Duke basketball is viewed as a Blue Blood. It’s easy to see why. Chartered flights, world-class training facilities, prime-time TV spots. And that seemingly never-ending parade of Adam Stern shaking hands with Duke players, while the cameras flash.
But there’s another side of Duke basketball, one grittier, more blue collar.
Can Marques Bolden tap into that?
Since 2005 nine former Duke players have played in at least one regular-season NBA game without being drafted.
Some of them didn’t last all that long. DeMarcus Nelson played 13 games for Golden State in 2008-’09 before beginning a lucrative career overseas. Andre Dawkins played four games, Marshall Plumlee 29. Trevon Duval saw action in three games last season in Milwaukee but is now trying to carve out a permanent spot with Houston.
But others have been more successful. Shavlik Randolph played 146 games for five NBA teams over eight separate seasons.
But when Randolph wasn’t playing in the NBA he was playing overseas, much of that in China.
There’s another way to work yourself from undrafted to NBA contract, one that Lance Thomas, Seth Curry, Quinn Cook and Amile Jefferson have followed; a mixture of Summer League, G-League, short-term contracts, all designed to make the strongest case possible for NBA employment.
Thomas certainly set the template, at least for Duke players.
A 6-8 defensive specialist, Thomas was ignored after averaging a modest 4.8 points and 4.9 rebounds per game for Duke’s 2010 NCAA champions.
Thomas went to work. He played two seasons for the Austin Toros for what was then called the D-League. He was signed by New Orleans and cut, signed some 10-day contracts and was waived again, signed again, waived again.
He played 106 games in three seasons for New Orleans. He played briefly in China, signed with Houston, was traded to the Knicks and waived again. He finally stuck in New York after two more 10-day contracts led to a full contract with the Knicks.
Obviously, some patience and perseverance were required. But Thomas also found time to improve and refine his game. At Duke Thomas never even attempted a three-point shot. He hit 60 percent from the foul line and had 64 assists against 166 turnovers.
He was not an offensive force.
Fast forward to the end of the 2018-’19 season. Thomas is a career 38 percent three-point shooter in the NBA, a .797 free-throw shooter. He’s has 260 assists, 260 turnovers.
And he’s added 20 pounds of muscle.
None of which just happened.
Thomas is a free agent. Reports are that he and the Knicks are trying to make the numbers work for next season. But even if he never plays another NBA game he has 392 under his belt, 392 more than most people would have predicted back in 2010.
Curry and Cook have similar stories, bursts of encouragement framed by disappointments and discouragements and lots of hard work and confidence. Curry signed a contract this summer with Dallas, Cook with the Lakers and both appear to be set for the long haul.
Jefferson got a dozen games for Orlando last season and is a restricted free agent. He’s proven to be an elite rebounder at the G-League and Summer League level and hopes to use that skill to carve out an expanded role
Which brings us back to Bolden. No one was stunned when he went undrafted after averaging 5.3 points per game last season for Duke. But Bolden went the try-out route, says he got good feedback and stayed in the draft. He signed a contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers and has been playing for their Summer-League team.
He hasn’t dominated. But he hasn’t looked over-matched either. He had 10 points and eight rebounds against San Antonio, 13 points against New Orleans.
I had a chance to talk with the NBA’s Chris Ekstrand, who’s watched Bolden this summer.
Here’s what he said.
“I really like what Marques Bolden has been showing in NBA Summer League for the Cavaliers. His numbers are not enormous, but he’s been highly productive in playing time he has been given. He has played big with a presence in the paint on both ends. Good hands to make the catch on the pick and roll and plenty of dunks. Has blocked shots and intimidated others.”
Something to work with. Bolden is long, fairly athletic, well-coached and practiced with and against and played against some of the best players in college basketball.
There’s no guarantee Bolden will start the season with Cleveland or anyone else. But the Cavaliers seem to be in full rebuilding mode and Bolden may well have a future with them. But does he have the patience and the toughness and the work ethic to fight through the obstacles that will be placed in his way as an undrafted project?
Not the most compelling Duke-related NBA storyline this season. But one to watch, as Marques Bolden tries to become the latest former Blue Devil to beat the odds and become an NBA player.