A commitment decision by a top high school recruit can be world-changing for both team and player alike. A transcendent college basketball talent, even if he only stays for one year, can take a team from a treacherous fight for relevancy to national championship contender. For an athlete, a decision of where to play and who to be coached by can mean very different routes of development and style of play, which is sure to show itself when they take their game to the professional ranks.

Prior to a rule change in 2005, top talent was faced with a decision between playing college basketball or declaring for the NBA draft directly out of high school. The stars that took the latter option and entered the draft while bypassing college makes for a very interesting hypothetical question for college basketball fanatics like myself: If these players did attend university, where would they be? I decided to investigate for myself and theorize where some of the stars of today’s NBA would have attended university had they decided to take that path.

Amir Johnson

Hometown: Los Angeles, California
Class: 2005

Amir Johnson, mostly a shot blocker and rebounder at the NBA level, was drafted 56th overall by Detroit, and his fairly limited offensive skillset throughout his career could lend to the narrative that a year of college development would have served him well. An easy choice would be his hometown UCLA squad, where he would play alongside Arron Afflalo, Darren Collison, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Ryan Hollins. However, I think Johnson would have gone to a different hometown program with more opportunity for minutes, and rebounded Nick Young’s missed threes at the University of Southern California.

Monta Ellis

Hometown: Jackson, Mississippi
Class: 2005

Before Golden State nabbed Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, they utilized Monta Ellis in the sharpshooter role. A run and gun offensive player in the truest sense, Ellis’ style of play makes it hard to imagine him playing for a lot of the top coaches in college basketball who preach a slower, more methodical way of attacking — and, well, defense. Hometown schools Ole Miss and Mississippi state might have an edge here, but I think Ellis would have looked perfect going to play for coach Rick Barnes at the University of Texas, where he would have formed an electric backcourt with Daniel Gibson while dropping dimes to LaMarcus Aldridge and P.J. Tucker down low.

J.R. Smith

Hometown: Freehold Borough, New Jersey
Class: 2004

Oh, what could have been. J.R. Smith in college basketball was perhaps a level of awesome we were not prepared for as fans and the basketball gods were therefore forced to withhold him from the highest amateur level in the land. I certainly played around with the idea of Swish staying in the northeast and attending Georgetown, following in the footsteps of fellow volume shooter Allen Iverson. However, even though that 2004 Hoyas team boasted Roy Hibbert and Jeff Green, they didn’t have the success that would have drawn a contested shot-making prodigy of Smith’s magnitude. Instead, I imagine him as a University of Connecticut Husky, playing alongside Charlie Villanueva and trading fadeaway jump shots with Rudy Gay.

Dwight Howard

Hometown: Atlanta, Georgia
Class: 2004

Considering he went #1 overall and has had a great NBA career, I don’t think anyone is saying Dwight Howard made the wrong choice in declaring for the draft. The consensus best player available, Howard would have had the opportunity to play for any school in the country, perhaps going for the allure of the Duke Blue Devils or Kansas Jayhawks, or looking to play alongside an elite point guard like Rajon Rondo at Kentucky or Chris Paul at Wake Forest. However, after returning to his hometown Atlanta Hawks in free agency, he showed he is the type of guy to stay close to home and play for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, where he would have benefited from playing with an elite backcourt of Will Bynum and Jarrett Jack. This would be a great fit for Howard, assuming they would have a jersey that fit tight enough for Howard’s specifications.

Amare Stoudemire

Hometown: Lake Wales, Florida
Class: 2002

Considering the immediate impact Stoudemire had on the NBA as an 18-year-old, it’s safe to say he would have been the predominant big man in college hoops had he gone to a D1 program. His athleticism would have looked great in the middle of Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone at Syracuse, and if he had joined his home state Florida Gators he could might have been able to form the most juxtaposed front court of all time with future Spurs sharpshooter, Matt Bonner. However, after watching him play next to Steve Nash for so many beautiful years in Phoenix, I think it’s fair to say he’ll realize he needs to play next to a top-notch point guard to reach his full potential. That means Point Guard University, otherwise known as the University of Arizona Wildcats. If he went to Tucson,  he would have played with extremely talented point guard Salim Stoudamire, and the Stoudemire-Stoudamire pick and roll would wreak havoc on opposing defenses with broadcasters trying to differentiate the similar-sounding surnames. The Wildcats roster also included Andre Iguodala, Luke Walton, and Channing Frye, so it isn’t far fetched to say Amar’e would be drawn to being a Wildcat.

LeBron James

Hometown: Akron, Ohio
Class: 2003

Considering it was a foregone conclusion LeBron would be headed right to the Association out of high school, we never had much of a chance to think about what college recruitment for LeBron would have looked like. He has spoken about his admiration for Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, so playing alongside Luol Deng and J.J. Redick could have been in the cards. Michigan State was an amazing team at the time, and it’s very easy to imagine LeBron and coach Tom Izzo connecting over a mutual love of basketball and football. He could have teamed up with the player of the year, Jameer Nelson, at Saint Joseph’s, where future teammate Delonte West also played. Unfortunately for these other schools, LeBron’s love of hometown Ohio State has been well documented, and he could have seen this as an opportunity to turn his home school around, as the Buckeyes were a meddling 7-9 in the Big Ten conference play the year before he was drafted. And Jim Tressel’s squad wouldn’t have offered any stars for LeBron to join. However, as we all know, LeBron loves his hometown and he loves a challenge, so I have to think he would have gone to Ohio State.


Sons Of Naismith is a column on NCAA Basketball from a Canadian perspective.