Kobe Bryant is one of the most talented and accomplished players in NBA history. That, I hope, is universally agreed upon.
Another aspect of Bryant's career that is universally agreed upon: had he gone to college, he would've played under Mike Krzyzewski at Duke.
It's interesting to consider, considering Bryant is arguably the best NBA star to have never played collegiately. The only problem is that Bryant himself disputed this, saying in an interview with Jimmy Kimmel that he would've gone to North Carolina instead.
To be fair, the original assumption that Bryant would've been a Blue Devil came from the man himself; he said so in a 2005 interview with Larry King. Why would he go back on his word eight years later? In the interview with Kimmel, he wanted the chance to play against Carolina's Vince Carter every day.
While I get that being teammates with someone like Carter means going up against every day in practice, it sounds a lot more just like joining a team with another good player, as if Kobe is making his own hypothetical, collegiate version of The Decision. And the beauty of it is that a hypothetical like this entails nearly endless possibilities that can be debated ad nauseam.
Since the Duke-UNC rivalry clearly isn't fiery enough already, let's debate the merits of Bryant's non-existant college career as either a Blue Devil or Tar Heel. For the purposes of this argument, let's say that Bryant, who was already a bonafide stud as a teenager, would have been a one-and-done player.
The 1996-97 Duke Blue Devils were solid. They featured a three guard lineup with Steve Wojciechowski, Trajan Langdon, and Jeff Capel. Wojo led the team in minutes and played pesky defense, while Langdon (14.3) and Capel (12.4) providing the bulk of the scoring.
Duke went 24-9, wining the regular season ACC title with a 12-4 record. However, things quickly unraveled in March. After bowing out in the first round of the conference tournament, the Blue Devils failed to reach the second weekend of March Madness despite being a No. 2 seed, losing to No. 10 seed Providence in the round of 32.
Obviously, this team was not without its weaknesses. As a result of relying on guards, the Blue Devils shot too many threes and consistently lost battles on the glass. Nearly 37% of their field goal attempts were three-pointers, and they also had a -3 rebounding margin. Their rebounding woes were especially apparent in the lost to Providence, when they were out-rebounded 38 to 20.
Had Bryant been on this team, he would've been the team's best penetrating guard. Young Kobe wasn't nearly as in love with the three-point shot as Duke's guards, so he would've at least restored some balance to the offense.
The problem with all this? Adding a guy like Kobe Bryant helps, but he doesn't necessarily solve Duke's biggest problem: rebounding. Also, he would've further crowded the backcourt, eating into Langdon and Capel's production.
Looking at the big picture, what would this Duke team have done with Bryant in the fold? Could he have been the difference in a few games, like the team's one-point loss to Michigan or overtime loss to Clemson?
Probably, but he wouldn't have done enough to earn the Blue Devils a No. 1 seed in March. Sitting in the same bracket plus Bryant, I think Providence still handles Duke with its size, pulling off the upset.
In Dean Smith's final season, the Tar Heels won the ACC tournament, earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and reaching the Final Four. They fell to Arizona, the eventual champions, in the national semifinals.
With Bryant on the Tar Heels, they would have had enough to gain the edge, giving Dean Smith the ultimate parting gift.
That North Carolina team had a strong six-man rotation who all played over 27 minutes per game (no one else on the team played more than eight). Shammond Williams, Vince Carter, and Ed Cota filled the backcourt, second-team All-American Antawn Jamison and Ademola Okulaja were the forwards, and Serge Zwikker was the big man in the middle.
Bryant would've fit in better with North Carolina than Duke. Adding him into the mix could've given the Tar Heels a fifth double-digit scorer. However, the team would've had to make some sacrifices, mainly Cota. Limiting the minutes of the team's assist leader wouldn't have been good for the offense as a whole, but that's probably how Kobe would've wanted it, right?
With Bryant on this team, I think they beat Arizona to reach the national championship. The Tar Heels' biggest problem that night was that their normally balanced attack was contained to just Carter and Jamison, who scored 39 of the team's 58 points.
If Bryant plays that game, I think he gives the Tar Heels a third scoring option and also slows down Arizona's Miles Simon, who led the team with 24 points.
That would pit North Carolina against the Kentucky Wildcats, who were seeking back-to-back championships, in the final. The Wildcats featured a balanced attack led by first-team All-American Ron Mercer. I think Mercer and Jamison would've cancelled each other out, leaving the two respective supportive casts to decide things.
With Bryant on the Tar Heels, they would have enough to gain the edge, giving Coach Smith the ultimate parting gift.
Every college team would've killed to have a young Kobe Bryant, even if it was just for one season. But not all hypotheticals are made equally. For the sake of Kobe's made up college career, he was wise to have flip-flopped on his own decision.