Duke is undeniably one of the greatest college basketball programs of all time. Legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski has attracted top talent to the Blue Devils. As a result, fans have seen a long list of great players don the blue and white jerseys of Duke.
Fans of the Blue Devils are also familiar with one of the most repeated criticisms of their cherished program: that Duke doesn’t produce any good NBA players.
Why a fan of college basketball should be concerned with stocking the NBA with great players like some sort of de facto minor league team is unclear. Nevertheless, the criticism that Duke doesn’t deliver on NBA-level talent is something that’s become part of sports pop culture.
But the truth is that Duke has produced some quality NBA players. What follows is a list of the top five Blue Devils who put together quality NBA careers.
A lot of Duke guys went on to have decent careers or could’ve been among the NBA’s best were it not for injuries. But the fact that the following players had to settle for honorable mentions illustrates just how many quality NBA players Duke has produced.
Johnny Dawkins: The 10th overall pick averaged 11.1 points over a nine-year career.
Mike Gminski: The seventh overall pick averaged 11.7 points and 6.9 rebounds.
Luol Deng: After one year at Duke, he was selected seventh and is currently a key player for the Bulls with 16 points per game over a career that has so far netted two All-Star appearances.
Elton Brand: Though he’s much maligned for not living up to the status of being a No. 1 overall pick, his career points average is 17.4, and in 14 seasons, he’s been an All-Star twice.
Carlos Boozer: He too takes a lot of criticism, but through 11 years, he’s averaged 16.9 points and 9.9 rebounds. It’s also worth noting that he was a second-round pick and has made two All-Star games.
Bob Verga: He would vie for the top spot on this list, but Verga only technically played for one season in the NBA. In that one NBA season, he managed just five points per game. In the ABA, however, Verga was a star. He averaged 21.2 points over his ABA career and made the 1970 ABA All-Star team.
Of all the great players on this list, Shane Battier is one of only two to have won an NBA championship. Battier has been covered in NBA confetti not once, but twice.
He doesn’t have eye-popping stats. In 13 years, he’s averaged nine points with his best statistical season being his rookie year. But Battier has been an integral part of several teams. He’s an invaluable role player.
In his prime, Battier was a shutdown defender who frequently hounded Kobe Bryant for the Grizzlies and Rockets. Now in the twilight of his career, Battier remains a dangerous three-point shooter for the Heat.
It might be fair to expect more from a sixth overall pick, but Battier is anything but a bust. As he showed in the Heat’s narrow series victory over the Spurs, Battier can make extremely important contributions to a championship team.
Even though people want to write off Christian Laettner’s career as a bust, his career stats are darned impressive. Over 13 years, he averaged 12.8 points and 6.7 rebounds. As impressive as those numbers are, they’d be higher if it wasn’t for the last few years of his career when he didn’t play much.
In the first five years of his NBA career, Laettner averaged 17.2 points. And somehow, he only made the All-Star team once.
The problem Laettner ran into was that he was one of the greatest college basketball players of all time. People therefore expected him to be an NBA great. While his numbers indicate that he was a very good professional, he simply wasn’t able to rise to one of the NBA’s best.
As the third overall pick, Laettner didn’t exactly underperform, but he was unable to change the fortunes of the bad teams he consistently found himself on. Still, the stats suggest that his career was nothing to sneeze at, and he’s a pro player whom Duke fans can be proud of.
Jeff Mullins was drafted by the St. Louis Hawks with the sixth overall pick. After two seasons with the Hawks that didn’t amount to much, Mullins joined the San Fransisco Warriors, where his career took off.
Mullins averaged double-digit points in eight of his 10 seasons with the Warriors. In those 10 seasons, Mullins was named an All-Star three times and made the NBA Finals twice, winning the title in 1975.
For his career, Mullins averaged 16.2 points. Were it not for his first two years in St. Louis and his final two years with the Warriors, that number would be even higher. At his peak, Mullins was one of the league’s best. For four straight years he averaged over 20 points. He also rebounded and doled out assists consistently.
Year after year, Mullins was a lynchpin for his team and one of the NBA’s best and most complete players. He certainly validated his fifth overall pick status, and his stats and championship make him one of Duke’s best NBA players.
It might be premature to put Kyrie Irving up this high on the list, but he has too much potential to ignore. After only one year at Duke in which he only played 11 games due to injury, Irving was selected first overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Coming into Cleveland after LeBron James’ departure, Irving had the hopes of the franchise on his shoulders. He did not wilt under that immense pressure.
As a rookie, Irving averaged 18.5 points per game. That was good enough to earn him Rookie of the Year honors. Irving improved during his second season by averaging 22.5 points and increasing his assists per game while decreasing his turnovers. As a result, he made the All-Star Game.
Though Irving hasn’t been able to completely turn around the LeBron-less Cavs and hasn’t alleviated injury concerns, he’s the best player on his team by far. His quality is such that there are rumors he’d be enough of a draw to lure LeBron back to Cleveland, according to Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald.
Whether or not Irving is able to return the Cavs to winning ways, it’s undeniable that he’s a future star for the NBA.
The recently retired Grant Hill had the potential to be an NBA legend were it not for injuries. Regardless, the third overall pick in 1995 made full use of his 18 years as a pro.
Hill averaged double-digit points in every season except his last. His career average is 16.7 points per game. Though his production dipped off at the end, Hill was always a useful player who could put up points with consistency.
Hill began his NBA career by winning the Rookie of the Year. He went on to be named an All-Star seven times. He repeatedly pushed the Pistons into the playoffs. As impressive as his scoring was, Hill’s assist and rebound averages in his early years are equally gaudy.
Hill always had loads of talent, and he had the potential to follow in the footsteps of Michael Jordan. Unfortunately, injuries got in the way of those lofty expectations. In spite of injuries, Hill put together what probably constitutes a Hall of Fame career. For that, he’s Duke’s best NBA product.