What if…LeBron had gone to college and the one-and-done rule was never instituted?

This is the eighth post in our ongoing series of the Top 10 What Ifs in college basketball history.

Many of the previous “What If” scenarios have been easily tangible.  We saw Hank Gathers die.  We saw Chris Webber call a timeout.  We saw Gordon Hayward’s shot rim out.

Since they were all readily apparent, it doesn’t take a huge leap of faith to travel down the “what if” path.

This next one does.

What if…

LeBron had gone to college and the one-and-done rule was never instituted?


Please, just suspend disbelief for ten minutes and try and consider what would have happened if LeBron James had chosen to gone to college for one year.

You know the story.  Carmelo Anthony was one of the most highly-regarded high school basketball players ever.  He had played at Oak Hill Academy and was an NBA-ready player at 17 years old.  Amazingly, he went to Syracuse for a year…and won a National Championship.

But as famous as Carmelo was, he wasn’t even CLOSE to being as famous as the kid a year younger than him – LeBron James.

LeBron had taken the nation by storm.  He was on TV.  He was on magazines.  He was all over the news.  He was a physical specimen – the freak of freaks.  No matter where he went, that place would have reaped crazy economic benefits.

College basketball was more popular than ever.  The NBA was boring (remember, this was 2003 when the game was almost unwatchable…the Spurs beat the Nets in an uninspiring NBA Finals and the Pistons would set basketball back fifteen years the next season over LA), and the NCAA had the real stars.

  • Mateen Cleaves and Michigan State won a heart-warming championship.
  • Jay Williams, Mike Dunleavy, Shane Battier, and Carlos Boozer had led an almost super-team to a title.
  • Maryland was well-balanced and beat a good IU team.
  • And the NCAA had just experienced a GREAT season with Carmelo’s Orangemen winning it all.

Now…if only they could get the kid from Akron.  It didn’t matter where he went.  Ohio State?  Great.  Duke?  That’s fine.  Louisville?  Awesome.

Just as long as they were getting him somehow,  the NCAA would continue to be the best basketball in America.

But you know what happened.

LeBron didn’t go to college.  He skipped it and went straight to the NBA, where he started dominating almost instantly.

But what if he hadn’t?

Where would he have played?

Nobody really knows.  A lot of people assume he would have gone to Ohio State.  Others swear that he wanted to play for John Calipari or Coach K.  Louisville was allegedly on the list.

Wherever he would have gone, I think we can all agree that his team would have been MUST SEE TV and definitely would have been a force in the tournament.

Would they have won a title?  That’s hard to say.  The 2003-2004 Buckeyes were a pretty uninspiring bunch that went 14-16 and missed the NCAA Tournament.  But let’s pretend he went to Duke.

Their starting lineup would have been as follows:

  • Chris Duhon
  • Daniel Ewing
  • LeBron James
  • Luol Deng
  • Shelden Williams
Yowzers.  I think it’s safe to say that they would have been the prohibitive favorite.

Fewer players would have gone pro too early, thus ruining fewer careers prematurely.

If LeBron HAD gone to college and won a title, that would have meant that he and Carmelo BOTH won back-to-back.  College may have turned into a more viable option for high schoolers who were looking at the NBA.

But LeBron DIDN’T go to college, and unlike Kobe Bryant, Jermaine O’Neal, and Kevin Garnett – high schoolers that had to work their way into the league, LeBron was an instant success.  While people had gone straight from high school to the NBA for over 40 years, LeBron started the BOOM.

From 2000-2005 though, the list of names got bigger and bigger.  Amare’ Stoudemire was a star.  LeBron James was a star.  Dwight Howard became a star.  Three high schoolers were drafted #1 overall.

The fact was, it had become “too easy” to go from high school straight to the big leagues.

As soon as LeBron, Amare, and Dwight started experiencing almost instant success, high schoolers started flowing into the league left and right.

From 1962 to 2002, 20 high schoolers skipped college to go straight to the NBA.

From 2003 (LeBron) to 2005 (when the rule was changed), 22 high schoolers jumped.

Ndubi Ebi.  James Lang.  Robert Swift.  Sebastian Telfair.

These guys had no business going pro.  They weren’t LeBron James or Dwight Howard.  They weren’t even Andrew Bynum or Tyson Chandler.

But they went anyway and ruined their careers, and in some cases, their lives.  Because of this, the NBA created a rule that forced high schoolers to go to college for at least one year.  The course of basketball would be changed forever.

The NBA would have remained unwatchable because the one-and-done rule would have never been implemented.

Let’s remember: in 2003, college basketball was king.  Almost no argument could be made that the NBA actually had better basketball than the college game.

The Detroit Pistons were busy winning by playing incredibly ugly and defensive basketball.  The rest of the world was trying to “be like Mike” and win games by playing one-on-one basketball.

Part of the reason it was so easy to go pro after high school was because the NBA was so watered down.

The NBA was, simply put, unwatchable.

If LeBron had gone to college, fewer high schoolers would have gone pro, and the one-and-done rule would probably not have been implemented.

(Just think about the rule for a minute. Isn’t it an almost un-American rule?  Someone is seriously mandating that you are not allowed to enter a career and make money, no matter how good you are at it, until you go to college for a year.  I’m glad nobody ever told Bill Gates to go back to school…).

If LeBron hadn’t skipped college, and the high school boom hadn’t started, than kids would not be forced to go to school and mature and improve their games, and the NBA could continue to suffer to this day.

The college game would have stayed superior to the NBA.

This seems like a continuation of point #2, but it’s not.

If LeBron had gone to college, his team would have had a GREAT chance to win a title, and more kids would have wanted to go to college for one year and win a title like Carmelo and LeBron.  Ironically, had LeBron gone to school, we may have seen the “Calipari-Kentucky” model sooner.

Either way though, the college game would have remained strong.  In spite of Carmelo and LeBron, most kids weren’t desiring to be “one-and-dones” in the early 2000s.  Of course it happened, but the idea was that if you were good enough to go pro, you went out of high school…and if you weren’t good enough, you would go to college for at least a few years.

College basketball is just so much better when the kids stay in school for a while.

Think about those teams we mentioned before.

Jay Williams, Shane Battier, Mike Dunleavy, and Carlos Boozer were on the same team.  They had four first round draft picks on the floor at the same time!  And not only were they sharing the floor, they were all upper-classmen!

Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafor were teammates as juniors.

Florida had five upper-classmen NBA players.

As soon as the one-and-done rule was implemented, college basketball was changed.  For one reason or another, kids started looking at one-and-done as the goal.  They started thinking that if you couldn’t get to the NBA after one year, you weren’t good enough.

Look at college basketball today.  Is it exciting?  Sure.  Is the atmosphere as great as ever?  Of course.

But have you actually watched the games?  The level of play is mediocre. Would any team this year come within 20 points of that Duke team from 2001? What about the Maryland team from the next year?

I’m not saying that the teams today are less talented.  They aren’t.  Kentucky has unbelievable talent all over the floor.  But the fact is, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, as freshmen, are nowhere near as good as Jay Williams and Shane Battier were as juniors.

Now, if Davis, MKG, and the rest stayed for two years?  Yeah, that might be one of the all-time greats.

But they won’t, and college basketball is worse because of it.

Did the rule help the NBA?  Definitely. But NCAA fans are stuck longing for the good ol’ days.

Well, unless you are cheering for IU.  In that case, let’s cheer for 2012!

What if…?


Top 10 College Basketball What Ifs of All-Time Series (All)

10. What if Hank Gathers hadn’t died in the middle of a game?
9. What if Christian Laettner had been suspended for stomping on Aminu Timberlake?
8. What if Houston hadn’t been upset by NC State?
7. What if the NCAA rules had been different for Pete Maravich?
6. What if Chris Webber hadn’t called timeout?
5. What if Gordon Hayward’s shot hadn’t rimmed out?
4. What if Coach K had been fired from Duke after 3 seasons?
3. What if LeBron had gone to college and the one-and-done rule was never instituted?
2. What if Kentucky had beaten Texas Western?
1. What if there wasn’t a snow storm to keep John Wooden from going to Minnesota?

About Jon Washburn

Jon Washburn grew up in Indianapolis, IN and as such, is a diehard Pacers, Colts, and Cubs fans. When it comes to college, he cheers for Notre Dame football fan and Purdue basketball. Yes, this sounds shady, but since he grew up without cable, he learned to love Notre Dame - the only team on TV. Glenn "The Big Dog" Robinson was at Purdue when Jon was in his formative years, so he latched onto them as well. Did that make him a fair-weather fan at the time? Sure. Give him a break...he was 8...and he has stayed with those teams ever since. Currently, he lives in Charleston, SC with his wife who grew up in Cleveland. Although he is no longer physically in the Midwest, his heart will always be there. Jon goes by the name "Twitch" because he has Tourette's Syndrome. Hit him up on his twitter @jwtwitch.

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  1. brotha_man says:

    I think you left some guys address on the cover of S.I for the world to see….glad its not mine.

  2. brotha_man says:

    this article is right on.

  3. QuickRelease says:

    Yeah, he could have gone to college but you have to be able to do more than just memorize your name.  Did you ever really listen to him when he speaks.  He needs to take the marbles out…Ya know, I mean Ya know?

  4. ummm… the nba is as unwatchable in 2012 as it was in 2003.  Maybe even more unwatchable!!!

  5. Abbazzaba65 says:

    What if chickens had lips; if pigs could fly?????