clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Jim Sumner On Duke & The NBA!

We've had a number of discussions recently on the relationship between NCAA team success and future NBA individual success. Few would deny the obvious relationship. Better players tend to play in the NBA and teams with better players tend to win games. No team has won an NCAA title without at least one future NBA player since

But how close is the correlation? Let's look at the NBA and Duke. First, some ground rules. I'm only considering the NBA and the long-gone ABA. Guys like Chris Carrawell and Ricky Price made nice livings overseas but that doesn't count. Likewise, I'm considering the CBA and the NBDL as minor leagues. So when I refer to "pros" I'm referring to NBA and ABA players.

I'm also aware that some great college players never made it in the NBA. Carrawell, for example. Or take Duke's Class of 1987. Tommy Amaker was a four-year starter, the national defensive player of the year, and one of the best pure point guards in school history. Classmate Marty Nessley spent four years battling injuries and weight issues and never became a player of great impact. Yet, it's Nessley who played in the NBA, while Amaker was cut in his rookie pre-season. And of course, even some of Duke's best future NBA players spent an apprenticeship coming off the bench.

So, with those qualifiers, let's take a look. Six seems to be the upper limit, at least for now. Five different Duke teams have had six future pros, although a core of players account for three of those five.


1966. Jack Marin, Bob Verga, Steve Vacendak, Mike Lewis, Bob Riedy, Joe Kennedy. Maybe a surprise. But Vic Bubas has always argued that his 1966 team was his best and it's easy to see why. Marin played 11 seasons in the NBA and played in two all-star games. Verga once averaged 27.5 points per game for the Carolina Cougars, while Lewis once averaged 14.6 rebounds per game for the Pittsburgh Pipers, so these guys were players of consequence. Reserve forward Joe Kennedy missed much of the 1966 season due to academics. But rules are rules, so Kennedy, who played in both the ABA and NBA, makes six. The 1966 team made the Final Four, losing to Kentucky in the semifinals.

1992. Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley, Brian Davis, Tony Lang, Cherokee Parks. Unless you logged on to this board by mistake, you know all about the 1992 NCAA title team. Laettner, Hill, and Hurley all have their jerseys hanging from the Cameron rafters and the first two were NBA All-Stars, Hill numerous times. Starter Thomas Hill never cracked an NBA lineup in a regular-season game but 1992 reserves Tony Lang and Cherokee Parks later became starters at Duke.

2002. Jason Williams, Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy, Chris Duhon, Dahntay Jones, Daniel Ewing. The first of three consecutive Duke teams with six future pros. Williams was consensus national player of the year but a motorcycle accident ended his pro career after a single season. Boozer is an NBA All-Star, Dunleavy is heading in that direction, and Duhon should be in the NBA for a long time. The 2002 team entered the NCAAs ranked number one but lost to Indiana in the Sweet Sixteen.

2003-Duhon, Jones, Ewing, J.J. Redick, Shelden Williams, Shavlik Randolph. A perfect example of reloading, not rebuilding. Subtract Williams, Boozer, and Dunleavy, add Redick, another Williams, and Randolph. 26 wins, another Sweet Sixteen.

2004-Duhon, Ewing, Redick, Williams, Randolph, Luol Deng. This team joined 1966 and 1992 in the Final Four, led by senior Duhon and freshman Deng, who have carved out solid NBA career in Chicago. So having six future NBA players gives a team a 60 percent chance of making the Final Four. That is, if you think five teams is a big enough sample size.

But, of course, Duke has been to the Final Four 11 times without six future NBA players. Several of those have had five. Let's look at those.


1979. Mike Gminski, Jim Spanarkel, Gene Banks, Kenny Dennard, Vince Taylor. One that didn't make it to the last weekend was the star-crossed 1979 team. Duke went to the NCAA title game in 1978, where they lost to Kentucky. But Bill Foster's club returned everyone of consequence, including a quartet of future pros, Gminski, Spanarkel, Banks, and Dennard. Taylor joined the 1979 team, albeit as a reserve. But injuries and pressure ended that team's season well short of expectations.

1986. Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, David Henderson, Danny Ferry, Marty Nessley. The first three were seniors in 1986, while Ferry was a freshman. Four pretty good players. Nessley was the fifth NBA player and I'm almost ashamed to list him except for the fact that I never miss an opportunity to list the 1986 team among the best of anything. So thanks to the Los Angeles Clippers and Sacramento Kings, who gave Nessley a 44-game tryout in 1988. 37 wins, Krzyzewski's first Final Four, and a tantalizing near-miss in the NCAA title game. Dawkins, Alarie, and Ferry had solid pro careers, although injuries hampered all three.

1991. Laettner, Hill, Hurley, Davis, Lang. We've already talked about Duke's 1992 title team. Its predecessor had every future pro on that team except Parks. Incidentally, that heavily-favored UNLV team that Duke edged en route to its first NCAA title only had three future pros, Larry Johnson, Stacy Augmon, and Greg Anthony. Maybe it wasn't that big of an upset after all.

1998-Roshown McLeod, Trajan Langdon, Elton Brand, Shane Battier, William Avery. Duke won only one NCAA Tournament game from 1995-1997. This team marked the return of Duke in the NCAAs. Brand, Battier, and Avery duplicated the Dawkins, Alarie, Henderson freshman class of 1983 in introducing three future pros to the Duke program. Unlike 1983, this team had talented upperclassmen like senior McLeod and junior Langdon. 32 wins and an appearance in the Elite Eight.

1999-Langdon, Brand, Battier, Avery, Corey Maggette. Arguably the most talented team in Duke history, the 1999 team was one play away from being on the short list of best college teams ever. Of course, we all know that Connecticut made that one play. Still, the talent on this 37-2 team is undeniable, led by consensus national player of the year and future NBA All-Star Elton Brand. Note that Maggette, who has scored almost 9,000 points in the NBA, didn't start for this loaded team because, frankly, he wasn't good enough.

2001-Battier, Jason Williams, Dunleavy, Boozer, Duhon. Two years later, Duke had almost completely rebuilt. Battier, the consensus national player of the year, was the common denominator, leading a trio of sophomores and a sole freshmen. Note that this is the only one of Duke's NCAA champions to start five future pros in the Final Four.

So Duke has had 11 teams with either five or six future NBA players. All won at least 22 games. The 1991, 1992, and 2001 teams won it all, while the 1966, 1986, 1999, and 2004 teams made the Final Four. Some of these teams underachieved in March but its hard to argue that Vic Bubas, Bill Foster, or Mike Krzyzewski didn't know what to do with talent.

Once we drop below five, it becomes a bit problematic. Let's take a look at the teams with four.

1965-Marin, Verga, Vacendak, Riedy. The core of the 1966 team, minus Lewis, who was a freshman and thus ineligible. This team went 20-5 but was upset by North Carolina State in the ACC Tournament finals. Under the rules in place in those days, this loss ended Duke's season.

1967. Verga, Lewis, Riedy, Kennedy. All but Kennedy started and senior Verga had a spectacular senior season. But this team never blended, losing half of its first ten games and finishing 18-9.

1977-Tate Armstrong, Jim Spanarkel, Mike Gminski, Mark Crow. This team went 14-13. Bad coaching by Foster? Well, Duke was 11-3 when Armstrong was lost for the season with a broken right wrist. I've always thought this is one of the most intriguing what-might-have-beens in Duke history. Duke probably wasn't an NCAA team with Armstrong--two was the maximum from a single league in those days--but an NIT bid was on the horizon and an NIT appearance for Duke in 1977 would have been a big deal. And Armstrong certainly deserved a better ending to his college career.

1978. Spanarkel, Gminski, Banks, Dennard. What a difference a year makes. Spanarkel and Gminski became stars with a year's maturity and freshmen forwards Banks and Dennard added a swagger not seen since the Bubas heyday. Gminski, by the way, played 14 seasons in the NBA and scored almost 11,000 points, with 6,480 rebounds. The G-Man rarely is mentioned as a great NBA player and that's probably fair. But he was a pretty good player for an long period and the only Foster-era player to have an extended NBA career. It should be noted that an Achilles injury ended Banks' career after six years.

1980. Gminski, Banks, Dennard, Taylor. All started for the 1980 team, which made it to the final eight in Bill Foster's last season in Durham.

1984, 1985. Dawkins, Alarie, Henderson, Nessley. Again Nessley skews this a bit, maybe more than a bit. But these seasons were prelude to the big run in 1986, 24-10 and 23-8. Building blocks to the program Krzyzewski was putting together.

1989-Ferry, Laettner, Alaa Abdelnaby, Davis. This is one of those asterisk seasons. Ferry was national player of the year, junior Abdelnaby and freshman Laettner split time, and Davis barely got off the bench. Still, we're talking Final Four here.

1990-Laettner, Abdelnaby, Davis, Bobby Hurley. Ferry for Hurley. An interesting trade. But the maturation of Laettner and Abdelnaby, combined with the contributions of seniors Phil Henderson and Robert Brickey, took this team to the title game against UNLV, about which we will speak no further.

1993-Hurley, Hill, Parks, Lang. Another-what-might-have-been. Hill entered the NCAAs hampered by a bad toe, while Parks sprained an ankle midway through the California game. Thus Duke's streak of five consecutive Final Four appearances. Still, a 24-8 record pales only when compared to the years that surrounded 1993.

2000-Battier, Jason Williams, Boozer, Dunleavy. Talk about being surrounded. A 29-5 team bracketed between two of the best teams in ACC history. The loss of Brand, Langdon, Avery, and Maggette following the 1999 NCAA title game was an almost unprecedented talent drain. But Duke brought in Williams, Boozer, and Dunleavy and reloaded for the 2001 title run. The fact that senior Chris Carrawell, the 2000 ACC Player of the Year, never made the NBA vividly points out the limitations of this survey.

So, eleven teams with four future pros. All but the 1967 and 1977 teams won at least 20 games, while three made the Final Four.

But if you're counting, that still leaves a quartet of Final Four teams unaccounted for.

1963, 1964. Art Heyman, Jeff Mullins, Marin, Vacendak. The 1963 team was Duke's first to advance to the last weekend. Heyman and Mullins were two of the best players in Duke history and Bubas surrounded them with solid talent, several of whom might have played-for-pay in a universe with more pro teams. Heyman graduated in 1963 but Mullins led Duke to the Final Four in 1964. Sophomores Marin and Vacendak were reserves on that team.

1994. Hill, Parks, Lang. It's probably an exaggeration to state that Grant Hill willed this team to the NCAA title game but not by much. Still, Parks, Lang, and fellow starters Jeff Capel and Chris Collins blended their talents with Hill's to produce a team that maximized its talents as well as any in Duke history.

1988. Ferry, Abdelnaby. Finally, we have the 1988 team, the clearest example of what a team can do without a roster loaded with NBA talent. Only two players advanced to the next level and Abdelnaby only played 320 minutes that season. But Krzyzewski melded Ferry's exceptional talents with those of specialists like Billy King, Kevin Strickland, and Quin Snyder to advance to his second Final Four.

I'm not going to predict what, if anything, this means to the 2008 season. For one thing, there's simply no way to predict which members of this year's Duke team will advance to the NBA. A lot of experts will be surprised if Kyle Singler and Gerald Henderson don't have long, solid NBA careers but it's hard to tell after that. Anybody see Brian Davis in the NBA in 1989? But Duke has had at least one future NBA player in the program every single season for almost five decades, a remarkable run that doesn't seem likely to end anytime soon.


I haven't mentioned every team of course. But the appendix below lists every pro player at Duke beginning with Vic Bubas' first season in 1960. No Duke team prior to that had more than a single pro player.

  • 1960-Doug Kistler
  • 1961-Kistler, Heyman
  • 1962-Heyman, Mullins
  • 1963-Heyman, Mullins
  • 1964-Mullins, Marin, Vacendak
  • 1965-Marin, Vacendak, Verga, Riedy
  • 1966-Marin, Verga, Lewis, Vacendak, Riedy, Kennedy
  • 1967-Verga, Lewis, Riedy, Kennedy
  • 1968-Lewis, Kennedy
  • 1969-Randy Denton
  • 1970-Denton
  • 1971-Denton, Gary Melchionni
  • 1972-Melchionni,
  • 1973-Melchionni
  • 1974-Armstrong, Crow
  • 1975-Armstrong, Crow
  • 1976-Armstrong, Crow, Spanarkel
  • 1977-Armstrong, Crow, Spanarkel, Gminski
  • 1978-Spanarkel, Gminski, Banks, Dennard
  • 1979-Spanarkel, Gminski, Banks, Dennard, Taylor
  • 1980-Gminski, Banks, Taylor, Dennard
  • 1981-Banks, Taylor, Dennard
  • 1982-Taylor
  • 1983-Dawkins, Alarie, Henderson
  • 1984-Dawkins, Alarie, Henderson, Nessley
  • 1985-Dawkins, Alarie, Henderson, Nessley
  • 1986-Dawkins, Alarie, Henderson, Nessley, Ferry
  • 1987-Ferry, Nessley, Abdenlaby,
  • 1988-Ferry, Abdelnaby
  • 1989-Ferry, Abdelnaby, Laettner, Davis
  • 1990-Abdelnaby, Laettner, Davis, Hurley
  • 1991-Laettner, Hurley, Hill, Lang, Davis
  • 1992-Laettner, Hurley, Hill, Lang, Davis, Parks
  • 1993-Hurley, Hill, Lang, Parks
  • 1994-Hill, Parks, Lang,
  • 1995-Parks, Langdon
  • 1996-no one [Langdon and McLeod redshirted]
  • 1997-Langdon, McLeod
  • 1998-Langdon, McLeod, Brand, Battier, Avery
  • 1999-Langdon, Brand, Battier, Avery, Maggette
  • 2000-Battier, Boozer, J.Williams, Dunleavy
  • 2001-Battier, Boozer, J.Williams, Dunleavy, Duhon
  • 2002-Boozer, J.Williams, Dunleavy, Duhon, Jones, Ewing
  • 2003-Duhon, Jones, Ewing, Redick, S.Williams, Randolph
  • 2004-Duhon, Ewing, Redick, S.Williams, Randolph, Deng
  • 2005-Ewing, Redick, S.Williams
  • 2006-Redick, S.Williams, Josh McRoberts
  • 2007-McRoberts