant, Carter and Jamison -- a trio with 25 NBA All-Star game appearances between them.
Imagine the dunks in the pregame warm-ups.
Of course, Carter and Bryant together could have been a dilemma for the Tar Heels, too. When they were younger, both guys played a lot of pass-last basketball. And they’ve never been accused of having self-confidence issues. Would they have meshed on the floor? Maybe, maybe not.
There’s just one problem with this entire story, though.
The L.A. Times calls the theory that Bryant would’ve attended Duke an “urban legend.”
In 2007, however, Bryant hypothetically committed to Duke.
Often times Duke fans wonder if Kobe Bryant had not gone directly to the NBA out of high school if he “maybe” would have attended Duke and been a part of that team.
“There’s no maybe about it,” Bryant says. “Every time I turn on the TV and see Cameron Indoor Stadium, see everybody in Krzyzewskiville and see the Crazies jumping up and down with the intensity and the building almost shaking, I wonder what it would have been like to play there with Corey [Maggette] and Elton [Brand] and all those guys."
In fact, Bryant would’ve been a junior on the 1999 team that featured two future National Players of the Year in Brand and Shane Battier along with Maggette, William Avery, Trajan Langdon and Chris Carrawell, among others.
Instead, Bryant entered the NBA via the No. 13 pick of the 1996 draft and went on to earn his first trophy as winner of the Gatorade Slam Dunk Championship at the 1997 All-Star Weekend. By 1998 he had started an All-Star game and by 1999, he had become the youngest player in NBA history named to an all-NBA team and in 2000, he was the youngest player ever to earn all-defense honors, as well. Ten years into his career he has won three NBA Championships and was also the MVP of the 2002 All-Star game.
But if you ask Coach K what it would’ve been like to coach Bryant in college, he responds by saying, “I don’t day dream. I have enough to think about with my current team than to think what might have been.”
Now, the 1996-97 Blue Devils -- led by Langdon, Jeff Capel and Roshown McLeod – lost in the second round of that year’s NCAA tournament. It wasn’t the phenomenal bunch that was assembled a few years later.
Kobe’s presence would have helped. And if he’d stayed three years to link up with that 1998-99 squad -- arguably the greatest team in NCAA history that failed to win a national title -- Duke would’ve been more dominant that year.
It’s just an idea. Who knows how things would’ve unfolded.
Perhaps Kobe would have picked UNC. Perhaps he would’ve gone with Duke.
He did neither.
But it’s still fun to consider the possibilities.
And a Kobe-Vince Carter pregame dunk contest every night.