You probably don’t remember Clifton McNeely. He played basketball for Texas Wesleyan. Not Texas Western. Texas Wesleyan. The one in Fort Worth.
The Pittsburgh Ironmen of the Basketball Association of America selected McNeely as the first pick of the 1947 BAA draft. The Ironmen disappeared shortly afterwards but the BAA is very much still with us, although we know it as the National Basketball Association.
McNeely never played for the Ironmen. He was 28 in 1947, a World War II vet and just married. And he had an offer to coach high-school basketball in Pampa, Texas.
Pampa High School seemed like a better bet than a fledgling pro basketball league. McNeely settled in for a long and distinguished career in the Texas panhandle.
A lot has changed since 1947.
Dick Groat was the first Duke player drafted. He was the third pick in 1952. He played part of one season for the Fort Wayne Pistons and likely could have been an NBA star. But major league baseball was well above the NBA in the 1950s pro sports pecking order and there’s little doubt that Groat made the right decision to opt for the national pastime.
Groat started a trend. Going into Thursday Duke has had 94 players drafted. Since Groat, the longest gap Duke has had without a draft pick was two years, 1959 and 1960 and 1996 and 1997.
The dimensions of the draft were much different back in the day. Think many fewer teams, think much deeper draft. Jim Newcome was the picked in the 14th round in 1958. Now there were only eight teams in the NBA in 1958, so Newcome was the 85th pick.
The NBA started massive expansion in the 1960s but the draft didn’t contract as fast as you might think. Tom Emma was selected in the 10th round in 1983, the 210th overall pick. That’s the latest any Duke player has ever been selected. Dan Meagher (126), Jay Bilas (108) and Marty Nessley (116) were all selected outside the top 100 during the 1980s.
The draft was compressed to a more-manageable two rounds beginning in 1989.
Duke had two players selected as early as 1954 (Rudy D’Emilio and Bernie Janicki) and three as early as 1971 (Randy Denton, Rick Katherman and Larry Saunders).
Not surprisingly, the great class of 1986 was the first time Duke had a quartet of players selected in the same draft. In addition to Bilas, Johnny Dawkins was picked 10th, Mark Alarie 18th and David Henderson 56th.
Dawkins and Alarie were the first pair of Duke players selected in the first round of the same draft.
All of the players mentioned so far and numerous others unmentioned were seniors. The paradigm changed following the 1999 season, the first time Duke had four players picked in the first round. In fact it was the first time any school had four players picked in the first round.
Elton Brand was picked first, Trajan Langdon 11th, Corey Maggette 13th, William Avery 14th.
The kicker was that Langdon was the only senior in the group. Brand and Avery were sophomores, Maggette a freshman, the first of a deluge of Duke underclassmen to bail early for the NBA.
Only, the deluge was really just a stream for more than a decade.
Even after 1999, 10 of the next 11 Duke draft picks were either juniors or seniors, 16 of the next 20. Luol Deng followed Maggette as a freshman one-and-done in 2004 but Duke had to wait another seven years for a freshman to leave.
That freshman, of course, was Kyrie Irving. In a very real sense Irving was as much a paradigm-changer as the 1999 group. Duke may not have viewed Irving as a one-and-done when they started recruiting him but by the time he showed up on campus Duke had no illusions. They knew they had Irving for a single season, the same realization they had with Austin Rivers, Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor and so many more since then.
There have been a few surprises along the way, Tyus Jones, perhaps Frank Jackson. But the default view now is that any top-25 or so recruit who gets major minutes as a freshman is a realistic possibility to go pro after a year. A first-round guarantee is no longer necessary, not even a draft guarantee.
Of course, all those one-and-dones have made draft night an advertisement for Duke hoops. Since 2013’s senior-heavy team Duke has had 14 NBA draft picks. Grayson Allen was the only senior selected (2018), Rodney Hood (2014) and Luke Kennard (2017) the only sophomores. The other 11 were freshmen. Duke had four picks in both the 2017 and 2018 drafts.
Ironically, 2010 was the last year no Duke player was drafted, with three senior starters on an NCAA-title team ignored.
That’s not going to happen this week, of course. Duke will have a trio of freshmen picked in the first round, perhaps a trio of top-10 picks for the first time.
And none of them will turn down the NBA for a high-school coaching job.