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“Can’t Truss It!”
On their 1991 album Apocalypse … The Enemy Strikes Black, Public Enemy vocalized these three words on this song, which I honestly can’t remember when I heard it last but it brought to mind the team I dislike (Seriously can’t stand!) the most–Duke.
Although this is about the very talented players (Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish) who wore Duke Blue this past season and even more so those who played for the university at one time, causing me to think “Can’t Truss Em” once they get to the NBA.
For one reason or another (injury, overhype, lack of focus) former highly-touted Blue Devils fail to impress once they swap their college uniforms for professional threads.
Recently, this trend has turned in a more optimistic direction with Kyrie Irving hitting clutch jumpers (the series-winning 3-pointer in the 2016 NBA Finals) and finishing almost every contested layup he attempts. Then his Boston Celtics’ teammate Jayson Tatum made a serious case during his rookie season that he is on the way to being known as the best pick from the 2017 Draft.
Plus the future appears bright for Williamson, who averaged 23 points on 68 percent shooting and nine rebounds this past season while repeatedly flying through the air to viciously throw down dunks or block jump shots, Barrett, who averaged 23 points and eight boards while slashing to the basket for plenty of And 1’s, and Reddish, who averaged 14 points while burying many shots from the perimeter.
Even though I’m not a betting man, I’m willing to bet these three guys will be selected in the lottery of the 2019 Draft but general managers and owners should be cautious (Except for David Griffin and the New Orleans Pelicans. They won’t be criticized if Zion doesn’t pan out since he is too special to even contemplate passing on.) because the history of the best Duke players chosen high in the lottery has been underwhelming and unfortunate in some cases.
I started gaining a rooting interest against Duke in the early 90’s right around the time when coach Mike Krzyzewski’s program began building momentum to where it is now so I’ve suffered through all five of the Blue Devils’ championships.
Just before all of this success, Danny Ferry was putting in work, averaging 19 and 23 points, respectively, in his final two seasons at Duke. I was young but remember seeing Ferry on television prior to the Los Angeles Clippers selecting him with the No. 2 pick and trading him to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Ferry started the next chapter of his basketball career averaging nine points a game but only averaged 10 or more points in two of his 13 NBA seasons despite being a reliable 6-10, 3-point shooter.
Now I did witness Christian Laettner torch the competition along the way to back-to-back titles in 1991 and 1992. Every time his game winner from the foul line against Kentucky was replayed, I wished one of the players would’ve intercepted that pass like a safety on the football field or the guy guarding him would’ve TRIED to block the shot instead of just raising his hands.
But after being selected third overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 92 Draft, Laettner never evolved into a franchise player. The 6-11 power forward/center failed to average 20 points a game for a season (Laettner averaged 18 points during his rookie season and hit that mark only once more when he was named an All-Star for the Atlanta Hawks in 1997) and finished his 13-year career with averages of 13 points and seven rebounds compared to the 17 and eight he put up while at Duke.
After seeing the 30 for 30 documentary I Hate Christian Laettner in 2015, I came to appreciate Laettner’s skill set and believe if he played in this pace-and-space era of the NBA instead of inside-outside style of the 90’s, Laettner would have been a problem at the stretch four position.
Bobby Hurley was alongside Laettner at Duke and majored in facilitating the Blue Devils’ offense for four seasons, handing out virtually eight assists a season. Hurley also improved his scoring average in his final year to 17 points a game before Sacramento selected him with the seventh pick of the 1993 Draft.
But this point in time was when an unfortunate circumstance interrupts a player’s career. After averaging six assists as a rookie in 19 games, Hurley’s season was cut short due to an automobile accident in which he was thrown from his truck.
Fortunately, Hurley was able to return to the court the next season but the type of impact he had at Duke never translated to the pros during his final five years in the league. But in the grand scheme of it all, Hurley survived a tragic event and transitioned to a career as a successful coach.
Grant Hill was also there with Hurley and Laettner during Duke’s initial era of dominance. He threw the perfect full-court pass to Laettner in that painful win over Kentucky and threw down that nearly uncatchable alley-oop from Hurley in the title game against Kansas.
Hill averaged double figures all four years, peaking at 18 points a game on 58-percent shooting as a junior. If it wasn’t for Corliss Williamson and Scotty Thurman, my heroes during the 1994 title game, Hill would’ve won his third title in four years.
During the ensuing NBA Draft, the Detroit Pistons decided to take Hill with the third pick and that choice almost propelled the franchise back in the right direction. Hill stepped on the scene like a ‘G’ (a title of endearment according to Dictionary.com) and definitely not like anyone I identified with Duke.
As a rookie for the Pistons, No. 33 just missed joining the prestigious class of first-year players who averaged 20 points (19.9), five rebounds (6.4) and five assists (5.0) but did end up being named Co-Rookie of the Year with Jason Kidd. After that season, Hill’s averages increased along with the smooth crossovers and vicious dunks over bonafide shot blockers.
I hate to admit it but my boy Scottie Pippen got crossed in the worst way but not as bad as Dan Majerle before Hill dropped that one-handed hammer on Alonzo Mourning for the And-1. At the time, the belief was that Hill was next in line to be the face of the league with Michael Jordan in the latter stages of his career.
But a left ankle injury before the 2000 postseason derailed all of that talk. Hill didn’t let that stop him from playing in the opening-round series against the Miami Heat but he barely played in two games of that series.
Then along with Tracy McGrady, Hill signed with the Orlando Magic the next season, forming a deadly duo from the shooting guard and small forward positions. But that season, Hill played in just four games then only 14 in the next. During the 2001-02 campaign, Hill saw action in more games but just 29. Then he missed the entire 2003-04 season.
Hill finally returned to the court for 67 games and averaged nearly 20 points in 2004-05 but his days as a franchise player were long gone. From his mid-to-late 30s, Hill was a great complimentary piece for the Phoenix Suns and eventually became a member of the 2018 Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame so he wasn’t totally robbed of the opportunity to showcase his talent but his journey could have been spectacular for those of us he entertained.
Before Irving was selected first in 2011, Elton Brand was the first No. 1 pick from Duke to be chosen in the NBA Draft (1999). After his freshman year, Brand was a problem for opponents, averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds on a highly talented team, which advanced all the way to the championship game.
But Richard Hamilton, Khalid El-Amin and Ricky Moore came up big for Connecticut to stop the Blue Devils from closing the decade with a title and I appreciated it so much.
Brand’s impact was similar to Hill’s as a new entrant into the league, posting averages of 20 points and 10 rebounds as a rookie. The 6-8 power forward virtually maintained those numbers during the next five seasons before scoring 25 a game for the 2005-06 season. The following year, Brand’s scoring average returned to 20 but it continued to dip from there along with his rebounding numbers.
During the 2007-08 season, Brand was limited to just eight games due to a ruptured left Achilles’ tendon. Then the following season, Brand only played in 29 games before having to shut it down because of a shoulder injury, and his best basketball was behind him.
Shane Battier, who averaged 20 points while shooting 42 percent from 3 as a senior, was the next lottery pick from Duke, taken No. 6 overall by the Vancouver Grizzlies in the 2001 Draft. Since many of the players in this draft didn’t turn out to be all-time greats, the selection of Battier at this spot is understandable.
Battier didn’t miss a load of games and was a dependable 3-and-D forward for 13 seasons. He finished his career as a 38-percent shooter from 3, and added two NBA titles with the Miami Heat (2012-13) to his 2001 NCAA championship.
Now to Battier’s former teammate, Jason (Jay) Williams, who made me briefly contemplate becoming a Duke fan during Carolina’s dreadful 2001-02 season. This guy terrorized UNC, losing to the Tar Heels just once in eight meetings, and for a two-year stretch, Williams was clearly the best player in college basketball due to his ability to get to the rack at will and knock down threes (43 percent from the arc as a sophomore and 38 as a junior) at a high rate after getting a screen.
Williams made life miserable for Maryland fans as well, shining in the 10-point comeback with less than a minute to go to force overtime. Then he helped Duke erase a double-digit deficit against the Terrapins in the 2001 Final Four.
After helping Duke defeat Arizona in the 2001 title game, Williams returned to campus and averaged 21 points again en route to being named the Naismith College Player of the Year but his sketchy free-throw shooting prevented the Blue Devils from repeating.
Then during the ensuing Draft, the Bulls decided Williams was the best choice for their post-Michael Jordan rebuild and selected the score-first point guard with the second overall pick. I was so confident Williams would have an impressive rookie season that I bet a coworker Williams would average 10 points that year.
By a narrow margin, I lost the bet since Williams averaged 9.5 points in 75 games. The next level of competition proved to be very challenging for Williams since he barely shot 40 percent from the field, 32 percent from 3-point range and 64 percent from the line.
Once again, a Blue Devil was having trouble adjusting to the NBA–then tragedy struck again. The June following his rookie season, Williams wrecked his motorcycle, which he was not licensed to drive or permitted to operate due to his contract, and severely injured his pelvis, left knee and the nerve in his leg.
Just that quickly, Williams’ unwise decision to ride a motorcycle ended his career even though he briefly returned to the league during the 2006 preseason for the New Jersey Nets.
In the same draft, the Golden State Warriors selected Williams’ teammate Mike Dunleavy Jr. with the third pick after Dunleavy averaged 17 points a game as a junior, while shooting 48 percent from the floor and 38 percent from 3.
Now Dunleavy’s career wasn’t cut short due to injury or near disability since he played 15 seasons but the 6-9 shooter never proved he deserved to be chosen that high in the Draft. Dunleavy posted his best numbers in Indiana, averaging 19 points on 48 percent shooting and 42 percent from 3 in 2007-08.
Luol Deng, the seventh selection of the 2004 Draft, was picked in the spot perfect for how the best years of his career played out as a solid complimentary piece. However he did deal with a number of injuries that shortened his time in Chicago, where Tom Thibodeau had Deng playing a lot of minutes every game.
Two years later, Atlanta Hawks general manager Billy Knight decided to take Shelden Williams with the fifth pick of the 2006 Draft. I was unpleasantly surprised when Williams was taken at this spot ahead of Brandon Roy and Rudy Gay, who both seemed to have more next level talent, but Knight’s focus was defense.
Now during his senior season at Duke, Williams did average 19 points, 11 rebounds and 3.8 blocks a game but I thought few viewed him as a franchise cornerstone. Everyone with an opposite viewpoint of Williams projected correctly since he failed to average double figures in points and rebounds or at least a block during his six seasons in the league.
Five Drafts passed until another Blue Devil was chosen high in the lottery and that player was Irving, who was selected No. 1 overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers despite only playing in 11 games for Duke. Irving’s limited time on the court at Duke wasn’t from the knee issues he currently deals with as a pro but due to an injured toe. Even though his stint was short, Irving averaged almost 18 points on percentages of 53 from the field, 46 from 3-point range and 90 from the foul line.
After a few years of being a leading scorer on a bad team, Irving became a deadly, must-see scorer on a championship-contending team once LeBron James returned to Cleveland in 2014. Irving gave the Warriors all they could handle in three straight Finals’ matchups, including that game-winning 3 which saved LeBron from an additional Finals’ loss.
Since then, Irving has moved on to Boston but missed a chance to help prevent LeBron from going to an eighth straight Finals due to a knee injury in 2018. However, Irving is healthy now and improve the narrative of Blue Devils in the NBA.
Jabari Parker, the No. 2 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, unfortunately hasn’t been able to overcome his knee issues like Irving, resulting in shortened seasons as a rookie (25 games), then 51 in 2016-17 and just 31 the next season.
So far, Parker’s best statistical season has been his third when he averaged 20 points, and he was on an All-Star trajectory alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee. But Parker isn’t living up to the Carmelo Anthony comparisons and the selection of Andrew Wiggins before him has been slightly a better choice due to Wiggins’ consistent availability.
At Duke, Parker averaged 19 points and nine rebounds during his lone season. Once he traded in that Blue Devil jersey for an NBA one, I just knew he would be one of the league’s smoothest scorers however that doesn’t appear to be where he is headed.
In the following Draft, Jahlil Okafor was taken third overall by the Philadelphia 76ers after averaging 17 points on 66 percent shooting and nine boards while leading the Blue Devils to the 2015 NCAA championship.
But that has been the best part of Okafor’s story and I doubt if it gets any better. When the 6-11 throwback big man arrived in Philly, he averaged 18 points while shooting 51 percent in 53 games for a terrible team. But afterwards his time on the court decreased due to his knee problems and that whole “Process” mess.
Then Okafor’s back-to-the-basket game became more obsolete in this face-up style of NBA basketball, and Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons became the players to build around. If you weren’t sure, Okafor saw action in 59 games this season for the New Orleans Pelicans and averaged eight points and five rebounds.
The next year, one-and-done freshman Brandon Ingram was chosen second overall by the Los Angeles Lakers after scoring 17 points a game on 44 percent shooting and 41 percent from deep for Duke. As a result, the 6-9 small forward drew comparisons to Kevin Durant, who has a similar build.
But that is where the similarities have ended between the two since Ingram just averaged nine points on 40 percent shooting as a rookie. However, he has improved offensively during the past two seasons despite seeing action in just 52 games this season. Unfortunately, Ingram’s time on the court was recently cut short due to a blood clot in his arm and hopefully that clears up for him.
I’m no scout but I just don’t see Ingram being a franchise player or reliable second option even though he is still very young (21 years old).
Now I have been impressed with Jayson Tatum, who averaged 17 points a game at Duke, in his first two seasons since being drafted No. 3 in the 2017 Draft by the Celtics. He stepped on the scene like he belonged, shooting 48 percent from the floor and 44 percent from the arc on the way to 14 points a game for a talented team. Then in the playoffs, Tatum increased his scoring average (19 points a game) and gave LeBron and the Cavs plenty of work in the Eastern Conference Finals.
But despite another healthy season (79 games), Tatum’s shooting percentages dropped even though his point production slightly increased. And in the playoffs, he didn’t have the same impact before the Celtics’ season ended in the second round. But I think the best is yet to come for the 6-8 scoring small forward.
Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. are the latest Blue Devils to be selected in the lottery with Bagley going No. 2 to the Kings and Carter Jr. seventh to the Bulls. Neither player played the whole season with Bagley missing 20 games and Carter Jr. missing 38.
Bagley, who averaged 21 points on 61 percent shooting and 11 rebounds at Duke, and 15 and eight as a rookie, has the most to prove of the two since he was drafted ahead of rookie sensations Luka Doncic and Trae Young. Carter, who averaged 14 and nine in college, isn’t facing the reputation of being a bust but a Blue Devil who can’t stay off the injured list.
Now, Zion, Barrett and Reddish are up next to walk across that prestigious stage on June 20 and shake NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s hand. How will their careers unfold after this memorable night? Obviously, we will all have to wait and see. Hopefully their futures are similar or better than some of their successful predecessors.
But the history of Duke legends in the NBA is an outcome you can’t totally trust.