- 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
Grant Hill (1994)
Elton Brand (1999)
Carlos Boozer (2002)
Kyrie Irving (2011)
Luol Deng (2004)
Sixth man: Corey Maggette (1999)
The rest: Shane Battier, Christian Laettner, Mike Dunleavy, Dahntay Jones, J.J. Redick, Chris Duhon, Jay Williams, Cherokee Parks, Josh McRoberts, Shelden Williams, Shavlik Randolph, Antonio Lang, Bobby Hurley, Alaa Abdelnaby, Gerald Henderson, Trajan Langdon, William Avery, Roshown McLeod, Daniel Ewing, Lance Thomas, Nolan Smith, Brian Davis, DeMarcus Nelson, Kyle Singler, Miles Plumlee, Austin Rivers
Why they're ranked where they are: It's hard to shake a reputation. At some point, Duke developed a reputation that seemed to seep into the consciousness of every casual NBA fan: Duke players weren't good in the pros. It was that simple. Great college players? Absolutely. Winners in Coach K's system? Sure. But great NBA players? North Carolina was the Tobacco Road school with the reliable pro pipeline; Duke was the quintessential college outfit whose players couldn't hack it at the next level.
Maybe it started with Johnny Dawkins all the way back in 1986. Maybe it was codified in the early 1990s, when Christian Laettner -- one of the great college players of all-time, full stop -- ended up being just another pro journeyman. Danny Ferry, Bobby Hurley and Cherokee Parks all played a role. There was surely some inherent bias involved here, some coded notions about Duke's players being scrappy Ecksteinian overachievers. Whatever the reasons, the reputation -- fuzzy though it might be -- took hold.
What's the reality, then? Are Duke's players deserving of the bust rap? Or has their collective success in the NBA put the lie to all the old jokes about Laettner?
The answer lies somewhere in between. No, all of Duke's players haven't been NBA busts; that much is plain. But for the past quarter-century, Duke has been college basketball's marquee outfit, and for a program that has not only been so successful, but sent so many players to the draft, the overall pro pedigree you see above does leave a little bit to be desired.
Which is not to say Duke hasn't had good NBA players, or that it isn't still pumping them out. Kyrie Irving, for example, has played just two seasons in the league, and he's already pushing the upper echelons of point guard play. He was the Rookie of the Year in 2011-12 and an All-Star in 2012-13 season, when he averaged 22.9 points and 5.9 assists per game. He also breathed life into Uncle Drew, which was really funny the first time I saw it. Other than LeBron James and Kevin Durant, there aren't many players in the NBA for whom the Cavaliers would trade Irving. Barring injury or some other unforeseen circumstance, he's going to be a stud for the next decade.
Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng are likewise above-average pros -- or, in Boozer's case, they have been. Boozer has been the butt of constant amnesty jokes in Chicago, but the money and/or accentuated defensive struggles shouldn't obscure the fact that he's had a very good overall pro career, particularly when healthy, particularly in Utah, but also at varying times in Chicago (his best season as a Bull came in 2012-13). Deng has been a model of solidity: He's never averaged more than 20 points, but he's never dipped into single figures; his career averages of 16.0 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.0 steals do a good job of outlining his versatility, and he's been an excellent defender while playing an average of 36 minutes per game.
If you're a young person just getting into the NBA now, it must be hard to imagine a time when Elton Brand was the truth; if you've reached the wizened old age of 27, as I have, it might make you feel old to realize that Brand just tucked in his 13th NBA season. Rest assured, the Brand of 2012-13 looks nothing like the Brand that existed from 2000 to 2007, when he averaged 20.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. Injuries (an Achilles tear and a shoulder separation, specifically) have derailed the back half of his career, robbing Brand of the athleticism and runaway-freight-train quality that allowed him to overcompensate for his relative lack of height in the early years. But even with an amnesty on his CV, Brand was good enough in his early days to force folks to reconsider their Duke draft stereotypes almost on his own.
And then there's Grant Hill. By this point, everyone knows Hill's story, so there's not much use in rehashing it, but it's an even more extreme version of Brand's: In his first six seasons in the league, Hill was a dominant force for the Detroit Pistons, and a unique one at that -- not quite a full-fledged scorer in the Jordan mold, Hill put up his fair share of points while also racking up rebounds, assists, and steals, and never shooting worse than 45 percent from the field. He went to six All-Star Games in his first seven seasons, was a 1997 All NBA first team selection and holds the distinction of being the first rookie ever to lead the NBA All-Star voting. In his first six seasons, Hill racked up 9,393 points, 3,417 rebounds and 2,720 assists. Only Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird and LeBron James had a better first six NBA seasons.
Hill wasn't just a good pro. He was a generational talent. Then, of course, it fell apart. A seemingly benign 1999 ankle sprain transformed into a career-changing injury, keeping Hill from playing almost all of his first four seasons with Orlando. In 2003, Hill underwent insane-sounding "re-fracture" surgery, after which he was diagnosed with a potentially fatal bacterial infection. By 2006, Hill was openly contemplating retirement.
Fortunately, the story has a happy ending -- Hill signed with the Phoenix Suns (and their crack training staff), eventually recovered, and played seven more seasons in the league as a role player and universally beloved teammate. Hill persevered where many others would have understandably quit. But even so, the fact remains that Duke's best pro player of the past two decades missed almost all of his prime because of injury, and was never the same again. What does that say about the overall list?
Why they could be ranked higher: The Blue Devils might not have a Tim Duncan figure looming atop their list of pro products, but there is no downplaying the depth involved here. Corey Maggette has been a totally frustrating pro, a guy with a tweener skill set who seemed to engage only when his next contract was at stake. But he has averaged 16.0 points, 4.9 rebounds and a couple assists per game over a 13-year career, which is hardly worth sneezing at. Likewise, Mike Dunleavy has carved out a role as a reliable wing shooter with size. J.J. Redick -- widely considered the classic Duke bust archetype -- is one of the best shooters in the league, a valuable and capable piece plenty of teams would love to have. Shane Battier's numbers don't look great on paper, but that's never what Battier's been about, and he's had a solid career (and will play huge minutes in Game 7 of the NBA Finals tonight) as a result. Dahntay Jones has had plenty of moments.
Even Christian Laettner, so derided as a bust for so long, averaged double-figure points in six of his first seven seasons, and finished his 12-year NBA career with per-game averages of 12.8 points and 6.7 rebounds. He could never shake the echoes of his excellence at Duke -- or his inclusion on the 1992 Dream Team -- and he rarely played for good teams. But it's not like he fell off the face of the earth.
In all, if Duke could go higher on this list, the argument is about solidity and depth over singular, legendary NBA talent.
Why they could be ranked lower: As Myron wrote Wednesday, there are really strong cases for each of the teams in the top five or six; some of them might be interchangeable, depending on how you feel about individual players' careers. (For example, I think Andre Iguodala is vastly underrated because his defensive value is so much harder to spot on the stat sheet, but I don't know, maybe that's just me?)
There are a few very good players on this list, combined with a handful of solid career veterans. But there are a lot of busts here, too. There's no value judgment there -- whether a player is a bust in the pros or not can either be a compliment to his college coach or an insult, depending on your perspective -- but the list is the list.
What’s ahead? If Irving continues to develop into one of the best guards in the league, this placement could look much different in five years' time. Unfortunately, Duke's follow-up to the short-lived Irving show, Austin Rivers, just posted one of the worst rookie seasons in recent NBA history; statistically, he wasn't even replacement-level. It will be interesting to track Mason Plumlee's career going forward. And Jabari Parker, who arrives this summer and will almost certainly be in the draft in a year's time, is a uniquely gifted player with the potential to be Carmelo Anthony Redux. If he lives up to even a fraction of his potential, the Irving-Parker duo alone should keep the Blue Devils in the NBA picture for another generation.
Final thoughts: No, not all of Duke's NBA products have been busts. Some of them have been very good, including some (Boozer specifically) that have shocked the world in doing so. Painting all of Coach K's products with the same brush is far too simple.
And yet, though Duke has been the defining college program of the past two decades, it sits just No. 5 on this list. And No. 5 feels right. That's a little surprising, isn't it?