Duke fans are understandably giddy about Mike Krzyzewski's latest recruiting class. Within the span of eight days in mid-November, Coach K landed the nation's best big man (and top-rated overall prospect) Jahlil Okafor, the nation's top-rated point guard Tyus Jones and one of the nation's top wing forwards Justise Winslow. Grayson Allen, one of the nation's top wing guards, who committed earlier, rounds out what is likely to be ranked as the nation's best recruiting class.
I've already heard Blue Devil partisans comparing this class to the best in school history. I've been asked by friends to offer my opinion - where does it rank?
Such speculation is fun, but I believe we're focused on the wrong measurement. What does it matter where a bunch of recruiting dorks have Duke's prospects rated?
Did you know that Jabari Parker was the nation's No. 3 consensus prospect last year because the clowns at 24/7 rated him sixth (behind Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon and both the Harrison twins)? Two other services rated him fourth. Without those misguided projections, Parker would have been No. 2 behind Wiggins - and looking at the early season performances of both players -- even that consensus is in doubt.
We've seen it before. Josh McRoberts was the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2005. O.J. Mayo was No. 1 in 2007. Harrison Barnes in 2010. Shabazz Muhammad in 2012. Eddy Curry in 2001. Donnell Harvey in 1999.
My own initiation into the unreliability of the recruiting gurus came early.
I was a part of the first celebrated recruiting class in Duke history. Not that I played basketball, but I was a member of the same freshman class as the five guys who garnered such hoopla.
You have to understand how rare that was in that era.
Since freshmen couldn't play varsity basketball, most fans - and media members - waited until the recruits were on campus and playing freshman ball to evaluate the classes. There was occasional attention focused on individual recruits - Art Heyman out of Long Island in 1959, Lew Alcindor out of New York City in 1965 and Larry Miller out of western Pennsylvania in 1964 were certainly recruits that garnered considerable attention during their recruitment - but I can't remember another CLASS that was celebrated before Duke's 1967-68 quintet.
I remember reading or hearing nothing about Dean Smith's breakthrough class in 1965 - a five-man group that should rank among the greatest in ACC history - until they beat the UNC varsity in the first game ever played in Carmichael Auditorium. Even UCLA's 1965 class was all about Alcindor. There was little about the rest of that great class (the greatest recruiting class in NCAA history) until people saw them playing the UCLA varsity in public - and routing the defending national champs in a scrimmage. That's when we saw that there were stars in that class beyond Big Lew … that Lucius Allen and Lynn Shackleford were studs too.
My freshman class at Duke changed all that. From the moment they stepped on campus in the fall of 1967, Vic Bubas' five recruits were subjected to the same kind of scrutiny and hoopla that attaches to modern classes.
The most celebrated of the new recruits was Dick DeVenzio, a 5-10 playmaker from Ambridge, Pa. DeVenzio, whose father coached Ambridge team (which also included future UNC All-American Dennis Wuycik, the founder of the Poop Sheet), was the nation's most celebrated recruit. John Wooden came East to bid for his services. Lefty Driesell moved heaven and earth to get him at Davidson. Dean Smith, riding the crest after his breakthrough season in 1966-67, went all in on DeVenzio's services. But despite UNC's championship in '67, Bubas still ruled Tobacco Road and he had an in - DeVenzio had grown up idolizing Denny Ferguson, a guard who played for DeVenzio's father and then signed with Duke, where he became a starter for two of Bubas' best teams. In fact, it was Ferguson's move into the starting lineup midway through the season that helped transform the '64 Blue Devils into a Final Four team.
DeVenzio was joined in the backcourt by a local boy - Durham High's 6-2 Brad Evans was the Greg Paulus or the Ron Curry of his day, a two-sport prep All-American who was as coveted as a football quarterback as he was a basketball guard. I think Evans' decision to play for Bubas was a sign of how basketball had trumped football on Tobacco Road. Evans could have played quarterback at Notre Dame or for Bear Bryant at Alabama.
The perfectly balanced class was anchored up front by Raleigh's Randy Denton, a powerful 6-10, 240-pound center, who played his prep basketball at Enloe High for former Duke star Howard Hurt. He was joined by slender 6-7 sharpshooter Rick Catherman, nicknamed the Manchester Rifle for the accuracy of his jump shot and his hometown of Manchester, Mass. Also at forward was burly 6-5 Steve Litz from Pittsburgh.
I was lucky enough to sign on as a freshman manager for the first month or so of the season (I had to quit to earn some money - and I ended up working in sports information). I got to see the team up close.
There were some signs over the course of the freshman season that Duke's class might not be all that it was cracked up to be. There was a road loss at Davidson, then a stunning neutral court loss to an unheralded UNC freshman team - Lee Dedmon and Dale Gipple were the stars - in Charlotte. Duke barely won the rematch in Carmichael when DeVenzio threw in a 75-foot game-winner at the buzzer.
That set the stage for the Big Four championship game on a Friday night in Duke Indoor Stadium. The next day, Freddie Lind would lead the Duke varsity to one of the most celebrated upsets in ACC history, but on this Friday night, UNC's lightly regarded Tar Babies - led by first year freshman coach Bill Guthridge - dominated the heavily favored Blue Imps.
The great class of 1967-68 would turn out to be good, not great. Denton, DeVenzio and Katherman started as sophomores as Duke finished a modest 15-13 in Bubas' last season. Denton (17.8 points and 12.8 rebounds) was the team's best player, while Katherman also averaged in double figures (13.7). DeVenzio averaged 12.2 points and passed out 169 assists in 28 games. The little guard had his finest moment in the ACC Tournament semifinals, when he led Duke past No. 13 South Carolina (with John Roche, Bobby Cremins and Tom Owens). He was great in the first half of the championship game too - until Charlie Scott went off after intermission and saved the favored Tar Heels with the greatest half of basketball in ACC history.
A year later, with Bucky Waters replacing Bubas at the Duke helm, Brad Evans joined his three classmates in the starting lineup as Duke improved to 17-9. Denton just missed first-team All-ACC honors, finishing 21 votes behind No. 5 man Tom Owens. A year later, when Denton averaged 20.4 points and 12.8 rebounds for a 20-10 NIT team (and making the NIT meant something in that era, when just one team per conference could play in the NCAA), he made first team - 57 votes head of No. 5 man Tom Owens.
The point is that Denton became a very good player - one of the most underappreciated stars in Duke history. DeVenzio and Catherman started three seasons and became good players, but neither ever sniffed All-ACC honors. Evans quit basketball after his junior year and joined the Duke football team. With All-ACC Leo Hart at quarterback, Evans played at wide receiver. Steve Litz, who missed his sophomore season with an injury, never became more than a marginal player.
In terms of ratings, the Class of 1967 was one of the best in Duke history - probably the first Duke class ever judged to be the nation's best recruiting class (although, to be fair, there were no clearcut ratings in those days). In terms of performance, it was pretty mediocre. They never won a championship, never played in the NCAA Tournament and never finished in the top 25. Denton was named a Helms Foundation All-American in 1971, but that's the closest any member of the class came to real national recognition.
PERFORMANCE, NOT RATINGS
That class taught me not to buy in to the hype.
That's not to suggest that Krzyzewski's current crop won't be special, only to hold off to rating its greatness until we see how they perform - how well and how long.
That's another issue when it comes to recruiting classes these days. The best players rarely to stick around very long and that makes it hard to rate their contributions in competition with four-year players.
I call it the Kenny Anderson-Bobby Hurley conundrum.
Anderson and Hurley were the nation's two most celebrated point guards in the Class of 1989. Anderson was the clearcut No. 1 - so much so that when Hurley tried to commit to UNC, Dean Smith, thinking he was going to get Anderson, told him to wait.
It was one of El-Deano's worst decisions - as Anderson went to Georgia Tech and Hurley ended up at Duke, where he quarterbacked the Blue Devils to three Final Fours and two national championships.
But you know what?
Anderson WAS better. As a freshman, he averaged 20.6 points and 8.1 assists as he led Georgia Tech to the Final Four. Hurley averaged 8.8 points and 7.6 assists. Anderson outshot him by a wide margin from the floor and the 3-point line and owned a much better assist-to-turnover margin.
Hurley closed the gap a bit in 1991. With Dennis Scott and Brian Oliver gone, Anderson upped his scoring to 25.6 points a game, but his assist average dropped to 5.6 a game. Hurley averaged just 11.3 points a game, but led in assists with 7.6 a game. He also had a better assist/turnover ratio and shot almost as well as Anderson - better from the 3-point line. Most importantly, Hurley led Duke to another Final Four - and the school's first national championship, while Anderson's Jackets flamed out in the second round of the tournament.
At that point in their careers, Anderson was clearly the better player - a second-team All-American in 1990 and a consensus first-team pick in 1991.
But that's where their careers diverge. Anderson jumped to the pros after his second year in Atlanta … Hurley stayed at Duke for four seasons. In his third year, he led Duke to a second straight national title and earned consensus second-team All-American honors. As he a senior, he was a first-team All-American and finished as the all-time assist leader in NCAA history.
So which was the better recruit?
Head-to-head and year-to-year, the answer would be Anderson. But it would also be fair to suggest that Duke got more from four-years of Hurley than Georgia Tech did from two years of Anderson.
Longevity has got to be a factor when rating recruits and recruiting classes.
Jabari Parker is off to the best start by a freshman in Duke history. But even if he earns national player of the year honors and leads Duke to a national title, can he challenge as Duke's greatest recruit over four-year studs such as Christian Laettner, Shane Battier, Grant Hill and Danny Ferry?
Team success also has to play a part.
On paper, Austin Rivers had a better freshman year than Luol Deng, but Deng was the key piece that helped the 2004 Blue Devils to Final Four status. Rivers couldn't do that in 2012 (although it's fair to point out that team was crippled by the late loss of Ryan Kelly).
Of course, most of Duke's greatest teams have been the result of more than one great recruiting class. The back-to-back national champs of 1991-92 were the product of three significant classes that came one after the other - Christian Laettner and Brian Davis in 1988, Bobby Hurley and Thomas Hill in 1989 (along with Billy McCaffrey, a big part of the '91 title) and Grant Hill and Tony Lang in 1990.
The 2001 national champs were also a blend of two celebrated classes (1997 and 1999), plus a stud from the 2000 class. The 2010 champs were a blend between the 2006 class (John Scheyer, Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek) and the 2007 class (Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith).
But we're talking about single classes - not back-to-back recruiting hauls and not individual superstar pickups. The five greatest recruiting classes in Duke history - based on performance and not ranking - were, in my opinion:
1. 1982 - Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, David Henderson, Jay Bilas, Bill Jackman, Weldon Williams.
The foundation of K's dynasty. The funny thing about the class is that it was celebrated before it deserved any plaudits. The situation is that Coach K missed on a number of major recruiting targets in 1981 (Chris Mullins, Uwe Blab, Jimmy Miller, Bill Wennington were just a few). So when he beat Bobby Knight for Williams, landed Jackman from Nebraska - touted as the next Larry Bird - then added Bilas from California just before Christmas, it was celebrated as a great recruiting class. Indeed, it became one, but only because of the late additions of Dawkins, Alarie and - last of all - Henderson.
In the end, Williams would contribute little and Jackman would leave after one unsuccessful season. Bilas would become a solid, but hardly great center (he averaged 10.0 points and 6.0 rebounds in his best year). But Dawkins became a two-time All-American and a national player of the year. Alarie became a two-time first-team All-ACC performer. Henderson became a three-year starter (it would have been four, but he became the team's Sixth Man) and was one of the great clutch players of his era.
Four of these players started in 1983, when Duke was 11-17 and the same four were in the lineup when a 37-win Duke team played Louisville in the 1986 national championship game.
And not only did the Class of 1982 spark the birth of the Mike Krzyzewski era, they ended up combing more career points than any other single recruiting class in NCAA history - 7,537 points (Dawkins 2,556, Alarie 2,136, Henderson 1,570, Bilas 1,062, Williams 126, Jackman 87, at Duke).
2. 1997 - Elton Brand, Shane Battier, Chris Burgess and Will Avery.
When the three B's signed within days of each other in November of 1996, it was heralded as one of the great recruiting coups of all time. All three big men were rated in the top five nationally at that point and all three would win major national prep player of the year awards. Avery committed at that time, but didn't sign until spring after jumping through some very strict academic hoops.
In the interim, there was a well-publicized episode with Californian Baron Davis, rated the top point guard in the class. Coach K had recruited Davis early, but when he committed to UCLA, Krzyzewski moved on and got a commitment from Avery. Then Davis became embroiled in a controversy when it was learned that he had purchased an SUV at a ridiculously low price from the son of UCLA coach Jim Harrick. With the possibility of sanctions looming, Davis tried to bail on the Bruins. He called Coach K and tried to get Duke to reopen his recruiting - Krzyzewski, loyal to Avery (and maybe a bit wary of Davis at this point) refused to get involved.
No matter, the Duke Class of 1997 was rated No. 1 nationally.
Burgess would flop and Avery would bolt early after two excellent seasons. Brand, his freshman season spoiled by a broken foot in December, came back to win consensus national player of the year honors in 1999, when he, Battier and Avery anchored one of the most powerful teams in the history of the ACC.
That team fell short in the national title game to UConn and Brand then left for the NBA, but Battier stayed and helped anchor another celebrated freshman class to another dominant ACC season in 2000 and to a national championship in 2001.
When Battier won consensus national player of year honors in 2001, it made the Class of 1997 the only recruiting class in NCAA history to produce two separate NPOYs.
3. 1960 - Jeff Mullins, Jay Buckley, Buzzy Harrison, Fred Cox
Bubas scored a celebrated recruiting coup in 1959, when he stole Art Heyman - the nation's best recruit - from Frank McGuire at North Carolina.
But it was the next class that laid the foundation for Bubas' greatest teams.
Two years earlier, N.C. State assistant Bubas had snuck into Lexington, Ky., and quite literally stolen Clay High School star Jon Speaks from under the nose of a sputtering, furious Adolph Rupp. Speaks, Bubas' last contribution to Everett Case's dynasty, would earn All-ACC honors for the Wolfpack.
But Speaks' younger teammate was right there when Rupp flipped out over Bubas coup. And Jeff Mullins, who became Kentucky's Mr. Basketball as a senior in 1960, remembered the ugly scene and Bubas' classy behavior.
Mullins, a sweet-shooting 6-4 forward, would become the centerpiece of Bubas' greatest class. He was joined by slender 6-10 center Jay Buckley, a genius from Cheverly, Md., 6-3 guard Frank "Buzzy" Harrison, from Charleston, W.Va., and Fred Cox, a 6-5 forward from Pittsfield, Mass.
Cox never amounted to much, but the other three members of the class started for three seasons on three top 10 teams - including the first two Final Fours in Duke history.
Mullins was a star from day one, earning three straight first-team All-ACC honors. He was twice voted an All-American. He averaged 21.9 points for his career and is the only multi-year player in ACC history to hit double figures in every game of his career.
Both Buckley and Harrison earned second-team All-ACC honors as seniors. Buckley was a strong, solid player for most of his career, but much like Brian Zoubek 46 years later, he exploded in the final month of his senior season and was a major reason that the '64 Devils reached the NCAA title game.
4. 1999 - Jason Williams, Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy, Casey Sanders and Andre Buckner.
Although this was correctly rated as the nation's best recruiting class, it stands as a monument to how chancy recruiting rankings can be. Take Jason Williams, who ended up as the No. 3 prospect in the class. In the summer before his senior year of high school, he wanted to play for North Carolina, but Tar Heel coach Bill Guthridge told him that with Ron Curry in the fold, he didn't need a point guard and didn't think Williams was big enough to be a wing guard.
On the other hand, Coach K turned down a commitment from Casey Jacobson because he preferred the lower ranked Mike Dunleavy. That one turned out far better than Guthridge's miscue. And there was Sanders, one of four McDonald's All-Americans in the Duke class - who was not clearly that good.
Sanders did become a useful player at Duke, especially filling in for the injured Boozer in postseason play in 2001. Buckner, who was set to attend Tennessee as a walk-on, was recruited to be a practice player after the unexpected departure of Will Avery left K short in the backcourt. He filled that role to perfection.
But the other three all because standouts. Williams and Boozer (recovering from a preseason foot injury) started as freshmen with Dunleavy as the Sixth Man. They helped a Duke team decimated by defections and graduation (only three regulars returned from the '99 team) to a 15-1 ACC regular season, an ACC Tournament title (Williams was the MVP) and to a final No. 1 national ranking. A year later, Williams, Dunleavy and Boozer/Sanders started for Duke's third national title team. A year later, the Big Three started for another No. 1 ranked team.
Williams was a two-time first-team All-American and the 2002 national player of the year. Boozer and Dunleavy were first-team All-ACC in 2002.
They only stayed three years, but in those three years Duke won a national title, three ACC championships and finished with three final No. 1 rankings in the AP.
5. 2002 - J.J. Redick, Shelden Williams, Shavlik Randolph, Sean Dockery, Michael Thompson, Lee Melchionni.
Five of the super six (all except Melchionni) won McDonald's All-America honors. Like the 1997 and 1999 classes, it was celebrated as the best class in the country, although it had its hits and misses.
Redick, of course, was everything he was advertised to be - a two-time first-team All-American and the national player of the year in 2006. He finished his career as the leading scorer in Duke and ACC history (although he's since been passed by Tyler Hansbrough) and he still holds the NCAA record for the most career 3-pointers.
Williams, who ended his career as the No. 1 rebounder and No. 1 shot blocker in Duke history (and the No. 15 scorer), also finished his career as a consensus first-team All-American.
Randolph, his career derailed by a succession of health issues, was a useful player for three seasons until he left for the NBA, where he's played for a decade.
Dockery became a tenacious defensive guard and was a two-year starter. Melchionni, the son of former Duke star Gary Melchionni, paid his own way to school as a freshman due to the NCAA's short-lived five-player-a-class rule. He because a steady contributor, usually off the bench.
Thompson had the most disappointing career. The 6-10 prep All-American played little as a freshman at Duke, then transferred to Northwestern. But his career was cut short there because of a heart ailment.
It should be noted that the 1982, 1997, 1999 and 2002 classes were all touted as the nation's best recruiting classes - and all four turned out to be great classes.
On the other hand, the top-rated 2005 Class (Josh McRoberts, Greg Paulus, Eric Boateng, Jamal Boykin and Marty Pocius) was - like my 1967 class - a major disappointment … at least in Duke terms. Boateng and Boykin both had useful careers in the Pac 10, while Pocius has been a successful international player, but none of the three ever contributed much at Duke. McRoberts gave the program two solid years before jumping to the NBA.
Paulus, a good player who never became the great point guard he was projected to be, was the last man standing in his class - and even he finished off his college career playing football for Syracuse.
That class reminds me of another disappointing class from my youth.
Bucky Waters' first recruiting class was one of the most fun teams I've ever watched at Duke. They went 16-0 as freshmen in 1969-70 and seemed to promise a bright future for Duke basketball headed into the new decade.
Instead, the class fell apart. Boston guard Jim Fitzsimmons got homesick and before finishing his freshman season, he transferred to Harvard (where he led the Ivy in scoring). Guard Jeff Dawson started and averaged almost 10 points a game as a sophomore in '71, transferred to Illinois for his last two years (where he led the Illini in scoring). Swing man Richie O'Connor was leading the team in scoring midway through his junior year, when he bolted, landing at Fairfield where he led the Stags to the NIT. Incidentally, his coach there was future ACC commissioner of officials Fred Barakat.
Two players stuck it out, but slender center Alan Shaw (second-team All-ACC as a junior) and heady guard Gary Melchionni (first-team All-ACC as a senior) weren't enough to halt the demise of Duke basketball in the early 1970s.
Ah, well, I guess all that this walk down my personal memory lane proves is that it's much easier to evaluate a recruiting class in hindsight than to project its success in advance. I think the odds are very good that K's latest haul will have a major impact - most of the Duke classes rated No. 1 have been major contributors.
But I'm not giving it a rank in Duke recruiting annals until I see how the class pans out.