Can Duke Finally Take Their Success in the Big Dance to NBA Stardom?

Duke basketball players have consistently been disappointments in the NBA over the years.  Just think of a great Duke team, and you will find a lot of big names who did not quite live up to their professional expectations. An NBA ‘whose who’ of first round disappointments includes the likes of Christian Laetner, Danny Ferry, Brian Dawkins, Correy Maggette, Mike Dunleavy, and –should I even go here?–Cherokee Parks.

Then there are the Blue Devils who have had bad luck with injuries: Grant Hill, Jay Williams, and Bobby Hurley.  Is there a Duke curse, or does Coach K just have a system which thrives off a team of great college players who don’t quite have NBA superstar capacity?  Even Elton Brand, who started out so promising after being the number one overall pick, fizzled in the quest for long term stardom.  Has Carlos Boozer had the most successful overall career from Duke?  Or All Star Luol Deng?  Or, dare I say, Shane Battier?  Will Jabari Parker be different?

Well, it seems that Cleveland’s number one pick Kyrie Irving from the 2011 NBA Draft has a good chance to alter the superstar curse.  Irving is now just 21 years old and last year averaged 22.2 points and 6.1 assists.  In addition to tremendous skills, he also has superstar charisma.  Here is a heart warming video of Irving visiting a classroom in South Africa and, while the kids go crazy, having a dance off with a young and confident dancer.

Cleveland does not seem to be too concerned with Duke’s track record. This past Monday, the Cavs fearlessly doubled down on their Duke investment and acquired Deng in exchange for Andrew Bynam and a few draft picks.  Perhaps if the Cavs are bad enough this year and win the lottery again, they could then even split their Duke hand and draft Parker and trade for Mason Plumlee?

So what does this trade for Deng say about Cleveland?  It appears as if their acquisition of an All Star who plays the three reveals that they might have finally given up on the return to Cleveland of the most famous three of all: Lebron James.  But then again, Deng is an expiring contract.   As the Sporting News points out, a key reason for this acquisition of Deng is to show progress this year to convince their franchise player Irving to not leave them in free agency this off season.  What better way to do this than by pairing him with a fellow All Star Blue Devil out there?

So why has Duke been such a premier college program under Coach K, winning the ‘Big Dance’ four times, but had so little NBA influence?  It could be that the lack of long NBA impact from Duke players is a sign that Coach K has a system that requires teamwork and big time college talent, but not necessarily big time NBA talent.

There does appear to be a difference between winning in college basketball and having NBA talent on the team.  A great example of this is the 2005 North Carolina Tar Heels national championship team.  Junior Forward/Center Sean May won Most Outstanding Player of the 2005 tournament, and he was drafted with the thirteenth pick in the NBA draft the following season.  However, another forward on that Tar Heel team who did not even start, Freshman sixth man Marvin Williams, was picked with the second overall pick of the 2005 NBA draft.  Of course Williams was two years younger and had more opportunity to develop, but it does say something about a distinction between college and pro success when a player on a great team can not even break the starting five, and yet months later go higher in the NBA draft than anybody on that roster.

Now that the Cavs have a roster loaded with highly ranked young players and two reigning all stars in the starting five, they have hope.  Despite disappointing starts by the highly drafted Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett, they appear to be ready to grow with their current nucleus.  I’ll bet Coach K is rooting for them.


One thought on “Can Duke Finally Take Their Success in the Big Dance to NBA Stardom?

  1. Interesting angle. I don’t follow college and pro close enough to really track player progression over time, as you have. That said, I would make a couple observations.

    One, many of the players you highlight from Duke seem, in my mind, to have had pretty decent careers. Grant Hill, 7x All-Star. Laettner, Dream Team… Elton Brand, not a SUPER star, but a pretty sought after player. Rookie of the Year, All-Star… Battier, annoying, but a 2x Champion, many accolades.

    Two, I did a little homework. Surprisingly, for the most part, counter-intuitively, there doesn’t seem to be a heck of a lot of correlation between greatness and college programs, with just a couple exception. Here’s the list of colleges represented in the NBA’s Top 50 players of all time (with a note if there were more than one player from that college):

    Bowling Green
    Central Arkansas
    Eastern Michigan
    Florida State
    Holy Cross
    Houston (3)
    Indiana State
    Lousiana Tech
    LSU (3)
    Michigan State
    NC Central
    Ohio State (2)
    San Francisco
    Southern Illinois
    UCLA (2)
    UNC (3)
    West Virginia

    Where’s Kentucky? K-State? NC State? UConn? Michigan? The powerhouse NE teams? Iowa? Wisconsin? Arizona?

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