Before Mike Krzyzewski was named head coach at Duke in 1980, the university had made four Final Fours, advanced to the NCAA Championship game twice and developed sixteen NBA players — five of which fizzled out after one season. Duke did produce several solid players, of which Jeff Mullins enjoyed the most success, earning three All-Star berths (1969-71) as a member of the Golden State Warriors, playing a reserve role on the franchise’s 1975 championship team, and retiring with a career 16.2 scoring average.
Since Coach K arrived, however, the Blue Devils have been to eleven Final Fours, capturing four national titles. That success has become the biggest recruiting tool in Krzyzewski’s belt. And the parade of high school All-Americans that have run through the picturesque Durham, N.C. campus has resulted in 44 players getting to play in the NBA. There were fifteen former Duke players on NBA rosters to start the 2013-14 season, a figure bested only by the Kentucky Wildcats’ 22. That’s the good news for Coach K.
The not-so-good storyline is that most of his charges have not enjoyed the kind of success at the pro level that they experienced in college. And the couple – Grant Hill and Elton Brand – that seemed destined for all-time-great status saw their careers curtailed by injuries. Hill’s NBA odyssey is the more tragic of the two because during his first six NBA seasons (1994-95 through 1999-2000) with the Detroit Pistons, he was among the league’s most well-rounded players, averaging 21.6 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.3 assists. Then, Hill joined the Orlando Magic, the ankle injuries started piling up, and he averaged only 39 games over the next seven seasons. Hill rebounded late in his career, and finished with a solid, though unspectacular stat line of 16.7 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists. But the what-might-have-been-label is likely to stick, even though Hill, when you take his college career into account, has a fairly strong Hall of Fame argument.
But, shifting back to some more good news for Dukies: The current crop of NBA players that have a Blue Devils pedigree includes several that are short-listed for consideration as the best NBA player from Duke. Following are the top five Blue Devils playing in the NBA this season, ranked by their 2013-14 salaries.
5. Shane Battier, Miami Heat, 2013-14 Salary: $3,270,000
Nothing better sums up Shane Battier the basketball player than the following stat: Through the first 54 games of the 2013-14 season, Miami Heat players had taken 41 charges; Battier had 22 of them. And no one better epitomizes the Blue Devils’ team-first mindset than Battier, who left Duke as the winningest player in NCAA history (133 wins) and has spent thirteen seasons fighting, scrapping and taking charges on his way to a solid, though unspectacular, NBA career. Then again, Battier has played an under-appreciated role on the Heat’s back-to-back titles teams – remember, his postseason career-high six treys in the decisive Game 7 of The Finals last June – and joins Danny Ferry as the only Duke players during the Coach K era to own NBA championship hardware. Battier also is the only player in NBA history to be a member of two different 20-game winning streaks, having taken part in Miami’s 27 straight wins last season, and helping the Houston Rockets win 22 straight in 2008. Battier’s career averages of 8.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.8 assists belie his success on the hardwood; although, his five Division Sportsmanship Awards and two Magic Johnson Awards attest to his character.
4. Gerald Henderson, Charlotte Bobcats, 2013-14 Salary: $6,000,000
Like most players with a Duke pedigree, Henderson is one of those glue-type players – the kind of player that doesn’t put up the sexy numbers, but someone every general manager in the league would love to have on his team. Henderson is the only Bobcats player to start every game this season and one of only eight guards in the NBA that have started all of their teams’ games. Henderson has taken a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race approach to developing into a solid NBA player. During his rookie season in 2009-10, Henderson appeared in 43 games and saw only 355 minutes of action, averaging 2.6 points. Those numbers jumped during his sophomore campaign to 68, 1,661 and 9.6, respectively. Since then, however, Henderson has appeared in 170 games (through Feb. 26, 2014) and is averaging 15.1 points. Last season, Henderson averaged career highs of 15.5 points, 2.6 assists and 31.4 minutes. He scored in double figures 56 times, including a career-high 24 consecutive games to end the season.
3. Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers, 2013-14 Salary: $5,607,240
It’s only a two-plus-season sample size, but Kyrie Irving is well on his way to solidifying his hold on the Best Blue Devil Ever throne. Among the 60 Duke players that have played in the NBA, Irving owns the highest scoring (20.8 PPG) and assist (5.9 APG) averages, won the 2011-12 NBA Rookie of the Year Award, has played in consecutive All-Star games, earned MVP honors in this year’s mid-season classic; and, as Uncle Drew, stars in a really cool Pepsi commercial. In his third NBA campaign, Irving owns the highest scoring average among Eastern Conference point guards at 21.2 points. He has netted at least 20 points in 31 games, including 30-plus points in seven contests and at least 40 twice. Additionally, Irving is proving his worth in the clutch. He has scored a league-high 44 points in overtime this season, and ranks second in OT average (8.0). Thanks to Irving, the Cavaliers are 5-2 in overtime games, the most OT wins in the NBA teams and the most by a Cavs team since 2005-06 (5-0). Irving has also been solid in the fourth quarter, ranking 11th in the NBA with an average of 5.8 points. Irving has scored at least 10 points in 10 fourth quarters.
2. Luol Deng, Cleveland Cavaliers, 2013-14 Salary: $14,275,000
There’s very little flash, but tons of substance in Luol Deng’s game, which makes him a perennial contender for the NBA’s most underrated player. A defensive stalwart, Deng also possesses a well-rounded game, and is consistently ranked among the league leaders in minutes. Deng, who Chicago traded to Cleveland on Jan. 7, 2014, is the fourth-leading scorer in Bulls franchise history. The two-time All-Star holds career averages of 16.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.00 steals, while shooting .460 from the floor, including .334 from beyond the arc and .771 on free throws from the charity stripe. And Deng’s numbers improve when the postseason rolls around. In 48 playoff games, Deng has posted averages of 16.7 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1.15 steals, while shooting .452 from the field and .749 from the line. Another high-character guy in the mold of Battier, Deng received the 2006-07 NBA Sportsmanship Award, and has taken part in several of the NBA’s Basketball without Borders tours.
1. Carlos Boozer, Chicago Bulls, 2013-14 Salary: $15,300,000
So that there’s no misunderstanding, let’s preface this by stating that the only way Carlos Boozer gets in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame is as a paying customer. That said, the highest paid Dukie in the NBA and two-time All-Star is in some pretty select, Hall of Fame company. Boozer is the 20th player in NBA history to have averaged more than 10.0 points and 7.5 rebounds in each of his first eleven seasons in the league. Of the 19 previous players, 13 are enshrined in the Hall of Fame and four more — Tim Duncan, Dikembe Mutombo, Shaquille O’Neal and Chris Webber — are not yet eligible, three of which are slam dunks to get in while Webber has a compelling argument for inclusion. Among former Duke players, Boozer owns the third-best NBA career scoring average (16.8 PPG) and the second-highest rebound average (9.8 RPG). Additionally, his .524 field goal percentage is the second highest all-time. The problem with Boozer’s NBA career has been an inability to stay healthy. Since his rookie season in 2002-03, Boozer has played in at least 66 games seven times, while playing 59 or fewer five times.