- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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In the weeks leading up to the June 27 NBA draft, we’ll be taking a look at the 20 schools that have produced the best pros in the modern draft era (since 1989, when the draft went from seven to two rounds). Click here to read Eamonn Brennan’s explanation of the series, which will be featured in the Nation blog each morning as we count down the programs from 20 to 1.
Top Five NBA Draftees Since 1989
Tim Duncan (1997)
Chris Paul (2005)
Josh Howard (2003)
Rodney Rogers (1993)
Jeff Teague (2009)
Sixth man: Darius Songalia (2002)
The rest: Al-Farouq Aminu, James Johnson, Loren Woods, Ish Smith, Chris King, Rusty LaRue, Anthony Tucker, Randolph Childress
Why they're ranked where they are: At this point, you really shouldn't need me to explain just how good Tim Duncan has been over these past two decades. (If you do, I highly recommend Bill Simmons's epic accounting of Duncan's career published over on Grantland this week. It has a lot of words. You've been warned.)
Really, Duncan's immensity is self-evident: 23,785 career points, 13,219 rebounds, career 20.2/11.2./3.1/2.2 splits on 50.7 percent shooting, 14 All-Star appearances, four NBA championships. If the Spurs beat the Miami Heat in the next 10 days, Duncan and his coach, Gregg Popovich, will have won five titles in a span of 14 seasons -- a sustained run of success unlike any in recent sports history.
To gaze upon his Basketball Reference page is to look upon a lasting work of art, and I'm really not being tongue-in-cheek. If Duncan's career had gone the way Larry Johnson's did -- if he had shown a world-bending talent before losing it to injury around Year 6 -- he would still have won three NBA titles and two MVPs. He'd still be a Hall of Famer. But Duncan didn't burn fast and hot for a short period of time. His legacy is not secured by mere longevity. Instead, Duncan has managed to be both incandescent and reliable for nigh on two decades. Imagine an alternate world in which the Beatles stayed together as long and made as many records as the Rolling Stones -- only all of those records were at least as good as "Rubber Soul," and more often than not they were "Revolver."
That's Tim Duncan. He is widely regarded as the best power forward of all time, and among the best five or six players in the history of the game. Those points are always fun to debate, but I do know one thing for sure: Duncan is the best NBA product any school has produced since 1989, and it's honestly not even that close.
As such, Duncan's presence alone would have been enough to get Wake Forest into our top 20. He's that far ahead of the rest of the field. But Wake has more than Duncan to offer, much more.
Chris Paul is arguably the best point guard in the league today. Whether you agree with that statement -- Tony Parker might not -- at the very least Paul exists in that rarified territory so few NBA players reach: He changes franchises. He also works games. As good as he's been in L.A., some of my favorite moments to this effect came during his days in New Orleans. There was 2007-08, when he led the league in both assists and steals and turned a previously lost Tyson Chandler into one of the most efficient players in the game. Or Game 1 of the Hornets' 2011 playoff series against the Lakers, when he went for 33/14/7/4 and so thoroughly silenced the Staples Center that by the end of the game the TV microphones picked up his trash talk. Paul has always been the most cerebral player on the floor; his court instincts and vision are second to none. It's almost hard to believe he's only 27, with tons of productive basketball left in the tank.
Wake Forest's list takes a pretty significant dive from there; Rodney Rogers was a nice pro but nothing more, and Jeff Teague is carving out a solid career as a starting point guard, even though he'll probably never be a star. But let's not forget Josh Howard. Before multiple ACL injuries sent his career careening off a cliff, Howard submitted some really strong seasons, particularly in his 2006-07 All-Star campaign, when he averaged 18.9 points and 6.7 rebounds per game for a Mavericks team that finished 67-15 in the regular season. Then he averaged 21 and 10 in the playoffs and followed up with 20 and 9 in the 2007-08 regular season. Don't forget Josh Howard.
Really, though, this list is about Duncan and Paul: the first, a Hall of Famer had he retired 10 years ago; the latter, on his way to inclusion 10 years in the future. That would be quite a leading duo for any school. For Wake Forest, a small private school with an undergraduate enrollment of less than 5,000 students, it's something like a miracle.
Why they could be ranked higher: It really comes down to the same dynamic we've been confronting throughout these rankings. Which do you value more: a deep group of solid if unspectacular NBA regulars? Or singular stardom? As singular stardom goes, well, you know … Tim Duncan. And Chris Paul. We've already placed a noticeable premium on legend-level talent, but we've done our best to temper it against the rest of each team's résumés. I think this is just about the right spot for Wake, but if you think the Duncan trump card is worth even more, I could dig it.
Why they could be ranked lower: I might be willing to push Wake up on the list; I'm not willing to push them down. Just below sits Texas, which is likewise a two-stars-and-then-some-other-guys entity, except that Texas' two stars are Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge. Don't get me wrong; those guys are awesome. Durant has a chance to leave the NBA as the best scorer of all time. But he is still at the dawn of his own era; Duncan has been in this game since honeys was wearin' sassoons. No NBA GM would trade Paul for Aldridge. And the rest of Texas' group doesn't stand up to Howard, Rogers and Teague, solid inclusions all. Wake can go no lower.
What’s ahead? Not a whole heck of a lot. Teague, for all his strengths as a ball handler and penetrator, has probably hit something close to a ceiling. Fourth-year man James Johnson is still trying to find a productive NBA role. The program that produced Duncan and Paul in less than eight years has since fallen into severe disrepair, and with the possible exception of rising senior Travis McKie, there are no pro prospects in the pipeline.
Final thoughts: It was really fun to dig into Tim Duncan's numbers, and I recommend you spend the rest of your morning doing the same. Oh, you meant about Wake Forest. Right. There may be no program with a wider gap between what a list of its NBA products since 1989 implies it is (a powerhouse) and the reality (a bit of a mess). If you're wondering why Demon Deacons fans are so ticked off, it's because they remember when one of the greatest players in the history of basketball played four years at the Joel. They remember Howard's career, and they remember Paul, and why not? It wasn't so long ago.
In the weeks leading up to the June 27 NBA draft, we’ll be taking a look at the 20 schools that have produced the best pros in the modern draft era (since 1989, when the draft went from seven to two rounds).