In college sports, overall success is a reflection of a team's ability to recruit the very best student-athletes to its program.
When discussing the history of college basketball, the Duke Blue Devils have become one of the elite programs to enjoy an abundance of success in that regard.
Led by Mike Krzyzewski, the winningest coach in NCAA Division I men's basketball history, the nation's top prospects from across the country are drawn to the overwhelming stature that Duke has developed over time.
Throughout the course of history for Duke, each season a highly formidable class enters Durham with great hopes and expectations of succeeding at the highest level.
But, which recruiting classes would be considered the best from a program standpoint?
After a great deal of thought and deliberation, I believe the answer comes in the form of five very special classes that left their own unique mark, not only at Duke but in the realm of college basketball.
Counting down from fifth to first, these are the greatest recruiting classes in the history of the Duke basketball program that have separated themselves from the rest in terms of impact, achievement and excellence.
A number of different classes in Duke recruiting history all had reasonable arguments to land on this list.
For example, the 1989 class featuring the all-time NCAA assist leader Bobby Hurley. Or the 2006 class that included three members of the Blue Devils' 2010 national championship team—Jon Scheyer, Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek—or the following class in 2007 that featured the remainder of the starting lineup from that championship team, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith.
However, the three-man class of 1988 outranks the three aforementioned classes above.
Why? Because of one man.
That man is Christian Laettner. The greatest player in Duke basketball history.
For four illustrious seasons, Laettner showcased his skills on a game-by-game basis for the Blue Devils and was seemingly an unstoppable force. He led Duke to its first two national championships in 1991 and 1992 and was a consensus National Player of the Year recipient in his senior season.
Laettner is also the NCAA tournament record-holder in points scored (407), free throws made (142), free throws attempted (167) and games played (23 out of a maximum possible of 24). He finished his college career averaging 16.6 points and 7.7 rebounds per game and he was the sixth player in Duke history to have his jersey retired.
Additionally, Laettner and fellow classmate Brian Davis are two of only four players to play in four consecutive Final Fours.
Davis was considered a workhorse throughout the course of his career at Duke, playing in 141 career games while becoming a significant piece for the Blue Devils in their back-to-back titles. As a senior captain, Davis averaged 11.2 points and 4.5 rebounds while starting in 35 of Duke's 36 games.
The third member of the class of 1988 was Crawford Palmer. A serviceable reserve in his junior season, Palmer was a part of Duke's first national title in his junior season before transferring out of the program to Dartmouth College.
Despite appearing in only one Final Four (2004), the six-man class of 2002 ranks just behind three of the greatest classes in school history.
The class of 2002 included J.J. Redick, Shelden Williams, Shavlik Randolph, Sean Dockery, Michael Thompson and Lee Melchionni. However, it was Redick and Williams who were the key names of this class as both players finished their respective careers as two of the greatest players to wear the Duke uniform.
Known as a sharpshooter straight out of high school, Redick entered his career at Duke destined to be one of the program's most prolific scorers. And that he was. Redick became the all-time leading scorer in Duke history with 2,769 career points. In addition, he is also the NCAA all-time leader in made three-point field goals with 457.
Redick was the consensus National Player of the Year at the conclusion of his senior season in 2006 and became the 13th player in Duke history to have his jersey retired.
While Redick provided the scoring, it was Shelden Williams who provided the muscle.
A physically imposing big man, Williams was a bruiser in the low post for the Blue Devils during his four-year career.
The two-time NABC Defensive Player of the Year finished his career as the all-time leader in school history in career blocked shots (422), most blocked shots in a single season (137, 2005-06) and rebounds in a career (1,262).
Duke honored Williams' many accomplishments by retiring his jersey into the rafters of Cameron Indoor Stadium in 2007.
Together, Redick and Williams were apart of the only recruiting class in ACC history to produce two consensus first team All-Americans.
Shavlik Randolph, Sean Dockery and Lee Melchionni enjoyed solid careers at Duke, while lightly used reserve Michael Thompson decided to transfer from Duke in the middle of his sophomore season.
When looking back at the all-time great recruiting classes in Duke history, the class of 1999 featured a perfect blend of skill, talent and star power.
Jay Williams, Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Casey Sanders make up the third-best class in school history as all four players were essential during their sophomore seasons in helping Duke capture its third national championship in 2001.
A dynamic point guard, Williams started in all 39 games for the Blue Devils during his sophomore season and averaged an NCAA tournament best 25.7 points per game in 2001. He was recognized as the Naismith College Player of the Year and the Wooden Award recipient in 2002. After his junior season, Duke honored Williams by sending his jersey into the rafters of Cameron Indoor Stadium, making him the 11th different Blue Devil to have their jersey retired.
A multi-talented post player, Boozer was widely considered as the most important player for Duke during the championship season. After suffering a right leg injury late in his sophomore season, Boozer made his return to the floor at the most opportune time during the Sweet 16 of the 2001 NCAA tournament. In the championship game against Arizona, Boozer came off the bench and contributed a double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds.
Dunleavy Jr. entered his college career as a 6'9" small forward with the ability to score from anywhere on the court. His most memorable moment at Duke was during the championship game against Arizona where he converted three consecutive three-point baskets amid a decisive second half run by the Blue Devils.
In their junior seasons, Williams, Boozer and Dunleavy Jr. each became the first of only two trios in school history to score 600 points for a season.
Primarily used as a role player off the bench, Sanders earned the start in the 2001 championship game in place for Boozer. The 6'11" center finished a four-year career as a national champion.
Without question, the class of 1997 was the best recruiting class for the Duke program in the last 30 years. While it wasn't necessarily a program-changing class for Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils, it was, however, the start of one of the most dominant recruiting runs in all of college basketball.
Making up the four-man class was Shane Battier, Elton Brand, William Avery and Chris Burgess. And while all four were terrific talents, it was Battier and Brand that stood out the most.
Shane Battier epitomized what it means to be a Duke basketball player. Not only was he a marvelous basketball player, he was also an outstanding student with a 3.5 grade point average.
The do-it-all power forward enjoyed one of the best four-year careers in NCAA history, as he was a part of the 37-2 NCAA tournament runner-up team in 1999, which is widely considered as one of the greatest teams in the history of college basketball.
While Duke came up just short in capturing the title that year, Battier led the Blue Devils back to the national championship game two years later and ended his career by cutting down the nets and hoisting the championship trophy. It was the highlight of a memorable senior season for Battier, as he was named the consensus National Player of the Year, the 2001 Final Four Most Outstanding Player, the Academic All-American of the Year and he became a three-time NABC Defensive Player of the Year.
To cap off a remarkable career, Battier saw his jersey be hoisted up into the rafters of Cameron Indoor Stadium in the middle of his final year at Duke.
Despite staying in school for only two seasons, Elton Brand certainly made the most of it.
The consensus National Player of the Year in 1999, Brand was the driving force behind the Blue Devils' historic 37-win season in 1999, although, their second of two losses came in the national championship game to the Connecticut Huskies.
Deciding to skip his final two years in college, Brand entered his name into the 1999 NBA draft where he became the No. 1 overall selection by the rebuilding Chicago Bulls.
Brand was one of four Blue Devils selected in the 1999 NBA draft, along with classmate William Avery, and teammates Corey Maggette and Trajan Langdon. All four were taken inside the top 15.
Avery started in all 39 games for Duke in the 1999 season, as he averaged 14.9 points and 5.0 assists while logging a team-leading 31.0 minutes per game.
Chris Burgess played at Duke for two seasons before transferring to Utah in 2000.
The class of 1982 provided the foundation for the Duke basketball program, as it was the very first of many blockbuster classes for Mike Krzyzewski.
Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, David Henderson, Jay Bilas and Weldon Williams made up the five-man class and together established the Duke Blue Devils as a staple in the landscape of college basketball.
Of the five program-changing recruits, by Duke standards, it was the commitment from Johnny Dawkins that became the most pivotal.
A starter in 133 career games played, the sweet-shooting lefty from the nation's capital became the Blue Devils' all-time leading scorer with 2,556 points at the end of his college career, until fellow Duke great J.J. Redick surpassed his mark in 2006. Dawkins led the Blue Devils to their first Final Four under Coach K in 1986, while falling just short in the national championship game against the Louisville Cardinals. Dawkins averaged a team-high 20.2 points per game while capturing the Naismith College Player of the Year.
After an outstanding four-year career culminating in his jersey being retired into the rafters of Cameron Indoor Stadium and a nine-year NBA career, Dawkins returned to Duke as an associate head coach from 1998 to 2008 before accepting the head coaching position at Stanford University.
Also a 133-game starter, Mark Alarie was the model of consistency for Duke during his career. Averaging 16.1 points and 6.3 rebounds for his career, Alarie was a third team All-American as a senior.
Rotating between a starter and a bench player over his first three seasons, David Henderson ended his college career starting in all 39 games for Duke in his senior season. It was his most successful year as a player for the Blue Devils, as he averaged career highs in each statistical category as a co-captain of the 1986 NCAA tournament runner-up team.
While you'll most likely find the highly intelligent Jay Bilas on regular college basketball ESPN programming as a broadcaster, the 6'8" Californian was the definition of toughness for Duke during his playing days. A relentless worker, Bilas was a four-year starter for the Blue Devils and an integral piece of their early success under Coach K.
After his playing days had come to a close following brief stints in the NBA and overseas, Bilas returned to Duke as an assistant coach from 1990 to 1992. During that time, Duke advanced to three Final Fours and won two national titles.
Including the rarely used Weldon Williams, the five-man recruiting class still ranks as the highest scoring class in college basketball history with 7,450 points combined.
To this day, no other class in Duke basketball history has been more significant to the long-term success for this program. If not for the commitments from these five players that, together, altered the course of history in the college game, the superiority of the Duke Blue Devils would be non-existent.
And that is why the class of 1982 is the greatest recruiting class in the storied history of the Duke basketball program.