Kobe Bryant is one of the greatest prep-to-pro players ever, and his reveal of where he would’ve gone to college prompts much speculation.
On Sunday night, Kobe Bryant got asked by someone on Twitter where he would’ve gone to college had he not leaped into the NBA right out of high school. His answer: “Duke.” Under that, Kenny Hamilton, a self-proclaimed social media influencer, tweeted back and said: “Carolina would’ve been a better fit… just saying lol.”
“Maybe but Coach Smith stopped recruiting me. He thought I would go pro and wished me luck. Coach K kept at it,” Bryant replied.
Sunday night wasn’t the first time Kobe’s spoken about where he would’ve continued his basketball career had he elected not to enter the NBA. Way back in 2007, he said there was “no maybe about [going to Duke].” However, he contradicted those words six years later during a chat with Jimmy Kimmel.
“I love [Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski],” said Bryant to Kimmel, as transcribed by Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times. “The truth has to come out.” The driving force behind that decision was Vince Carter, who was getting ready to enter his sophomore season in 1996-97. Kobe would’ve been a freshman, but his hyper-competitive attitude wanted to do battle with Carter on a daily basis, “I want to play against him, every single day.”
Kobe Bryant was, according to Sporting News, the top player in 1996, a fitting accolade derived from five separate recruiting services. As a senior, Bryant averaged 30.8 points, 12.0 rebounds and 6.5 assists for Lower Merion, and he led that team to a 31-3 record. The Aces finished that season as state champions, capturing their first title in 53 years. Bryant’s mesmerizing statistics led to a flurry of awards, including the Naismith High School Player of the Year and the Gatorade Men’s National Basketball Player of the Year. The interest from both UNC and Duke was there, but it was Kevin Garnett who indirectly had the most significant influence on Kobe’s post-high school future.
Garnett had NCAA eligibility issues as a high school senior. The combination of that and his outstanding play at Farragut Academy made it possible for him to go directly into the NBA. The Minnesota Timberwolves picked him fifth overall in 1995. After Bryant saw that, he began to think that he could make the same leap.
Nate James, Mike Chappell and Chris Carrawell were the three freshmen who suited up for Duke for the 1996-97 season. The Blue Devils finished 24-9 that year, and it’s hard to believe that Kobe wouldn’t have had a prominent role on that team. Trajan Langdon, a sophomore at the time, was Duke’s best player and averaged 14.3 points while shooting a crisp 44.5 percent from the field. Behind him, guys like Steve Wojciechowski (5.3 assists) and Greg Newton (6.1 rebounds) anchored the other ends of the court, which would’ve meant Kobe would’ve thrived as an excellent secondary scoring option. At some point, he might have leapfrogged Langdon and started taking all of his shots.
Some other notable freshmen that year were Tim Thomas (16.9 points and 6.0 rebounds for Villanova), Mike Bibby (13.5 points and 5.2 assists for Arizona) and Richard Hamilton (15.9 points for UConn). Bryant was a better high school player than all of them and likely would’ve continued that in college. He wouldn’t have blown them out of the water, but it’s feasible that Kobe could’ve averaged between 14 and 16 points while giving consistent effort on the defensive end. Those four would’ve been in the Freshman of the Year conversation, along with guys like Corey Brewer (17.5 points, 4.5 rebounds for Oklahoma) and Shaheen Holloway (17.3 points, 6.3 assists for Seton Hall). With the numbers we have, either Holloway or Brewer is bringing home the award. However, the USBWA decided not to give out that honor for that year and the two following it. Nobody’s sure why.
Since all of this is speculation, anything is possible. As a rookie with the Los Angeles Lakers, Kobe managed to average 7.6 points a night in 15.5 minutes. He also shot 41.7 percent from the floor overall and 37.5 percent from three. Is there a way we can somewhat accurately figure out what Bryant’s stats would’ve been at the college level? I’m not too sure, but let’s have some fun with this. We know that the level of competition at the NBA level is in another stratosphere when compared to college, even if a player is in one of the premier conferences.
It’s not far-fetched to believe that Bryant’s collegiate production would be twice what his rookie year was. If that were the case, Kobe as a freshman would’ve boasted averages of 15.2 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists. He would also be more than capable of connecting on 45 percent of his shots. That’s an impressive campaign for an 18-year-old, but let’s stretch those numbers out a bit. Would you believe it if Kobe Bryant put up 19-4.8-3.3 during his fictional year at Duke? What about 23-6-5? How much can we inflate his metrics before they become foolish? I feel comfortable with either the first or second line. College basketball was significantly different before the one-and-done era started. In the “old days,” upperclassmen were the leaders.
The 1997 Duke team lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to Providence, 98-87. With Kobe and his added firepower, the Blue Devils escape and break into the Sweet 16, where a matchup with Chattanooga awaits them. Kobe breaks out and hangs 27 on the Mocs because there was no one to slow him down. The next round features a deadly Arizona Wildcats squad going shot-for-shot with the Dukies. It’s a bona fide shootout. Miles Simon and Bryant lead the game in scoring, but Arizona skates by thanks to Bibby and Jason Terry. The Blue Devils’ loss in the Elite Eight is crushing. And Kobe decides to come back for another season. Or does he?
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That’s a fascinating aspect of the “What Would’ve Happened Had Kobe Bryant Gone To College?” conversation. We know him as someone who hated losing. And, returning for his sophomore season makes sense because the 1997-98 Duke team was even more potent than the one before it. In addition to getting back Langdon, Wojciechowski and Roshown McLeod, the Blue Devils added Shane Battier and Elton Brand. Kobe has always been a smart basketball player, and knowing the state of the class and also knowing they had some unfinished business would be enough to get him to come back.
That team blazes a path of destruction, striking down any foe who gets in their way. Kobe separates himself as the best player on the team and leads them to a perfect 29-0 regular season record. Their lone loss would be to UNC in the conference tournament, which is what happened to the real Duke squad. However, Kobe harnesses that anger, turns it into rage and then uses it to vaporize Duke’s first three tournament opponents. The real challenge is the Kentucky Wildcats, but they would fall as well. At this point, there are just two games between Kobe and the national title.
The first comes against Stanford. Bryant has 37. Next, it’s Utah. Bryant has 27 and wins the title. Having completed his task, Kobe declares for the NBA draft and goes first overall. The rest is history.
As I mentioned a few paragraphs up, there’s the chance that Kobe leaves after one year. The reasons why would be varied. Maybe the institution did something he thought was stupid. Maybe he gets bored of college. Whatever the case is, he goes second in the 1997 draft behind Tim Duncan because — let’s be honest — Duncan was a much better college player and had a career that was equal to if not better than Bryant’s.
We as fans will forever speculate about hopping into the time machine and seeing someone like Kobe Bryant or LeBron James or Kevin Garnett spend just one or two years in college. It’s fun to debate because we won’t ever know the answer. In all likelihood, those high school stars go to college and dominate because they’re all-time great basketball players and that’s what all-time great basketball players do. There is, however, the chance their careers wind up immensely different. That’s not fun to think about.
In Kobe Bryant’s case, he goes to Duke and feasts for two seasons, sharpening his skill set and being NBA ready almost immediately. Not much, if anything, about his career changes. And he still goes down as the second-best player at his position.
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