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The Brotherhood Carries Duke Basketball Into The NBA Playoffs

And the beat goes on

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NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Boston Celtics
Feb 7, 2019; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving (11) drives the ball against Los Angeles Lakers forward Brandon Ingram (14) in the first quarter at TD Garden. 
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

At least one former Duke player has been in the NBA since 1963-’64, when Art Heyman entered the league. Heyman lasted three years in the NBA, then two in the ABA. But lengthy NBA careers by Jeff Mullins (1965-1976) and Jack Marin (1967-1977) kept Duke well-represented in the league deep into the 1970s.

But those mediocre 1970s year caught up. By 1979 Tate Armstrong was Duke’s only NBA representative and he only played 26 games, for the Chicago Bulls.

That all changed in the 1980s, when Mike Gminski (14 seasons), Gene Banks (six), Johnny Dawkins (nine) and Danny Ferry (13) began long and productive NBA careers.

Still there were many years when the number of Blue Devils in the NBA could be counted on one hand and the narrative was out there that Mike Krzyzewski couldn’t produce top-shelf pro players.

Fast forward to 2019 and we find 24 Duke players seeing the court in at least one regular-season NBA game. That’s right, an even two dozen.

It could have been more. Marshall Plumlee elected to begin his military career rather than chase 10-day contracts. Free-agent Kyle Singler took a sure thing in Europe. Injuries derailed Gerald Henderson’s comeback attempt. Matt Jones had a solid G League season but never got a call-up.

Eight of these 24 players made their NBA debuts this past season. That includes all five of 2018 Duke’s starters, Grayson Allen, Marvin Bagley, Wendell Carter, Trevon Duval and Gary Trent. Harry Giles and Frank Jackson suited up after sitting out the 2018 season with injuries, while Amile Jefferson came up through the G League.

That makes 79 former Duke players who have played in the NBA and/or ABA.

That’s quantity.

How about quality?

Not surprisingly, some hits and some misses.

Trent (15 NBA games), Jefferson (12) and Duval (three) spent most of the season in the G League. Rodney Hood, Jabari Parker and Austin Rivers were all traded, although all three became rotation players with their new teams.

Injuries played a negative role. Miles Plumlee played only 18 games due to a knee injury. Carter’s promising rookie season ended with a thumb injury after 44 games, Brandon Ingram’s third season after 52 games due to deep vein thrombosis.

Assorted injuries held Lance Thomas to 46 games.

Positive story lines?

Too many to count.

Seth Curry returned from missing all of the 2018 season, becoming a solid player for Portland, where his teammates included Hood and Trent. Minnesota’s Tyus Jones set an NBA record for assist-to-turnover ratio (6.96), while his Duke classmate Jahlil Okafor revived his moribund career in New Orleans. Quinn Cook developed into a solid bench player for Golden State, while Miami’s Justise Winslow has become a Swiss Army Knife, even playing point guard.

And what to make of J.J. Redick?

Nine former Blue Devils averaged double-digit points this season. Eight were players who played a single season at Duke, all eight in their 20s.

Redick was the exception, The oldest Blue Devil in the league--he turns 35 in June--Redick set a career high with 18.1 points per game.

In his 13th season.

Who does that?

And Redick accomplished this for the 76ers, one of the NBA’s best teams, playing in high-intensity games.

But Redick still fell short of all-star status. Only Kyrie Irving played at that level.

Statistically, Irving had a marvelous season, 24 points and seven assists per game, while shooting 40 percent on 3-pointers.

But Irving has been a flash point, with a much-publicized free-agency looming and the Celtics failing to match their lofty preseason expectations.

A deep playoff run would both exacerbate the free-agency dilemma and assuage the ho-hum preseason.

Are there candidates to join Irving at the all-star level?

Certainly looks that way. Ingram (18.3 ppg), Jayson Tatum (15.7), Bagley (15, 7.6 rpg) and Carter (10 and 7) are on an upward trajectory with very high ceilings.

But there are cautionary tales. Okafor averaged 17.5 points and 7 rebounds per game as a rookie and has never come close to that since. Parker was averaging 20 ppg in his third season when he went down with a knee injury that turned him from budding star to good-player-to-lead-the-second unit.

Eleven Blue Devils entered the NBA playoffs, at least on paper. Trent, Jefferson and Duval likely won’t play at all, Allen (Utah) not much and nobody expects Luke Kennard and the Pistons to hang around very long.

Cook likely has the best chance to cut down the nets, assuming Golden State overcomes their epic game-two meltdown against the Clippers. But we also could be seeing Irving and Tatum (Boston), Redick (Philadelphia), Mason Plumlee (Denver) Hood and Curry (Portland) and Rivers (Houston) play well into May, perhaps June.

Now you may think no one in the NBA plays defense or you only need to watch the last two minutes or whatever. But if so, you probably haven’t read this far.

There’s no doubt that the one-and-done-format of the NCAA Tournament gives it a special urgency. But a best-of-seven series can be just as compelling, in different ways, as a series ebbs and flows, as grudges mount and grievances are aired.

So, in between the recruiting and the 2020 minutes speculation, some of Duke’s biggest names are still playing high-stakes basketball. I’ll be tuning in to see Jayson Tatum defying gravity, J.J. Redick defying time.

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