Duke basketball is a tradition unlike any other in modern college basketball. And by modern basketball, I mean since Coach K took over. Coach K of course is legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has led the Blue Devils charge since taking the reins in 1980. During those four decades, Coach K’s Duke has made 12 Final Fours and cut down the championship nets five different times in 1991, 1992, 2001, 2010, and 2015.
During that time, Duke has seen a ton of basketball talent come through those doors on Tobacco Road. An incredible 55 different Blue Devils have played in the NBA since Coach K showed up, and plenty more are on the way. That includes Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, and Cam Reddish, all certain lottery picks in the 2019 NBA Draft, and it will surely include more names to come.
So who are the greatest NBA Dukies of all time? And which Blue Devil player has had the very best NBA career during Coach K’s reign? Let’s count them down from 25 to 1…
25. Luke Kennard
It’s a pretty low bar starting out. That’s not really meant to rip on Luke Kennard either, but the dude is still just getting his NBA career started and has yet to average 10 points a game for a season, though he was very close this year.
Kennard is a sharpshooter and looks like he could be the new J.J. Redick for the Detroit Pistons, racing around screens and hitting jumpers from any number of angles. He’s hitting over 40% of his threes through two seasons, already one of the league’s top shooters from behind the arc, and he is the one young piece the Pistons have to build around going forward.
24. Cam Reddish
No, Cam Reddish hasn’t even stepped foot in the NBA yet, but the path is open for him and his starlet teammates to move their way quickly up this list. Let’s just say Reddish is only keeping names like Gerald Henderson, Austin Rivers, and the worse Plumlees off the list.
Reddish is a lanky wing and a near certain lottery pick. He has a three point shot to die for and looks like he could develop some wing creation ability, and at the very least, he should quickly turn into a solid 3 and D contributor. Reddish disappointed in his one season at Duke but still has plenty of potential and hope for a bright future.
23. R.J. Barrett
Like Cam Reddish, R.J. Barrett has yet to play a minute as a professional, but he also reserves a place on the list. It looks like Barrett is a surefire top five pick and could come off the board as early as pick number three to the New York Knicks. He ran the offense for Duke much of the time and was especially impressive doing so when Zion Williamson was sidelined.
Barrett is a menace going downhill in transition and averaged 23 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists as an 18 year old freshman. He was the number one RSCI recruit out of high school and could be a future All Star.
22. Wendell Carter Jr.
We follow two incoming top ten picks with another top ten pick from a year ago in Wendell Carter Jr. Carter saw his rookie season cut short for the Chicago Bulls but impressed in his time on the court.
His 10 points and 7 rebounds in 25 minutes a game weren’t exactly overwhelming, but it was his defense that was so impressive, especially on a team with so little help in that arena. He communicates well on defense and was the one player on the team with decent defensive metrics, quite an accomplishment as a rookie big man.
21. Marvin Bagley
Of course Wendell Carter Jr. wasn’t even the top Duke big man drafted last year. Marvin Bagley was the number two pick in the draft behind Deandre Ayton after a consensus All American season in which he averaged an efficient 21 points and 11 rebounds as a freshman for the Blue Devils.
Bagley had a great start to his NBA career with an impressive 15 points a game off the bench for the surprising Sacramento Kings, sprinkling in plenty of athleticism and highlight dunks en route to making First Team All Rookie. Bagley, De’Aaron Fox, and Buddy Hield have the Kings dreaming big as they move forward.
20. Justise Winslow
Justise Winslow was a breakout player for Duke in his one year with the team, leading the Blue Devils to the 2015 national championship and being named to the NCAA All Tournament team. He entered the NBA with a ton of hype and was a Miami Heat lottery pick, but it’s been a slow learning curve for Chief Justise, hampered by ongoing injuries and a difficulty finding the right role.
This year he finally began to break out in his fourth season as something of a point forward with career bests across the board, 13 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists a game. He’s just stepping into a $13 million annual extension and looks worth the investment.
19. Brandon Ingram
Boy, there sure are a lot of young Duke players that have yet to fully break out in the NBA. Like Winslow, Brandon Ingram has seen his learning curve hampered by injuries and an ever changing team situation with the Lakers, and he might well be plying his trade for a new team by the time you read this.
Ingram is at his best with the ball in his hands creating and looking to score, and he averaged a career best 18 points a game this season. He’s gangly and long and oozes potential on both offense and defense, and it’s easy to forget he would still just be entering the NBA if he had stayed all four years at Duke.
18. Rodney Hood
You’re probably surprised to see Rodney Hood on the list, let alone above the talented names we just covered, because Hood feels like such a disappointment. But it’s easy to forget that Hood has scored double digit points a game four straight seasons — he’s just done it for three different teams the last two seasons.
Hood began last year with the Jazz before joining the Cavs for a Finals run he didn’t contribute much to, then was traded this year to the Blazers where he was a key part of a Conference Finals run. Let’s just say you won’t find too many others on this list with back to back Conference Finals runs.
17. Jabari Parker
A former number two overall pick in the NBA Draft, Jabari Parker sure knows how to get buckets. He’s scored at least 12 points a game in all five seasons in the NBA and peaked his third season in the league with a 20 point per game season. Parker doesn’t play much defense — he was famously quoted as saying that’s not what they are paying him for — but the real problem are the recurring leg injuries that have plagued his career.
Parker has only been healthy for 247 of 410 regular season games in five seasons. He was once the future of the Milwaukee Bucks, but injuries and a dude named Giannis changed everything, and now he’s just a reliable bucket getter.
16. Johnny Dawkins
You know the name Johnny Dawkins now as a longtime head coach in the Coach K tree. He spent almost a year at Stanford and is now at Central Florida, and he was one of Coach K’s first big stars at Duke, a two time All American and national player of the year as a senior.
He was mostly just fine in his nine years in the NBA. Dawkins ran point for the Spurs and 76ers and was putting up a consistent 15 points and 7 assists a game early in his career before an injury stole most of his 1991 season. Dawkins was never the same player and retired early to head to his coaching career, but he’ll always be one of the first Duke legends under Coach K.
15. Mason Plumlee
Mason was one of a seemingly endless supply of tall white Plumlees Duke rolled out at center year after year for about a decade, and he was certainly the best one. He was the Plumlee that did the little hustle and energy stuff for the United States national team en route to a gold medal at the 2014 World Cup, somehow chosen to represent the U.S. alongside names like Steph Curry, Anthony Davis, and James Harden.
Plumlee was last on the team with 2 points a game, but gold medals are forever. In the NBA, Plumlee has been a nice defender and an energy guy, a quality role player rotation piece for the Nets, Blazers, and Nuggets. Seriously, he’s better than you think.
14. Mike Gminski
Mike Gminski is cheating a little bit since he technically played his last game as a Blue Devil about a week before Mike Krzyzewski was named the head coach, but Coach K surely helped prep Gminski for the draft and his time in the pros, so we’re going to count it.
The G-Man carved out a nice long career in the NBA, playing 14 seasons for the Nets, 76ers, Hornets, and Bucks. At his peak, he was putting up 17 points and 9 rebounds a game on efficient shooting, a longtime useful center in the 80s and into the early 90s.
13. Corey Maggette
Corey Maggette was always a lot better on paper or in our imaginations than he ever was in real life. He had a unique look, with a bald head and a headband and more muscles than he ever knew what to do with. Maggette never seemed to put together a fully healthy season, but he scored almost 20 points a game across an 8 year peak with the Clippers and Warriors.
Maggette played 14 seasons in the NBA and somehow only ever made the playoffs once. For all those points, he was a horrendous defender and never really found the right role or team to succeed long term.
12. Jayson Tatum
A year ago, Jayson Tatum might have ranked another five spots up this list after an outstanding rookie season in which he averaged 14 points a game and shot a blazing 43% from behind the arc and helped lead the Boston Celtics to the Conference Finals.
A year later, Tatum is coming off a disappointing sophomore season and looks like he’ll be the centerpiece, either of an Anthony Davis trade or of a Boston rebuild. He remains one of the league’s best young wing talents and should move up this list as his career moves forward. It remains to be seen what team that will happen on.
11. Mike Dunleavy Jr.
Did you know Mike Dunleavy Jr. was still playing in the NBA as recently as two seasons ago? It’s true, and he even did so for the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016 before they realized he was washed. Dunleavy played 15 seasons in the NBA and was always known for his incredible basketball IQ and feel for the game, a smart player who defended well and made the right pass and rotation every time.
Dunleavy was also a knockdown shooter, making 38% of his threes, and he ranks top 50 all time in the NBA in threes made. Had he stayed healthy or found the right team, he could’ve been one of the great glue guys.
10. Zion Williamson
Yeah, that’s right, we’re already calling Zion Williamson a top 10 Duke player from the Coach K era before he ever even steps foot on an NBA court. Doesn’t matter. Zion Williamson is already a top 10 NBA asset, and he’s a superstar waiting to happen.
Zion might be best offensive and defensive prospect in the draft, and he’ll be the best athlete in the NBA from day one. He’s unlike any NBA star we’ve seen with his combination of athleticism, instincts, touch, and talent in that absurdly shaped body. But make no mistake about it, Zion is a superstar both on and off the court, and he’ll deserve this ranking in no time.
9. Gene Banks
Gene Banks is one of only a few players to make three McDonald’s All American teams and was the first McDonalds game MVP in 1977 and the number one high school player when he came to Duke. He wasn’t technically a Coach K recruit but played his senior year under Mike Krzyzewski, notably hitting a tying shot at the buzzer against North Carolina before a Duke win in overtime, the earliest spark of the Coach K era as we know it.
Banks never quite lived up to the Duke hype in the NBA but scored 11 points a game across six seasons with the Spurs and Bulls before spending part of his prime playing overseas in Italy and Israel.
8. J.J. Redick
Here’s a fun, weird little fact about J.J. Redick. If you throw out the 2016–17 season, Redick has seen his points per game increase every single season as a pro since his sophomore year in 2008. That’s remarkable.
Redick was one of the most hated (or beloved, depending on your perspective) Dukies of all time, but he’s developed into a steady and likable role player and one of the league’s all time three point snipers. Redick has nailed over 41% of his threes and ranks 21st on the all time treys list — and counting. He also ranks top 10 all time with over 89% free throw percentage, an all time shooter.
7. Christian Laettner
Speaking of the most hated Dukies of all time, you remember Christian Laettner! Laettner might well be one of the most hated athletes in any sport ever, but he was also one of the finest players in college basketball history. Laettner always felt like a massive disappointment in the NBA, but the truth is that he had a perfectly nice career, even making an All Star team with the Atlanta Hawks.
He averaged 17 points and 8 rebounds a game his first five seasons before nagging injuries continued to erode on his abilities and steal his prime. His greatest post-Duke basketball accomplishment was of course being the 12th man on the original Dream Team, also known as not Shaq or Isiah for reasons we’ll never know.
6. Carlos Boozer
I always enjoyed the fact that a dude named Boozer was such a good Duke player. Just feels right. Boozer was a double-double machine, scoring double digit points every season in his 13 in the league.
He was always good but rarely great and, in another universe, might have been LeBron James’s running mate for his Cavs prime instead of spending his time in Utah and Chicago. Boozer made a couple All Star teams and even made All NBA once, and he was a 20/10 guy at his best. He was never much of a defender but he was a reliable guy year after year.
5. Luol Deng
Carlos Boozer wasn’t the only Chicago Bull from Duke on those nasty Thibodeau teams. Luol Deng was the heart and soul of the teams, playing massive minutes and a ton of wing defense before injuries and mileage took their toll and ravaged his body.
Deng was always one of the league’s top wing defenders when healthy, and he too made a couple All Star teams. He filled up the box score and was a leader on and off the court, and he’s turned himself into a useful veteran role player as his career nears its end.
4. Shane Battier
Who would have ever thought Shane Battier would be one of the all time great Blue Devils in the NBA? Battier certainly had the accolades. He won the Wooden, Rupp, and Naismith awards at Duke and was the Most Outstanding Player when Duke won the championship his senior year, and Battier really never stopped winning.
He made two All Defense teams in the NBA and should’ve made more and he was the league’s ultimate 3 and D glue guy, locking down opponents and hitting 38% of his threes. Battier was an all time great role player and deserved every bit of the two championship rings he earned with the Miami Heat near the end of his career.
3. Elton Brand
Can we get one more Chicago Bulls Dukie for the road? Elton Brand might be one of the all time underrated modern players. He put up 20/10 like clockwork year after year for the Bulls and Clippers the first eight seasons of his career before a torn Achilles stole his age 28 season, and Brand was never the same player again.
Brand was the 2000 Rookie of the Year and somehow made only two All Star teams and just one All NBA squad when he should have been a contender all eight of those early years. He was on pace to go down as a top ten all time power forward before the injury.
2. Kyrie Irving
Kyrie Irving only ever played 11 games for Duke, but he remains one of the all time NBA Blue Devils. Kyrie is one of the game’s elite point guards with perhaps the best handle in the world. He is a six time All Star and just made his second All NBA team, and he was the 2012 Rookie of the Year.
He also hit the clutch three point shot over Stephen Curry to help the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers win the championship over the 73–9 Golden State Warriors — and if you don’t know how much it hurts me to write that sentence lauding a Duke, then you don’t know me at all. Oh and by the way, Kyrie Irving is still just getting started. He’s still only 27 years old.
1. Grant Hill
Still, even Kyrie Irving can’t quite touch the greatest Duke NBA player of all time, Grant Hill. Hill is finally a Hall of Famer, and his induction was long overdue. Hill was the 1995 Rookie of the Year and broke the mold of what a small forward could do in the modern NBA, averaging 22 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists as a point forward for the Detroit Pistons. He was LeBron before LeBron existed.
Hill finished top 10 in MVP voting five straight years including one third place finish when he led the league in VORP (Value Over Replacement Player). He made All NBA all five of those seasons and was selected as an All Star seven times, and he would’ve been one of the greatest small forwards in NBA history if a myriad of injuries hadn’t derailed his career at age 28 and forward. Hill was a great defender and contributed in every way on the court. He is the greatest Duke NBA of all time.