Kobe Bryant Went 1-on-1 With Pros and Proved He Was NBA-Ready as a High School Junior: ‘There Was No Question in My Mind, He Was the Best Player’

If there is one thing to know about a young Kobe Bryant, it’s that anytime he played basketball, he expected to be the best. It didn’t matter if it was against high schoolers or professionals, Kobe was ready for the challenge.

The Black Mamba had an illustrious career at Lower Merion High School, dominating players his age and becoming the Pennsylvania Player of the Year. But one of Bryant’s most impressive moments came against NBA professionals, where the Hall of Famer proved he was already at their level.

Kobe Bryant went head-to-head against NBA players while he was in high school

When Kobe wasn’t playing games for Lower Merion, he was playing elsewhere. The 18-time All-Star was always playing in pickup games at Temple University against stars on the Owls, including future NBA players Aaron McKie and Eddie Jones. Jones, who eventually became Bryant’s teammate in LA, told Jeff Pearlman in the book Three Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty how impressive the Mamba was at the time.

“God, he was so polished for a high school kid,” said Jones. “Flat-out talented. Most impressive, he wasn’t scared. We were All-Americans, big names in college basketball. And Kobe just brought it right at us. You knew this kid was NBA-bound. There was zero question.”

In 1995, the Philadelphia 76ers were holding off-season workouts at Saint Joseph’s University. In need of extra bodies, 76ers head coach John Lucas invited Bryant to join the informal workouts. From there, the 16-year-old Bryant went one-on-one with players on the team and gave them everything they could handle. And if he wasn’t going one-on-one, he was heavily involved in scrimmages featuring pros Vernon Maxwell, Richard Dumas, Shawn Bradley, Sharone Wright, and others. Lucas even had the teenager go up against NBA draft prospects he was scouting for the Sixers, one of whom was Philly’s eventual first-round pick Jerry Stackhouse.

“They were playing to 10, and it got to 9-9 and it was so rough, I thought they were going to fight with each other,” Lucas said about one matchup between Bryant and Maxwell. “I said to myself, ‘I want somebody who’s going to fight at 9-9.'”

Kobe’s impressive showing convinced the 76ers to draft him

Bryant, of course, spent his entire career with the Los Angeles Lakers. But he could have been in Philadelphia instead if Lucas had anything to say about it. (h/t: The Philadelphia Inquirer)

“There was no question in my mind, he was the best player. He wasn’t only the most skilled, but I never had anybody work at that level. I heard him tell kids something at a camp once, years later. He said, ‘Some people want to be the gazelles that are able to run alongside the lions. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But I never wanted to be a gazelle.’

John Lucas

After seeing Kobe dominate against college kids from the 1995 draft class as well as his own players, Lucas knew that he wanted the high schooler in red, white, and blue next year. However, Lucas didn’t get a chance to see his plans come to fruition. Following a dreadful 18-64 season in 1995-96, the team was sold and new management decided to move on from Lucas. Philly then used the top pick on Georgetown’s Allen Iverson, while Kobe fell to 13th.

“He would have been up there on Mount Rushmore in Philly, with Hal Greer and Wilt [Chamberlain] and Doc [Julius Erving],” Lucas said. “He should be up there.”

Bryant went on to become a legendary NBA player

Even though things didn’t pan out for Philly, LA reaped the rewards of Kobe Bryant wearing its uniform. Paired with Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe helped deliver the Lakers three titles in a row from 2000 to 2002. Then after Shaq’s departure, Kobe carried LA to great heights, winning two more titles in 2009 and 2010.

Bryant brought home a number of individual accolades, as well. Kobe finished his career with 18 All-Star appearances and 15 All-NBA selections. He also made 12 All-Defensive teams and won his lone MVP award in the 2007-08 season, along with a pair of Finals MVPs.

His standing in Lakers history is perhaps his most impressive accomplishment. For a team with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Jerry West, Chamberlain, and O’Neal donning its uniform, Kobe has the most points in franchise history with 33,643. Between the points, the rings, and the fact he never wore another NBA uniform, Bryant has a case to be considered the best player in the history of the most decorated franchise in basketball.

The greatness of the Black Mamba is evident, even when he was in high school.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.

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