Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant would popularize the move from high school to the NBA a little over a decade after Michael Jordan was drafted. Garnett had some academic qualifying issues whereas Kobe simply wanted to get there as soon as possible. Let’s assume Michael Jordan had the same itch Kobe Bryant did to get to the NBA as quickly as possible, and it was supported by his parents. He would get his degree in the off-season to appease his mother who had made him promise when he left early that he would finish it.
Going straight to the NBA wasn’t unheard of in 1981 even in Jordan’s time. The supreme court ruled against the NBA in the early 1970’s after it barred players from entering the NBA Draft after high school roughly a decade earlier. The supreme court would allow it if you could prove hardship and in 1974 and 1975 Moses Malone, Darryl Dawkins, and Bill Willoughby all went straight from high school into the ABA or NBA. Shawn Kemp would enroll in college but never play and was later drafted in 1989. Kevin Garnett would open the doors to a new generation in 1995 followed by Kobe Bryant the next season.
These would be the pioneers of going directly from high school to the NBA. Dawkins and Willoughby would have disappointing careers which would shape the narrative of the next 20 seasons. Many college coaches and league executives would blame going directly to the NBA with no college for their shortcomings. The decision was immensely divisive since, according to common thought, high schoolers weren’t emotionally or physically ready for the demands of an NBA game. This helped limit the flood we would later see after Garnett and Kobe.
As a side note, I believe this is exactly the opposite of reality and has proven to be the case. If you get teenagers into a professional system and play under the same rules it’s a benefit to the player more than college. College coaches micro-manage their players far to much first off. In the pros players are going head-to-head in practice and games with grown professionals that are at a higher level and learning how to be professionals themselves. They aren’t playing without a shotclock and running the 1970s Four Corners waste of time nonsense either. They also aren’t having to go to class every day and can focus completely on their profession of basketball. That’s the ideal version I believe existed the last two decades. The only caveat is the 1980s NBA had a lot of drug and alcohol issues that made it a less ideal version. Jordan came up in that NBA though and didn’t get into those pitfalls so I don’t think it would have affected him at all.
You can see where most were drafted there was a bit of skepticism that would hurt their draft stock coming out of high school. This is especially true for the non-post players like Kobe and Willoughby. It’s important to remember the NBA executives at the time were still looking for the next dominant big man which had been the easiest way to the championship most seasons in NBA history. Find a dominant big man. When added to the common thought of high schoolers not being emotionally or physically ready it’s unlikely even Jordan would have been picked as high in 1981. He also was only 6-5 at the time and would grow another inch at UNC.
McDonald’s All American Game
Jordan did have a strong pedigree coming out of high school. He was a top recruit that averaged 26.8 ppg, 11.6 rpg, 10.1 apg leading a Number 1 ranked Laney High School in North Carolina to a 19-4 record. Jordan would set a new scoring record in the McDonalds All American game with 30 points on 13/19 shooting and 4 of 4 from the free throw line. That performance certainly would have helped get him attention in the 1981 NBA Draft had he entered. It would have been the only big stage he was on, but he certainly lived up to the hype.
The 1981 NBA Draft
Let’s assume Michael Jordan got his hardship and entered 1981 NBA Draft. Where Jordan would have been drafted is a lot more speculative. It’s one I think we can make some educated guesses about based on where the other 6 high school players from 1975 to 1996 were picked. It will also help to know which teams drafted non bigs in 1981. One aspect Jordan would have in his favor was that he wasn’t as young as someone like Kobe Bryant at he time of his draft. He was a full 6 months older. Whereas age and youth is seen as a benefit today in the draft, teams of that time period saw it as a detriment. Even with no college experience at his age and a proclivity to draft post-players I can’t see Jordan dropping below 20th. He had to much talent and maturity even then to pass up.
Let’s take a look at the 1981 Draft to try to narrow down where we believe he would have been drafted.
|1||Mark Aguirre||G/F||Dallas Mavericks||DePaul (Jr.)|
|2||Isiah Thomas||G||Detroit Pistons||Indiana (So.)|
|3||Buck Williams||F/C||New Jersey Nets||Maryland (Jr.)|
|4||Al Wood||G/F||Atlanta Hawks||North Carolina (Sr.)|
|5||Danny Vranes||F||Seattle SuperSonics||Utah (Sr.)|
|6||Orlando Woolridge||F||Chicago Bulls||Notre Dame (Sr.)|
|7||Steve Johnson||F/C||Kansas City Kings||Oregon State (Sr.)|
|8||Tom Chambers||F/C||San Diego Clippers||Utah (Sr.)|
|9||Rolando Blackman||G||Dallas Mavericks||Kansas State (Sr.)|
|10||Albert King||G/F||New Jersey Nets||Maryland (Sr.)|
|11||Frank Johnson||G||Washington Bullets||Wake Forest (Sr.)|
|12||Kelly Tripucka||G/F||Detroit Pistons||Notre Dame (Sr.)|
|13||Danny Schayes||F/C||Utah Jazz||Syracuse (Sr.)|
|14||Herb Williams||F/C||Indiana Pacers||Ohio State (Sr.)|
|15||Jeff Lamp||G/F||Portland Trail Blazers||Virginia (Sr.)|
|16||Darnell Valentine||G||Portland Trail Blazers||Kansas (Sr.)|
|17||Kevin Loder||G/F||Kansas City Kings||Alabama State (Sr.)|
This is where it’s important to note that Isiah Thomas was less than 2 years older than Jordan after coming out his sophomore season. He was also physically small for a 6-1 guard. Thomas being drafted 2nd would have helped Jordan, although he was more proven and had an NCAA championship that carried weight. I believe the 4th pick is the earliest Jordan would have been considered given the history with high school to the NBA Guard Al Wood from UNC would be picked by the Hawks. I believe he still would likely be the pick there.
Chicago is another interesting spot at 6th. Rod Thorn was the general manager this season selecting Woolridge who was 6-9 but more of a small forward. Thorn would later also draft Michael Jordan in 1984 to the Bulls. It’s clear he liked Jordan then, but Jordan was of course a much more proven player by that point with a college championship as well as a player of the year. Would Rod Thorn have drafted him three years earlier with the 6th pick instead of the 3rd pick? I believe this is possible.
The next realistic range Jordan could go is from picks 9 through 12. All of these teams drafted a point guard or wings. Realistically I do not believe Jordan drops below the 12th pick even as an 18 year old. If he did I certainly believe he would have been drafted 15th by Portland over Jeff Lamp.
Who picks him?
For continuity’s sake, I would still say Chicago. I believe that’s realistic as well because we know Rod Thorn liked him 3 years later. He would have sat down for an interview with Jordan and likely came away with similar thoughts on Jordan the person. He would have seen the family he came from, the work ethic, and competitive drive. The athletic ability was already there as well and would have across in individual workouts. The main reason I think that he would pick Jordan is Orlando Woolridge. While Woolridge was a nice player, he wasn’t the greatest prospect. If the Bulls didn’t draft Jordan at 6th, I doubt he makes past 11th and Washington. Certainly would have been drafted at 15th by Portland if he did.
Where Jordan would have been drafted would have had a large impact on his role early on. It could have been the difference in playing a good amount or riding the bench as Kobe Bryant did. The 1981-82 Bulls would have likely have play Jordan a lot as they won 34 games. They did have a 24-year-old Reggie Theus starting at SG guard though. The Dallas Mavs with the 9th pick was the most likely team he would have seen the court the most for only winning 28 games. Most of the other realistic options were closer to .500.. We will look at Jordan’s college stats to try to project how he may have faired statistically in those 3 college seasons and try to project them out if he were in the NBA.
It once joked the only person that could hold Michael Jordan under 20 points per game was Dean Smith. UNC had a very rigid system that didn’t allow Jordan a lot of freedom. It also didn’t reward freshmen or younger players usually and made them pay their dues. It is pretty clear the way Jordan went from averaging 19.6ppg on a .587 true shooting percentage as a Junior at UNC, to 28.2ppg and a .592% the very next season in the NBA as a rookie, that his game translated more to the NBA. The ACC was a high-level league certainly, especially in the days when the top players stayed for 3 or 4 years. That said to go from college to the NBA and actually improve your efficiency and usage tells me the system he was in confined his game offensively although it probably did help him defensively to have standards to meet. He was capable of more offensively at those younger ages that would have likely shown in the NBA if he had made that leap. The question is would an NBA team have given him more of a role like LeBron straight out of high school, or would he have ridden the bench more like Kobe out of high school?
LeBron James and Kobe Byrant Per 36’s
LeBron and Kobe both are all-time greats that came into the league at 18 years old. I believe it would be informative to take a look at their per 36 stats and PER’s. I believe this is the range Jordan would have been in as well per minute/possession.
Kobe was 18 years, 72 days when he made his debut. LeBron was 18 years 303 days. Jordan would have been 18 years, 258 days.
LeBron was older and had a physical advantage over both Kobe and Jordan. I believe he was the readiest to play in the NBA of the 3. Jordan likely splits the difference and based on his UNC and rookie year numbers.
This is Kobe and LeBron’s 2nd season in the NBA. LeBron in particular made a massive leap statistically per possession.
1981-82 Chicago Bulls
The 81-82 Bulls were a much worse team than the Lakers, only winning 34 games. Reggie Theus was a young up-and-comer in his way at shooting guard, but there was likely a 24-minute-a-game role 29-year-old Ricky Sober occupied off the bench that Jordan would have been given. Woolridge only played 15 minutes per game and was a non factor himself so if anything this team is likely to improve with the addition of Jordan, even at 18 years old. Sober likely fill those 15 minutes with Theis playing up some in the lineup. This is what the projected per 36’s would equal with a 24 minute game role.
The Bulls likely win about 35 games and miss the playoffs.
1982-83 Chicago Bulls
This is the season Michael Jordan made a big leap at UNC. This is also the season LeBron would make a huge statistical leap as well and essentially become LeBron. I believe Jordan would be closer to the Jordan we saw as a rookie in 1984 at 19 years old.
The 1982-83 Bulls were terrible going 28-54. They would in reality draft Quintin Dailey with the 7th pick in the 1982 draft, another Shooting guard. That’s unlikely if Jordan is there, but a good indication that Thorn thought Theis could play with a shooting guard. That’s a good indication Jordan would have been in play in 1981 too. The Bulls likely still pick around 7th in the 1982 draft. There weren’t a lot of good picks from 7th to 11th. Fat Lever would go 11th,, but it’s more likey they pick Clark Kellogg who went 8th or Cliff Levingston. Kellogg would be a good pick in the short term, but his career only lasted 3 full seasons and was cut short by injury. There isn’t a real impactful player in this range or that would change much longterm unless they picked Lever which seems unlikely.
This is the season Jordan takes on a lot of the scoring. I believe he would be playing something similar to the 38 minutes a game he was playing 2 years later as a rookie. He’s probably not quite as effective, but still excellent at 19 years old.
The team is likely still bad and picking the lottery again in the 1983 Draft.
1983-84 Chicago Bulls
Chicago would pick Sidney Green 5th in the 1983 draft. They might have a slightly worse pick but they likely end up with Green or someone inconsequential. Thurl Baily and Antionio Carr as also options a little later. It’s probably more Jordan on his own this season. They would go 27-55 without Jordan, but he is likely more capable of bringing them to a 35 win type of season. He’s essentially Jordan this season I believe with very similar numbers to his actual rookie year.
The Bulls wouldn’t have the 3rd pick they selected Jordan within the 1984 draft, but they would still likely have a high pick in the greatest draft ever. Without Jordan Barkley probably goes 4th. Unfortunately, they probably are a little too good to pick that high. Alvin Robertson was 7th but with Jordan I can’t see them adding another shooting guard. Stockton went to later, so they likely end up with someone unimpressive.
Jordan individually is liklely ahead of where he was 1984 had he come into the league sooner. The experience probably helps him to be a slightly better version of an already great 1984 rookie season. He was really good regardless. The team is basically identical and the rest of history long-term is probably unchanged or changed very little at all.