These 12 guys didn’t go to college, instead jumping straight to the pros back in the days when such a move was fair game.
But…imagine if they did?
LeBron James, Ohio State
Cal, UNC and Duke dreamed of signing the young king, but all signs are that he would’ve repped his home-state Buckeyes. They really could’ve used him, too: that ’03-04 OSU squad finished just 14-16. It seems safe to say the kid from Akron would’ve been worth a few more wins.
Moses Malone, Maryland
Stories of Malone’s recruitment are legendary, as dozens of coaches went all out to sign the 6-10 big man from Virginia. Maryland’s Lefty Driesell won that battle but ultimately lost the war: Instead of helping Driesell build the “UCLA of the East,” Malone made history by signing a seven-figure rookie contract with the ABA’s Utah Stars.
Tracy McGrady, Kentucky
It would’ve been fascinating to see how T-Mac fit in with the Wildcats in ’97-98, when Tubby Smith’s star-free squad (five players averaged between 9-14 ppg) battled its way to the national title. Could the future seven-time All-Star have shared the ball with Kentucky’s leading scorer that year, the one and only Jeff Sheppard?
Dwight Howard, North Carolina
With a roster featuring six future NBA players, including double-double machine Sean May in the middle, the ’04-05 Tar Heels went 33-4 en route to the national championship. Needless to say, they really didn’t need the 6-11 big man from Atlanta. But we’re guessing Roy Williams would’ve found some minutes for him regardless.
Amar’e Stoudemire, Memphis
A lot of dominos would’ve had to fall, but the Tigers could’ve gone into the ’02-03 season with Amar’e and sophomore Dajuan Wagner (who averaged 21.2 ppg at Memphis the year before), along with a handful of other future NBA players. Instead, both Juanny and Amar’e were top-10 picks in the ’02 Draft, and Memphis was a first-round NCAA knockout in ’03.
Kevin Garnett, Michigan
For years, KG hinted that he would’ve played his college ball at Maryland, replacing outgoing national POY Joe Smith in the role of superstar forward. But last year, he revealed he’d really planned to be a Wolverine. The reason? As he said on his Area 21 show, “I loved Chris Webber.” Solid logic.
JR Smith, North Carolina
Speaking of the ’04-05 Tar Heels: Just how much better might that ’04-05 UNC team have been with a freshman JR running alongside classmate Marvin Williams and the veteran backcourt of Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants? Because Smith blew up in the final months of his high school career, we never got a chance to find out.
Kobe Bryant, Duke
His game always mimicked Jordan’s, so it was natural that people assumed Kobe would’ve followed Mike’s path to Chapel Hill. Instead, Bryant recently confirmed he would’ve taken his talents to Durham. He did eventually end up playing for Coach K, winning Olympic gold under Krzyzewski’s guidance in 2008 and 2012.
Sebastian Telfair, Louisville
NBA stardom proved elusive for Bassy, making it all the more intriguing to imagine what the NYC high school legend would’ve done in the college ranks. The Cardinals went 20-10 without him in ’03-04; a year later, Louisville was a Final Four team. Telfair went on to spend a decade in the League.
Shaun Livingston, Duke
Before he was a super-sub for the Warriors and master of the mid-range pull-up, Livingston was a prep PG with ridiculous handles. Duke was a Sweet 16 team without him in ’04-05, but with Livingston in the same backcourt as J.J. Redick and four other NBA-bound players, the Dukies would’ve been title contenders.
Brandon Jennings, Arizona
Compton’s finest initially planned on staying home at USC, then committed to the Wildcats before blazing a trail to play pro ball in Italy. The ’Cats could’ve used him: Arizona’s ’08-09 squad featured a pair of NBA-bound bigs, but a lack of elite guard play led to a subpar 21-14 finish.
Lou Williams, Georgia
Few guys on this list had the potential to transform a program the way Williams did with home-state UGA. The dynamic lead guard, who earned Naismith Prep POY honors as a senior, could have singlehandedly lifted a mediocre Bulldogs squad to relevance in ’05-06. Instead, he averaged 1.9 ppg as a reserve rookie guard in Philly.
Ryan Jones is a Contributing Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter at @thefarmerjones.
Graphics by Andy Han.