Duke Basketball: The 15 Most Underrated Players in Blue Devils History
As a fan of Cluck Klosterman, I’m wary of the phrases ‘overrated’ and ‘underrated’. In each case, you are presupposing a level of appropriate appreciation, which is impossible to quantify. In spite of this or because of it, discussion involving athletes that are ‘overrated’ or ‘underrated’ are always entertaining.
So for the sake of entertainment and the inevitable discussion that should ensure from this list, let’s examine the top 15 most underrated Blue Devils in Duke’s history.
If nothing else, the discussion should serve to shine a light on Duke players that too often don’t get their due respect.
As far as this list is concerned, the meaning of ‘underrated’ begins by factoring in the following two things:
1. If the player was making a list of Duke’s 25, or so, best players in history, is one of Duke’s all-time greats, but unrecognized by most fans.
2. If the player was making a list of Duke’s 25, or so, best players in history, is not one of Duke’s all-time greats, but still made immense contributions to his team and Duke’s rich history.
With that as a starting point, the ranking becomes more subjective as I tried to weigh how good the player actually was against how good the player was perceived or remembered to be.
The following players didn’t make the list because, even though younger fans may not know their names, most true blue Duke fans are aware of how great they were and therefore they aren’t underrated:
These players are underrated but didn’t make the top 15 because there were other players even more egregiously overlooked or underappreciated.
15. Dahntay Jones (2001-2003)
The transfer from Rutgers only spent two years in the blue and white uniform, but he averaged double-digit scoring in both seasons as a Blue Devil.
As a junior, Dahntay Jones averaged 11.2 points and helped Duke to an ACC title and the Sweet 16. In his senior season, Jones upped his average to 17.7 points, won a second ACC Tournament title and once again guided Duke to the Sweet 16.
Jones was a versatile guard who could play forward and score in a variety of ways. During his brief tenure, he ensured that there wasn’t too much of a letdown after the 2001 National Title, continued Duke’s run of ACC Tournament victories and bridged the gap between the ’01 Champions and the J.J. Redick era (Redick was a freshman in Jones’ final year).
14. Chris Collins (1992-1996)
As a player, Collins was frustratingly streaky.
When he was a freshman and sophomore on two very good Duke teams, Collins showed a lot of potential averaging 5.8 points and 10 points in those seasons. As a junior, however, Collins’ shooting stroke collapsed. He averaged a paltry 3.9 points per game that season and shot just 30 percent from the floor.
Then, as a senior captain, Collins realized his potential and averaged 16.3 points for a Duke team that needed every bit of help it could get.
In a lot of ways, Collins marks the beginning of Duke’s string of three-point marksmen, a staple of the Coach K era. But Collins is often an afterthought when compared to those behind-the-arc bombers who came after him. Part of that has to do with the fact that his junior and senior years were spent on Duke teams that weren’t very well. Still, Collins deserves more credit than what he gets in regard to his playing career at Duke.
13. Jeff Capel (1993-1997)
Jeff Capel’s career coincided with Chris Collins’, but Capel was able to contribute on a more consistent basis. Over his four-year career, Capel averaged 8.6, 12.5, 16.6 and 12.4 points per game.
People forget that Capel started 28 games as a freshman, including the NCAA Tournament run that saw Duke make it to the title game.
Over his career, Jeff Capel served Duke as a capable combo guard, playing whatever role best served the team around him. He’s well remembered, thanks to his famous half-court shot against UNC, but underrated, primarily due to a senior season that saw him coming off the bench to start the year and the fact that, as with Collins, he played on two of the worst Duke teams since 1983 (Coach K’s third year as head coach).
Still, Jeff Capel was a reliable player on teams in the mid-'90s that desperately needed consistency and leadership.
12. Robert Brickey (1986-1990)
A quick Google search for Robert Brickey leads to a Youtube video call, Coach K’s Original High Flyer. The video, set to the song from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, displays the athletic prowess of the small forward considered by many to be among the best dunkers in Blue Devil history.
Usually used as a starter, though occasional coming off the bench, Robert Brickey averaged 10.5 points as a sophomore, 11 as a junior, and 11.7 as a senior.
To reiterate Brickey’s highlight reel style of play, it’s worth pointing out that those point totals came in spite of the fact that the 6’5” Brickey was 2 of 9 in three-pointers for his entire career.
As a senior Brickey served as a captain for a Duke team that made it to the NCAA finals. His somewhat run of the mill stats fail to capture how useful he was a drive to the basket player for the Blue Devils and how much he electrified the Cameron crowds.
11. Phil Henderson (1986-1990)
Phil Henderson, a four year teammate of Robert Brickey, started every game for the Blue Devils as a junior and senior.
For a Duke squad that was establishing themselves as a dominant national force, Henderson averaged 12.7 points as a junior and lead the team in scoring as a senior with 18.5 points per game.
Like Brickey, the slightly built guard was a contributor to three Final Four teams. Henderson, however, proved in his junior and senior years that he could not only contribute, but be the best player on a team loaded with talent.
Henderson's career falls just short of guards like Johnny Dawkins, but his silky smooth moves, great defense and outside shot would have him among the greatest ever at a school that didn't have Duke's rich history of great guards.
10. Roshown McLeod (1996-1998)
Roshown McLeod gets shortchanged in Duke lore because he only played two years and was preceded by Cherokee Parks and followed by Elton Brand and Shane Battier.
Although when you look at it, McLeod’s two seasons after his arrival from St Johns were fairly comparable to Elton Brand’s two years. True, Brand’s two seasons at Duke were as a freshman and sophomore while McLeod’s were his junior and senior season, but McLeod scored 11.9 and 15.3 while Brand averaged 13.4 and 17.7.
Elton Brand certainly had more potential and out rebounded Roshown McLeod during their careers at Duke, but McLeod had a much better shooting range that extended behind the three-point line. As a senior, when he led the Blue Devils in scoring, Roshown McLeod shot 49 percent from behind the arc.
The point is, in the pantheon of great Duke post players, McLeod is just outside the top tier of big men to have come through the program. This means he is often overshadowed, but he deserves a great deal of recognition.
9. Alaa Abdelnaby (1986-1990)
Like Roshown McLeod, Alaa Abdelnaby is another post player who doesn’t get nearly the recognition he deserves.
The Egyptian center played for three Final Four teams including one that made it to the Championship game in his senior season. That year, Abdelnaby was a strong anchor in Duke’s lineup. The 6’10” center averaged 15.1 points per game and 6.6 rebounds.
While that team ultimately lost to UNLV in the Championship, Alaa Abdelnaby’s career spanned four of the most successful years in Duke basketball history and Abdelnaby asserted himself as an integral part of teams that featured Duke legends like Phil Henderson, Christian Laettner and Danny Ferry.
Alaa Abdelnaby is another player who gets lost in the sea of talent that made up the Duke teams of the late 1980s, despite the fact that he was a fundamental part of Duke’s success.
8. Cherokee Parks (1991-1995)
It’s easy to dismiss “Chief” as just a fan favorite. But Cherokee Parks was a physical center who endeared himself to the Cameron Crazies through his hustle and hard play, which ultimately aiding in propelling Duke to two Final Fours over his tenure.
The result of that fan devotion earned him the “Chief” nickname, but also made him a prime target for Duke-haters.
The truth is that Cherokee Parks was more than just a physically imposing center. While he often banged inside like a lovable brute, he also had an effective midrange game that made him difficult to guard. As a result, Cherokee Parks was a three year starter for the Blue Devils and averaged double-digit points in all three of those years.
Aside from his scoring ability, averaging 12.3, 14.4 and 19 points in his final three seasons, Parks was an excellent rebounder. In his three seasons as a full-time starter he averaged 6.9, 8.4 and 9.3 rebounds per game.
Even with those impressive stats, Cherokee Parks gets underrated because his senior season culminated in the 1994/95 season when Duke scuffled to 13-18 with Coach K not on the bench. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that Parks averaged 12.8 minutes as a freshman for the 1992 Championship team and was the second leading scorer behind only Grant Hill on the 1993/94 team that made it to the NCAA Final.
7. Nate James (1996-2001)
After seeing limited action as a freshman, Nate James was injured six games into his sophomore season and took a medical redshirt. In the re-do of his sophomore year, James was a key substitute used by Coach K on the 1998/99 team that reached the Final Four and Championship game.
The following year, though only a junior, Nate James was named a co-captain for the Blue Devils. James also earned a starter spot that season and averaged 11 points for Duke. Finally, as a senior, James was once again named a co-captain, once again a starter and behind his 12.3 points per game and tenacious defense, Nate James helped Duke to the 2001 NCAA Championship.
While Nate James’ stats aren’t eye popping and he was known for his grit more than his skill, Nate James’ arrival at Duke coincided with the Blue Devils return to national prowess. Due to his redshirt season, James was privy to five regular season ACC titles and in his three final seasons he won the ACC Tournament each year.
Add a National Title to that conference dominance and it’s easy to see why Nate James has written himself into Duke’s winning history even if he isn’t as well remembered as some of his teammates from those seasons.
6. Billy King (1984-1988)
I many ways, Billy King was the Nate James prototype. He was a hustle player who did whatever it took to win.
It’s easy to underrate Billy King because he didn’t score a lot. In fact, his career average is 4.5 points per game. The 6’6” forward wasn’t all that great of a rebounder either, averaging just 2.9 rebounds over his career.
But what Billy King offered was hardnosed defense against any position on the floor and invaluable leadership. On a stacked team that included the previously mentioned Brickey and Henderson as well as Danny Ferry, Kevin Strickland, Alaa Abdelnaby and Quin Snyder, King served as the consummate role player.
As a captian on the 1987/88 team, Billy King led Duke to the Final Four and won Defensive Player of the Year.
Like I said, it’s easy to underrate King because of his unimpressive stats. But few Duke players have had as much guts and defensive tenacity as King and his leadership was crucial to Duke’s success in the late ‘80s.
5. Trajan Langdon (1994-1999)
Trajan Langdon is the underrated version of Jeff Capel, who is himself underrated. The Alaskan Assassin forced himself into the starting lineup during the hard to watch 1994/95 season (aka the Pete Gaudet season). But by the time Langdon has left, he had Duke back to its familiar winning ways.
Even as a freshman, Trajan Langdon was the team’s third leading scorer, averaging 11.3 points. After redshirting the 1995/96 season, his second year at Duke, Langdon passed senior Jeff Capel to lead the team in scoring by averaging 14.3 points. More importantly, in Trajan Langdon’s sophomore season Duke won the ACC regular season title and earned Coach K ACC and National Coach of the Year honors.
Trajan Langdon’s final two years saw Duke return to National Title contention. As a junior and senior he averaged14.7 and 17.3 points while Duke made it to the Elite Eight and then the NCAA Final.
Langdon, in my opinion, is underrated because he was a key component to the teams that returned Duke to upper echelons of college basketball after two years of mid-nineties mediocrity. After his redshirt season, Duke won the ACC regular season three years in a row and won the ACC Tournament as well in Langdon’s senior season.
He was also the man who held the record for most three-pointers made until J.J. Redick passed him.
In all, he may not have been one of the top ten greatest players to pass through Duke, but his impact on the program was immense.
4. Tate Armstrong (1973-1977)
If you think Mason Plumlee jumping from averaging 11.1 points one year to averaging 19.6 the next is an impressive jump, then let me tell you a little about the too often overlooked Tate Armstrong.
Armstrong averaged 6.3 points as a freshman and in Bill Foster’s first season as head coach he averaged 9.7 as a sophomore. Then Armstrong took off. In his junior year, he blew up for a point per game average of 24.2.
In that junior campaign, Tate Armstrong drew comparisons to Art Heyman, another big man who could shoot, while earning ACC First Team honors for a Duke team that lurched to a 13-14 record. That summer Tate Armstrong played in the Olympics and earned a gold medal.
Without question, Tate Armstrong was headed toward being one of the greatest players in Duke history. Then, 14 games into his senior season, Tate Armstrong broke his wrist. Through those 14 games Armstrong was averaging 22.7 points and Duke was 11-3.
With Tate Armstrong out for the rest of the season, the Blue Devils went 3-10. More than that, Duke lost one of its greatest talents who, if not for his injury, could have been Duke’s version of Ralph Sampson.
3. Jack Marin (1963-1966)
Duke University’s basketball success begins, in many ways, with Jack Marin. Although most people don’t know who he is, Marin had two of the best junior and senior years in Duke basketball history.
As a junior Jack Marin averaged a double-double for the season scoring 19.1 points and grabbing 10.3 boards for the year. As a senior Marin averaged 18.6 points and 9.7 rebounds. That senior season Marin was the leading scorer for a team that included Bob Verga, Mike Lewis and Steve Vacendak.
That stacked team, with Jack Marin at the forefront, made it to the Final Four for a second time in three years. Even though they lost in the Final Four to Kentucky, Marin ended his career with two Final Four appearances including a trip to the Championship game in 1964, the first Title game appearance in Blue Devil history.
Like many of the underrated players from the late 1980s and late 1990s, Jack Marin frequently gets overlooked in favor of the abundance of talented players that he played alongside. But just because Marin was able to call Jeff Mullins, Bob Verga, and Steve Vacendak teammates, doesn’t mean Jack Marin doesn’t deserve to be remembered alongside those all-time great Blue Devils.
2. Chris Carrawell (1996-2000)
No one will even suggest that Chris Carrawell is one of Duke’s top ten players in history. But Carrawell played substantial and meaningful minutes all four seasons at Duke and was a crucial player on teams that pulled the Blue Devils out of the mid-nineties doldrums.
As a freshman and sophomore, Carrawell was a super sub. In his second year averaged 10.1 points Duke’s go-to sixth man. As a junior, Chris Carrawell started in a lineup that included William Avery, Trajan Langdon, Shane Battier and Elton Brand. In his final season as a Blue Devils, Chris Carrawell light up the scoreboard 16.9 points per game and 6.1 rebounds per game.
It’s not just the immense talent and stats that expound the value of Chris Carrawell, he served as vital part of teams that did nothing but win.
Carrawell won the ACC regular season all fours years at Duke, including an undefeated ACC season, and captured the ACC Tournament Title as a junior and senior. He also made it to one Final Four and proved over and over that he would fill whatever role helped the Blue Devils win (including defending Tim Duncan).
Yet Carrawell gets underrated because he graduated the year prior to Duke winning a National Championship. But, as with Nate James, Carrawell’s arrival at Duke signaled the start of an era of national prominace and ACC dominance. Starting with Chris Carrawell’s freshman season at Duke in 1996/97, the Blue Devils have won either the ACC regular season or ACC Tournament or both 13 out of 16 seasons.
Chris Carrawell was one of Duke’s most versatile players ever and returned the program to its winning ways. Though his name is as familiar as some of his contemporaries, his contributions to Duke are second to none.
1. Mike Lewis (1965-1968)
In my opinion, Mike Lewis is the most underrated player in Duke history. In his first of three years as a Blue Devils he played alongside the previously mentioned Jack Marin, Bob Verga and Steve Vacendak. That 1965/66 team made it to the Final Four and even as a first year player on a team loaded with stars, Mike Lewis averaged 13.5 points and 11 rebounds per game.
In the following two seasons, Mike Lewis established himself as the greatest double-double machine the Blue Devils have ever seen.
As a junior Lewis averaged 15.5 points and 12.3 boards. As a senior Lewis had very little help. Verga had graduated and Lewis had to shoulder the load on a team that wasn’t terribly good. In his final season as a Blue Devil, Mike Lewis averaged 21.7 points and 14.4 rebounds.
For his career Mike Lewis averaged a double-double at 16.9 points and 12.5 rebounds.
Unfortunately, those monumental stats get overlooked thanks to the Blue Devils finishing second in the ACC for Lewis’ junior and senior seasons, which meant that Duke had to go to the NIT instead of the NCAA Tournament.
Nevertheless, Mike Lewis showed that he could play on par with Duke legends like Bob Verga and Steve Vacendak and in his senior season showed that he could carry a team on his own the way Jeff Mullins did.
It stands to reason, therefore, that the often overlooked Mike Lewis, Duke’s greatest double-double player, deserves to be lauded along with the all-time Duke greats.