Dukies lost in NBA translation

Originally Published: February 5, 2004
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

Duke is at it again. The Blue Devils are No. 1. They have a team capable of contending for another national title. And, over the next few springs, they'll likely have a few players who will get long NBA looks when they decide to leave Durham, N.C.

At least one, freshman Luol Deng, will be a certain lottery pick whenever he decides to enter the NBA draft. There could be others in future drafts who will draw some sort of attention, players such as sophomore sharpshooter J.J. Redick, as well as sophomore forwards Shavlik Randolph and Shelden Williams. And it wouldn't be a total surprise if senior point guard Chris Duhon winds up playing in the Association next season.

But when the Devils take the court Thursday night for the first of two annual clashes with rival North Carolina (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET), they won't boast the same can't-miss types as those in Carolina blue. Once again, UNC has more players today who'll likely land in tomorrow's lottery. Whenever they choose to leave Chapel Hill, players such as Raymond Felton, Sean May and Rashad McCants will have NBA scouts' full attention.

So what's the deal with Duke? How is it that a program can continue to recruit the best players in the country and see those players cut down nets and hang championship banners, but when the time comes to leave those same blue-chip recruits seem to wind up as just another face on an NBA roster?

Well, for whatever reason, the Duke experience -- which includes All-America honors and player of the year status -- hasn't translated into stardom in the NBA for players as smoothly as it did from high school to college. And, in a way, the facts speak volumes to how well Mike Krzyzewski and his staff maximize the talent once it arrives in Durham. But in the public's eye, there is something missing once those players leave the confines of Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Mike Krzyzewski
Mike Krzyzewski knows how to mold his Duke players into champions, no matter how their skills may translate to the NBA.

"They're solid players. They're so trained to that Duke system, though," said Jim Kelly, the Toronto Raptors' player personnel director. "I don't think that system translates into the NBA. The college game is a pass-the-ball, move-the-ball and cut-off-screens system. The NBA game is create off the dribble. A lot of it is develop your own offense, and you don't see that anywhere in the Duke game. I'm not saying it's good or bad ... but it's apples and oranges."

Kelly's is just one opinion, but he's not alone among those in the NBA and college who watch or have faced Duke. The phenomenon that is the Duke player's transition to the NBA game, however, is debatable. Former Clemson coach Larry Shyatt defends the Duke player's individual skills, saying the Blue Devils play with instinct -- using spacing and isolation plays more than those on most college teams in the country.

So, the Duke-to-NBA phenomenon that began with Krzyzewski's arrival in 1981 and the Blue Devils' emergence as a national power in the mid-80s is debatable. The numbers of successful college players at Duke, though, is startling.

Duke has been home to 16 All-Americans during Krzyzewski's tenure, 14 since 1986, the year Duke reached the first of nine Final Fours -- winning three national titles in 1991, '92 and '01. There also have been six national player of the year winners since 1986 (Johnny Dawkins in '86; Danny Ferry in '89, Christian Laettner in '92, Elton Brand in '99, Shane Battier in '01 and Jay Williams in '02). During the same time, no other school has had more than one national player of the year, while in 2001, Battier and Williams shared the honor by winning different national player of the year awards.

"My initial answer is that Duke has been about the team, more than the individual," former St. John's coach Mike Jarvis said. "They've been about the game of basketball. They've been about winning because they get a collective effort. They do a great job in recruiting the right people, as well as talented players, maybe more so than any other school."

Yes, but when these same players who've enjoyed unparalleled success in college put on an NBA uniform, only a handful have become stars, let alone enjoyed near the success. It might be unfair to single out the Duke players who've underachieved or not lived up to their draft status. But what makes the perception so popular is the success each contributed at Duke.

Krzyzewski has seen 17 of his former players selected in the first round since 1986, the most of any active NCAA coach. North Carolina coach Roy Williams had 10 when he was at Kansas. Since '99, Duke has had eight first-round draft choices, six going to teams in the lottery. And what that means is a lot of Duke players do end up on bad teams. It also means a lot of Duke players haven't been the saviors they were made out to be.

See, it's easy to take a side.

But the fact remains Duke hasn't recruited the type of player who is looking to leave college early, which can skew these numbers. Sure, Duke did for a spell, landing Brand and Corey Maggette, neither of whom stayed past their sophomore season. Nor did fellow first-round pick William Avery. But that same year, senior Trajan Langdon was a lottery pick. Brand is a stud in the league. Maggette is on his way. Langdon got hurt and never could stick. Avery was a bust. So, that's not a bad percentage with that class.

"Not recruiting the blue-chippers who come out early is part of this," said Dave Babcock, the Milwaukee Bucks' director of scouting. "That's just not who they would recruit for a long time."

It's not fair to cast Hurley and Williams in the same group as any of the above. Freak off-court traffic accidents derailed the careers of both lottery picks, and while Hurley returned to play in the NBA, Williams seemed on his way to a solid if not spectacular career.

Still, Grant Hill remains the only Duke player to be named All-NBA. Hill and Brand are the only two to earn NBA Rookie of the Year honors. Laettner, Hill, Brand and Battier are the only all-rookie selections. Hill played in five All-Star Games before injuring his ankle. Both Laettner ('97) and Brand ('02) have played in just one. Only Ferry won an NBA title, and that occurred last June as a reserve with the Spurs.

Maybe the standards are too high. Who says a Duke player has to become an NBA star. Maybe these Blue Devils were and remain what they were when they left Duke -- great college players whose talents translated into greatness in college.

"It's not an easy answer as to why this occurs," Chicago Bulls general manager John Paxson said. "Duke's system is so good in college. You get guys who get the most out of their ability in the college level. When they come out, they are who they are. They are solid, good fundamental players. That's not a bad thing.

Duke First-Team All-Americans
(since 1985)
1986 Johnny Dawkins
1987 Mark Alarie
1987 Mark Alarie
1988-89 Danny Ferry
1990-92 Christian Laettner
1992-93 Bobby Hurley
1992-94 Grant Hill
1998 Roshown McLeod
1998-99 Trajan Langdon
1999 Elton Brand
2000 Chris Carrawell
2000-01 Shane Battier
2001-02 Jay Williams
2002 Carlos Boozer

"You can't put your finger on why, and if the definition of a success in the NBA is a rookie of the year and NBA championships, then that probably isn't a fair characterization of success."

So, what are we left with? Well, Ferry enjoyed a lengthy career and Laettner looks as though he'll continue to be a solid professional. Battier could be in the league for at least another decade, while Mike Dunleavy is improving in Year 3 and could mature into what he was at Duke -- a swingman who can score both inside and out.

But for every Hill or Brand, there remains a Roshown McLeod or Langdon whose games didn't translate at the NBA level.

"It's their system,'' said Pete Babcock, the Atlanta Hawks' former general manager. "They do a great job of teaching the game. And they find a certain kind of player that plays well in that system. And they stay in school longer there than, by and large, other programs. They bring in guys like Shane Battier who might not be an NBA All-Star but he's so competitive and is a good basketball player that he'll be in the league for a long time."

Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, who has produced his share of NBA first-round picks during his tenure with the Huskies, goes back to Krzyzewski's ability to maximize the talent when he gets a player on campus. Think of it this way. When Calhoun sees a high-profile player in high school, and the player has everything a coach would want, he gets nervous. Why? Because that player might have maximized his talent at a young age and the upside might not be there despite all of the McDonald's accolades.

One of the exceptions at Duke might be Carlos Boozer. He was a second-round pick by Cleveland and is looking like a big-time NBA star this season. And unlike those first-round picks around him -- Dunleavy, Williams, Battier -- Boozer's full talents may have been untapped by Coach K.

"He wasn't maximized at Duke," Calhoun said of Boozer. "It's kind of like what happened with Ray Allen. We developed him, but he didn't get near his maximum potential here. He (Brand) was not a big-time player coming in there. He didn't start as a freshman."

Jarvis adds that Krzyzewski has put together great teams, as opposed to great individual talents.

"Individually, these guys may not have a great career, like a Ferry, but they'll have longevity," Jarvis said. "Duke has been able to go out and get the best people, maybe not always the most talented player. But they get the players who will give themselves a chance to be successful.

"There were great individual talents they passed on that didn't have the character they were looking for," Jarvis adds. "But Mike does a great job of getting seven to eight guys who play 98 percent of the minutes. They can keep guys happy while they're in college. He recruits less people than others, and that works."

However, it remains unclear why it hasn't always worked for the players hoping to become stars in the NBA. Then again, Krzyzewski isn't in the business of coaching an NBA developmental team. He's in the business of winning championships.

And one only has to look at the Cameron rafters to see the only translation that matters in Durham.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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