Why are so many Duke Blue Devils awesome in college and awful in the pros?

The stadium scene.
April 2 2010 5:57 PM

The Duke Fluke

Why are so many Blue Devils awesome in college and awful in the pros?

Duke basketball. Click image to expand.
Why aren't Duke players more successful in the NBA?

For the first time in what seems like ages, America's most-hated college basketball team is back in its usual perch. The six years that have elapsed since Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski's last trip to the Final Four are an outlier in his 30-year tenure. Coach K, who has a record 75 NCAA tournament wins, now has 11 Final Four appearances on his résumé, a total that puts him just behind coaching paragon John Wooden.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

One overwhelming factor can explain this run of success: talent. Only North Carolina has recruited more McDonald's high-school All-Americans—the first McDonald's team was selected in the late 1970s, just prior to Krzyzewski's arrival—and no team has netted more consensus top-50 recruits in the last decade. Many of these guys have gone on to the pros: NBA franchises have drafted 40 of Coach K's players, and 14 Blue Devils have played in the league this season alone. But when you consider their prep and collegiate accomplishments, these Dukies have made a surprisingly small mark on the NBA. No Duke player from the last three decades has been a core player on an NBA titlist, and just four—Grant Hill, Christian Laettner, Elton Brand, and Carlos Boozer—have played in an NBA All-Star game. (Shane Battier was recently dubbed a "No-Stats All-Star" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Magazine, however.)

Don't expect any of this year's Blue Devils to change that trend. NBA draft analyst Jonathan Givony has four Duke players ranked in his top 100 prospects, none higher than freshman Mason Plumlee at No. 31. (Leading scorers Kyle Singler and Jon Scheyer are No. 40 and No. 99, respectively; Nolan Smith is not ranked.)

So, what's the explanation for Duke's lack of NBA accolades? While no single answer can account for the careers of Danny Ferry, William Avery, and Shavlik Randolph, I consulted with high-school-talent evaluators, stat mavens, a pro-basketball trainer, and a former Blue Devil on my quest for a grand unified theory. During these conversations I heard eight different theories for Duke's questionable NBA pedigree. (One that should be dismissed out of hand: the school's high academic standards. As a scholastic cohort, Duke hoopsters aren't in the same universe as the rest of the university.) Here's a rundown of the hypotheses.

Coach K's motivational techniques are too masterful. Part of the Krzyzewski mythos is that he is no mere coach. He is a leader of men, a commander so strong and wise that a Duke leadership and ethics institute bears his name. Basketball trainer and ESPN.com writer David Thorpe believes the hype. Duke's hoopsters "are playing for the best motivator in the country maybe in any sport," he says. Thorpe, who has trained ex-Dukies Luol Deng, Chris Carrawell, Brian Davis, and David McClure, believes this can work against Blue Devils players when they leave campus. "In the NBA, nobody cares," Thorpe says. "It's not a place where they're going to … push you every day. It has to come from within."

Thorpe cites Carrawell as an exemplar of this theory. The ACC player of the year in 2000, Carrawell was "a can't-miss NBA guy coming out of high school and college," Thorpe says. After he left Duke, though, the trainer thinks Carrawell got complacent and didn't improve his game enough to impress pro scouts. The consequence: He didn't get picked until the second round and was soon out of the league. Without "Mike Krzyzewski banging on him every day, he was flouncing in the water," Thorpe argues.

Bad luck. Bobby Hurley and Jay Williams both had their pro tenures cut short by motor-vehicle accidents. Grant Hill's likely path to the Hall of Fame was derailed by a succession of on-court injuries. Hurley and Williams might've flopped in any case, but if either one of those guys had played the point for a championship team, the perception of Duke's NBA pedigree would likely be different.

Some players are just overrated. Anyone who saw Shavlik Randolph play at Duke would have a hard time understanding why he was a McDonald's All-American. The same goes for a whole bunch of other Blue Devils players—Steve Wojciechowski, Taymon Domzalski, Nate James, and Eric Boateng among many, many others—who entered school with McDonald's plaudits that seem mystifying in retrospect. With the exception of Randolph, these overhyped players—OK, how about a few more: Sean Dockery, Greg PaulusCasey Sanders—were never good enough in Durham, N.C., to even get a chance to wash out of the NBA.*

It's possible that there's some credential bias going on here. When a player commits to Coach K—this usually happens before McDonald's releases its All-American game roster—the talent evaluators assume he must be really good. Dick Vitale, too, will likely start talking him up, and before you know it everyone's convinced that Greg Paulus is one of the best prospects in the country. Paulus was on a 2008 Duke team that featured eight McDonald's All-Americans—and nevertheless lost to West Virginia in the NCAA tournament's second round. "Oh my God," Mountaineers sub Cam Thoroughman said after learning that Paulus was a high-school all-star. "Are you kidding?"

The Golden Arches are corrupt. A more-sinister variant on the previous theory: Blue Devils players are overrated intentionally because Duke is the most-prominent, most-ESPN-approved basketball factory. Sonny Vaccaro, the longtime shoe company rep who basically invented the concept of high-school all-stardom, says the McDonald's All-American game is "biased towards the kids who go to school in the East and the ACC." Instead of selecting the nation's 24 best players, Vaccaro believes, you can "almost exclude failure" by choosing guys who go to Duke and North Carolina. "The public thinks you're automatically an All-American if you go to certain schools," he says. "The team is marketed through the ability for the players to be on television."

Bob Gibbons, who has been on the McDonald's selection committee for more than 30 years, says he doesn't think Duke players get an artificial boost. He also points out that a lot of McDonald's guys—not just the ones who go to Duke—fail to make it big. After hearing the long list of mysterious, Duke-bound honorees, though, Gibbons confesses that "some of them, maybe in a given year, might not have deserved it." (Gibbons also volunteered Josh McRoberts as an addition to my list of unduly hyped prepsters.)

Dukies get undeserved love from NBA scouts. It's not just Durham-bound high-schoolers who get overrated. While it's hard to believe in retrospect that a future All-Star like Carlos Boozer fell to the second round, it's more common to look back in wonderment at Blue Devils who soared too high. William Avery, Roshown McLeod, Cherokee Parks, and Trajan Langdon all got taken in the first round, perhaps in large measure due to the name on the front of their jerseys. "I think that there's a certain level of comfort … with the big schools," says Givony, the NBA draft guru. The scouts "know that these guys are well-coached, they know that they're going to be high character, they've seen them play a lot."

Out of all the big schools, NBA teams likely fall harder for Dukies because of their NCAA tournament success. In Stumbling on Wins, economists David J. Berri and Martin B. Schmidt find that players who appear in the Final Four the year they're drafted get a boost of 12 draft positions. Berri and Schmidt believe that this boost is unwarranted. One of the "statistically significant factors … that lead to less productivity in the NBA," they write, is "playing for an NCAA champion the year drafted."

No college basketball program can mold NBA stars. Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, LeBron James, Amare Stoudemire, and Dwight Howard never went to college. None of them seems to be any worse off for never having had the tutelage of Coach K or Roy Williams or Jim Calhoun.

From 1995 to 2005, when high-school players were eligible for the NBA draft, the simple act of going to college marked you as an inferior player. Even with the NBA's minimum-age rule in effect today, Sonny Vaccaro argues that college basketball "has nothing to do with making you a pro player." While an unpolished prospect like St. Mary's Omar Samhan can clearly get better with the help of college coaching, there's only so much Coach K or anyone else can do to make a great player even greater.

Coach K wants to win games, not develop pros. Even if college coaching doesn't have much impact on players' NBA potential, some schools (such as the University of Connecticut) have still been demonstrably better than Duke at churning out pro talent. Perhaps there's something about UConn that helps guys make the NBA. More likely, it's something about Duke that retards players' progress.

Mike Gminski, who played at Duke just before the Krzyzewski era and now broadcasts games for CBS, says Coach K's "hook is to get his team together for that year." All other concerns are secondary. Krzyzewski's mentor Bobby Knight had a similar philosophy, and a similar reputation for coaching NCAA winners who turned into pro duds. Both men are known to drill their players, installing rigid systems that come close to guaranteeing success at the college level. (In fairness, Krzyzewski has shown more flexibility in recent years, using a bigger lineup than usual this season to better match Duke's personnel.) While the team flourishes, individual players must fall into proscribed roles. Trainer David Thorpe says this hurts the pro prospects of guys like Casey Sanders and David McClure. Both players had amazing talent coming out of high school, but it was not in the team's interests for either player to work on expanding his offensive repertoire. There were other guys on the team who shot better, so Sanders and McClure rebounded and set screens. Goodbye NBA dreams.

If you're a Krzyzewski hater, you could argue that the coach is doing his players a disservice by diminishing their future earnings. The pro-Coach K contingent, though, can say that all these cases of NBA mediocrity only burnish his reputation. He's not "failing to develop" these guys as pros. He's helping them to play better than they would on another team, which distorts their apparent value.

Duke gets players who drink the Duke Kool-Aid. It's no surprise that Jon Scheyer grew up idolizing his predecessor J.J. Redick. A great outside shooter who makes every effort to look like he's hustling on the defensive end, Scheyer essentially trained himself to become a Blue Devils star.

When John Wall was considering Duke, by contrast, his high school coach Levi Beckwith had the following question for Coach K: "When you're playing Carolina and things aren't going well, when you take him out of the game and he mumbles, 'I shoulda gone to Carolina,' which to you is disrespectful and it's not the right thing to say ... how long are you going to sit him out? If he's going to be done for the year, then don't take him." It wasn't surprising, somehow, that Wall went to play for John Calipari at Kentucky.

Duke, which has the pull to recruit players from all around the nation, takes standout players like Scheyer by choice. But you'd be a fool to think Coach K wouldn't have found room for John Wall as well, if only Wall had wanted to come to Durham. Duke has never gotten the guys in the upper slice of their recruiting classes—players like Wall who see themselves less as collegians than as free agents en route to the NBA. While Duke leads the NCAA in top-50 recruits, it doesn't get top-10 recruits in the same volume as North Carolina and whatever school Calipari happens to be coaching at in a given year. In the end, this might not be a bad thing for the Duke program. If you're a college coach, who would you prefer to have in your program: Nolan Smith, or his one-and-done-at-Kansas State AAU teammate Michael Beasley?

Correction, March 14, 2012: This piece originally included Shavlik Randolph in a list of Duke players who “were never good enough in Durham, N.C., to even get a chance to wash out of the NBA.” Randolph has played 95 career games in the NBA. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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