If you’re a UNC basketball fan, you probably don’t know how to feel when you hear that you could have had the chance to see Kevin Durant play for a season in the Dean Smith Center.
Durant is one of many great players to openly say he wanted to play at North Carolina. Last year on the Players’ Tribune’s “Knuckleheads” podcast, Durant told the story of his recruitment with UNC. At the time, he was the No. 2 player in the class of 2006 behind Greg Oden. His roommate at Oak Hill Academy was Ty Lawson, who went on to play point guard for three years with the Tar Heels and was named ACC Player of the Year in 2009, leading the team to a national championship.
“They were recruiting me heavy with (Lawson),” Durant said. “They were expecting us to come together. I’m going on official visits. I went to a game where they beat Duke at the buzzer, and they won a national championship that year, my junior year in high school. So I was like, ‘Man I want to go to Carolina.'”
Of course, Carolina fans know things didn’t pan out that way. Roy Williams hauled in a huge recruiting class that year — the No. 1 class in the nation — that included Brandan Wright (No. 3 player in the nation), Lawson (No. 7), Wayne Ellington (No. 9), Deon Thompson, Alex Stepheson and Will Graves. Add that incoming freshman class to a roster of Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green, Marcus Ginyard, Reyshawn Terry and Bobby Frasor, and it’s clear to see why Durant was hesitant about becoming a Tar Heel.
“They were stacked though,” Durant said. “They had a nice senior class. They went to the Elite Eight that year. Tyler Hansbrough was there, Danny Green, all those dudes, so I would’ve gotten kind of lost — not lost, but I would have been playing 25 minutes instead of 40 minutes like I should have been playing.”
Had Durant chosen UNC, he almost certainly would have found his way into the starting lineup (although Marvin Williams, the No. 2 pick in the 2005 NBA Draft, was the sixth man on the 2005 national championship team). But he probably wouldn’t have usurped Hansbrough’s role as the focal point of the offense, and may have had to play out of position as a power forward. There’s no telling how all of that would have affected Durant’s draft stock, but the two-time NBA champion, one-time MVP-winner is probably happy he chose Texas. Of course, things worked out for North Carolina, too; the Tar Heels went to the Elite Eight in 2007, the Final Four in 2008 and won the national championship in 2009.
No, North Carolina fans probably aren’t too hurt about missing out on Durant, but what about some of the other NBA stars who said they wanted to play for the prestigious program? Here’s a look at four other NBA players who could have been Tar Heels.
Kobe Bryant may have developed a close relationship with Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski during their time together at the Olympics, but his desire to be like Mike (Jordan) nearly drove him to play college basketball at UNC. In an interview with Jimmy Kimmel in 2013, Bryant said he would have chosen the Tar Heels over the Blue Devils.
“If I had to make a decision, I probably would have wound up going to Carolina,” Bryant said. “Just because of the competition. The year before I graduated, Vince Carter went to Carolina, and the year before he was the best guard in the country, so I’m looking at him and saying, ‘I want to play against him every single day,’ because I want to get better and I want to measure myself against these guys.”
Of course, Bryant instead skipped college basketball and went straight to the NBA, which worked out pretty well for him. But if he hadn’t been allowed to go straight to the draft and had chosen to play at North Carolina, he would’ve joined a pretty solid 1996-97 roster that included Carter, future National Player of the Year-winner Antawn Jamison, a solid shooter in Shammond Williams, senior big man Serge Zwikker and freshman point guard Ed Cota (who went on to become the school’s all-time leader in assists). On its own, that team was decent, and with most of the squad returning the next season they made it to a Final Four in Bill Guthridge’s first year as head coach. But had Bryant joined the Tar Heels, could they have brought Smith another national title in his swansong season?
Think back to that 2005 national championship team at UNC. They were pretty well-set inside with Sean May (17.5 points, 10.5 rebounds per game) and Marvin Williams (11.3 points, 6.3 rebounds). Now imagine throwing in Dwight Howard to the mix.
While Howard has previously said that he received strong interest from Duke and Georgia Tech, he’s made it know that he ultimately would have chosen North Carolina and been a part of Roy Williams’ first recruiting class. What a statement that would have been.
The Tar Heels didn’t need Howard that season, but it’s still fun to imagine just how good they might have been with Howard in the starting lineup over Jackie Manuel (5.5 points, 2.8 rebounds).
This story might be a little more well-known by UNC fans of a certain age. Smith had already commited to play at North Carolina when Matt Doherty was head coach. When Roy Williams took over, he initially told Smith that he couldn’t offer him a scholarship until he saw him play and got to know him more. Eventually, Williams did get to spend time with Smith and liked what he saw: an extremely athletic wing who was a streaky shooter but had the potential to be an explosive scorer. He could have plugged right into the rotation of the 2005 team alongside Howard.
Unfortunately for Williams, Smith’s draft stock skyrocketed toward the end of his senior season as his shot fell more consistently. Smith lit up the spring all-star circuits, earning co-MVP honors with Howard in the McDonald’s All-American Game. Suddenly, he was projected as a mid-to-late first round pick, and ultimately he chose to enter the 2004 NBA Draft, where he was selected by the New Orleans Hornets with the 18th pick.
Who knows what a year of running sprints for Williams might have done for Smith and his career. The extra year may have helped him mature both on and off the court, and we might be talking about a very different player.
There isn’t much to go with this one, other than a tweet during a Q&A session in which Lillard said he would have chosen North Carolina if he could have gone to any college.
There isn’t any indication that UNC recruited Lillard. He was in the class of 2008. UNC brought in four freshmen that year: Tyler Zeller, Ed Davis, Larry Drew and Justin Watts. Drew was also a point guard from the state of California. 24/7 had him as the No. 7 point guard in the nation and No. 8 player in the state, while Lillard was rated as the No. 48 point guard in the nation and No. 20 player in the state. UNC fans might have liked to have Lillard over Drew, who quit midway through the 2010-2011 season after losing the starting job to Kendall Marshall and transferred out of the program,