What If These NBA Superstars Played in College?

The sneakers they would have worn.

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LeBron James and Kobe Bryant were the two biggest stars in the NBA in 2005, and coincidentally, neither of the players had attended college. Yet when a new collective bargaining agreement was established that year, it included a provision stating that in order to be eligible for the draft, “The player is or will be at least 19 years of age during the calendar year in which the Draft is held, and … at least one NBA Season has elapsed since the player’s graduation from high school (or, if the player did not graduate from high school, since the graduation of the class with which the player would have graduated had he graduated from high school).” The result, dubbed the "One-and-Done" rule, dictates league eligibility to this day.

Whether or not this has been a successful change is still a hotly contested issue, but for those who did make the jump prior to the rule change, we’re left to wonder where they would have played based on their sometimes-evolving statements on the matter. And for us at Sole Collector, more importantly, we're left to wonder what collegiate sneaker legacies they could have left behind.

kevin Garnett - michigan - 1995

When it comes to the modern-day NBA, Kevin Garnett is a pioneer. After being drafted fifth by the Minnesota Timberwolves 1995, he became the first player in 20 years to make the move directly from high school to the NBA, setting the stage for every player to come on this list. Prior to that decision, his list of potential schools was narrowed down to Maryland and the University of Michigan, where he would have created a formidable big-man duo alongside Robert “Tractor” Traylor. The Wolverines could have used Garnett’s intensity that season too, losing in the first round of the tournament to Texas—a game that Michigan eventually vacated due to NCAA sanctions. In more recent years, Garnett has claimed that he would have surprised everyone by choosing Maryland, but there’s something that would have seemed so right about seeing Garnett in maize and blue, lacing up shoes like the Nike Air Penny 1 as an heir to the Fab Five era.

kobe Bryant - duke - 1996

“There’s no maybe about it.” That’s what Kobe Bryant once said regarding his attendance at Duke, had he not moved directly to the NBA following a successful career at Lower Merion High School. This claim has been further bolstered by regularly occurring Duke colorways and player exclusive makeups of his Nike signature line. It was a move that was probably for the best for Bryant. Despite a #2 seed, the team lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament and had no players drafted following what would have been Bryant’s freshman season. They did deliver when it came to sneakers though, with shoes like the Air Max Uptempo and Air Uptempo 97. While Bryant has recently claimed that he may have attended archrival UNC instead, his swag, or lack thereof, would have been a perfect fit with the Blue Devils.

tracy mcgrady - kentucky - 1997

From a sneaker standpoint, Tracy McGrady is best known for his signature Adidas line. Had he gone to college though, things could have gone much different. Following an NCAA Championship in 1996, and a Finals loss in 1997, the University of Kentucky made the change from Converse to Nike for what would have been McGrady’s freshman season. It was also the first season for head coach Tubby Smith, a former assistant coach at Kentucky under Rick Pitino, who’d left for the Boston Celtics. Then again, the lackluster lineup of sneakers like the Nike Air Hype Uptempo and Air Team Max worn that season could have further cemented TMac’s signing with Adidas.

LeBron James - Ohio State - 2003

LeBron James has never been shy about the fact that he would have played basketball at Ohio State had he gone to college. "No matter where I go in the world, no matter where it is, I will always rock Ohio State colors," he once told OSU fans at a pep rally in Columbus. He’s such a big fan that he even showed up during the current NBA season with some Cavaliers teammates to cheer the Buckeyes on against rival Michigan. His destination may not have been a mystery, but it's hard not to wonder if he would have had the same impact he’s brought to teams in the NBA. In 2003, the Buckeyes had no future NBA players on the roster and hadn’t made an NCAA Tournament appearance in over 10 years. In hindsight, LeBron would have looked right at home in the Nike Air Uptempo Ultramatic, which could have acted as a precursor to future Max Air-based shoes in his signature line.

dwight howard - unc - 2004

Dwight Howard's career can be described as a series of ups and downs. Despite having relatively consistent numbers, he’s often been the scapegoat when things have gone wrong. And to be fair, he’s done his share of bringing that on himself. Howard missed a major “up” to his career by forgoing college and the chance to play on the 2005 UNC Championship team—a team that sent four other players to the NBA (Raymond Felton, Marvin Williams, Sean May, and Rashad McCants)—a destination Howard confirmed on his personal website. While at UNC, he probably would have jumped at the chance to wear shoes like the Air Jordan 19, considering he’s been spotted wearing Jordans even when under contract with competing brands.