His 19th Duke basketball team had just lost a heartbreaker to UConn in the ’99 national title game. After one of the most dominant seasons in the ACC history — 37-2 and No. 1 in the final AP poll — the Blue Devils looked to be even better in 1999-2000.
True, senior guard Trajan Langdon was graduating, but the only other senior on that team was little-used reserve Taymon Domzalski. National player of the year Elton Brand was a sophomore, as was starting point guard Will Avery and starting forward Shane Battier. The other starting forward was junior Chris Carrawell. And coming off the bench were sophomores Nate James and Chris Burgess, a pair of former prep All-Americas, along with freshman Corey Maggette, the most talented first-year player in the country. Throw in the nation’s No. 1 rated recruiting class and it’s hard to conceive of a more talented team than the 2000 Blue Devils were shaping up to be.
Only that dream team never made it past spring. After two decades of immunity, Krzyzewski suddenly found himself dealing with an issue that had plagued so many of his rivals — the lure of early NBA draft entry.
That had never been a problem at Duke. Even as teams like UNC and Kentucky and Kansas routinely lost underclass stars to the NBA, Krzyzewski’s best players stayed to play out their four-year college careers.
Gene Banks could have gone to the NBA early. But the junior standout of Bill Foster’s last Duke team held a press conference to announce that he would return to play his senior season for his unknown new coach. Danny Ferry, the son of an NBA general manager, knew that he would have been an NBA first-round draft pick after his ACC player of the year season in 1988. But he came back to lead Duke to another Final Four. Winning one national title wasn’t enough for Christian Laettner, who passed up a sure lottery spot in 1991 to win another title in ’92. Grant Hill could have gone after his freshman year in ’91 and certainly would have been a top five pick after 1992, but he stayed through 1994 and made a third trip to the Final Four.
It killed Duke’s rivals in Chapel Hill to watch all the Blue Devil stars stick around, while their best players almost always left early. How many titles, they wondered, would they have won if James Worthy, Michael Jordan, J.R. Reid, Jerry Stackhouse and/or Rasheed Wallace had stayed for four years?
And the Duke team that hammered UNC three times in 1999 — would that have happened if Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter had returned that year for their senior seasons?
But Krzyzewski’s “unfair” advantage ended in the spring of 1999.
He actually welcomed the change in the case of Brand, encouraging the powerful inside player to take his game to the NBA. The Blue Devil coach knew that Brand was the certain No. 1 pick and had a great chance to be a professional star.
However, Krzyzewski was blindsided by the defections of Avery and Maggette.
The Duke coach didn’t think either young player was ready for the NBA. He advised both to return for one more season of college basketball. Neither took his advice.
Suddenly that 2000 dream team was reduced to bare bones — two experienced role players (Battier and Carrawell) and one oft-injured backup (James) were all that were left after Burgess also transferred. Those three, joined by a very promising five-man recruiting class.
Now, Duke’s critics exulted, let’s see how Krzyzewski does when he has to deal with the same kind of handicap that his rivals had endured for so long.
They were disappointed when the 2000 Blue Devils won 29 games, went 15-1 in the ACC, claimed a second-straight ACC championship and finished No. 1 nationally in the final AP poll. Then, in the second year after the mass defections of ‘99, Krzyzewski won his third NCAA title.
COMING AND GOING
The spring of 1999 does draw a sharp line across Krzyzewski’s 32-year reign at Duke.
Before that spring, Duke had never lost an underclassman to the NBA draft.
After that spring, virtually no school has seen more underclass talent jump to the NBA.
Overall, in the last 13 years, the Blue Devils have had 12 players leave early, surrendering 23 seasons of college basketball. Comparably, Duke’s rival UNC has lost 14 players and 22 potential seasons of college basketball.
Duke’s totals don’t include Chicago point guard Shaun Livingston, who signed with Duke in the fall of 2003, but opted to jump straight from high school to the NBA (where he was the fourth pick in the 2004 draft). And it doesn’t include Minnesota power forward Kris Humphries, another former Duke signee, who bolted from the program before enrolling; he spent less time as a Blue Devil than he did married to Kim Kardashian.
The list does include four one-and-done players: Maggette in 1999, Luol Deng in 2004, Kyrie Irving in 2011 and Austin Rivers this spring.
It also includes three sophomore defections: Brand and Avery in 1999, and Josh McRoberts in 2007.
The other five players to leave early left after their junior seasons: Jason Williams, Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy in 2002; Shavlik Randolph in 2005; and Gerald Henderson in 2009.
Of course, it’s human nature to look at the players lost and to overlook those that didn’t leave early. Battier could have been a lottery pick after the 2000 season, but he returned to anchor Duke’s 2001 national title run. J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams both had the chance to go pro after the 2005 season, but returned to help the Devils win 32 games and record another No. 1 finish in 2006. Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith were both projected as late first-round draft picks after helping Duke to the 2010 national title, but both returned to lead the Devils to 32 wins and an ACC championship in 2011.
At least one player fits into both categories — as a defector and a returner.
Jason Williams did leave after his junior season in 2002, but he was widely projected to be the No. 1 pick in the 2001 draft. CBS commentator Seth Davis, a Duke grad, loudly proclaimed that Williams was gone. Instead, he returned to win national player of the year honors while leading Duke to 32 wins, another ACC championship and a final No. 1 ranking.
Looking at the 11 previous players who have left Duke early, it must be admitted that most made the right choice — or at least very good decisions.
Brand and Irving were the first players picked in the NBA draft and both have flourished in the league. Jason Williams went No. 2 in the draft and was off to a strong start before his career was prematurely ended by a motorcycle accident. Dunleavy was the third player taken in the same 2002 draft and he’s still in the league after 10 seasons.
Deng was the No. 7 pick in the 2004 draft and is today a key player for a strong Chicago team. Henderson was the No. 10 player taken in the 2009 draft and after a slow start is now a significant player for a bad Charlotte team.
Then there is Boozer, who was stunned when he dropped to the second round in 2002. The Alaskan big man didn’t get a guaranteed contract, but he played so well in his first two seasons at Cleveland that he signed a long-term deal with Utah that paid him $11 million a year. In his 10 NBA seasons, Boozer has averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds, while cashing paychecks that total in the neighborhood of $99 million.
Maggette, who also didn’t go as high in the draft as he expected, has fashioned a solid NBA career, averaging 16 points a game in his 13-year career. He’s taken home earnings of approximately $78 million. McRoberts, a second-round pick in 2007, hasn’t done that well, but he’s still in the NBA and before this season signed a $3 million one-year deal with the Lakers.
The two real disappointments out of the Duke early entry group were both forced by family circumstances to leave before they were ready And while neither Avery nor Randolph succeeded as professionals, both did help their families financially — Avery earned $3.8 million in his three NBA seasons, while the undrafted Randolph earned $3.6 million in his five seasons in the league. Both added to their totals overseas.
SURVIVING THE EXODUS
Early in the summer of 1999, Krzyzewski hosted a number of writers for a luncheon at the Duke Golf Course to discuss the new college basketball world. He candidly admitted that he was going to have to change the way he recruited to accommodate the growing urgency that the top prospects felt to get to the NBA.
And he has adjusted.
Krzyzewski actually has a better winning percentage in the post-1999 era than he had before he started losing underclassmen to the NBA.
Of course, that’s a bit unfair, since the pre-1999 record includes the early years when he struggled to get his program off the ground. To be fair, let’s compare his 14-year record from 1986 (his first great team) through 1999 with his 13-year record post-1999:
• 1986-99 — 384-80 (82.8 percent). That’s an average of 27.4 wins a season. Coach K won two national championships, appeared in eight Final Fours and won four ACC championships in that span.
• Post-1999 — 415-77 (84.3 percent). That’s an average of 31.9 wins a season. Coach K won two national championships, appeared in three Final Fours and won nine ACC championships in that span.
So the surprising fact is that Krzyzewski has won MORE frequently in the modern era, when many of his best underclassmen bolt for the NBA than he did in the era when all his best players stayed four years. He did reach the Final Four a bit more frequently in the first half of his career, but that’s balanced by more ACC championships and a better overall winning percentage in the second half.
The truth is that rather than cry over his lost advantage in the world of big-time college basketball, Krzyzewski adjusted to the new reality. He didn’t turn his program into a one-and-done factory as John Calipari has done at Kentucky (six one-and-dones in the last two years), but he hasn’t shied away from players who have their sights focused on the NBA, either. He’s strived to strike a balance between four-year players and the kind of ultra-talented prospect that can only be expected to stick around a year or two.
That’s not to say Krzyzewski hasn’t been disappointed by some of his losses. He thought Dunleavy would stick around to anchor a young team in 2003, but the son of an NBA coach couldn’t pass up the chance to be picked third in the draft. Coach K thought Deng — an excellent student who enjoyed school — would be back to star for the 2005 Blue Devils, but family pressure pushed the young forward into the draft. And there’s no question that if Irving could have resisted the lure of being the No. 1 pick in the 2011, the 2012 Blue Devils would have been better than the team that won 27 games and finished No. 8 in the final AP poll.
Still, would Duke have been ready to win the 2001 national title if Avery and Maggette had returned in 2000? And how would the 2010 national champs have fared if the best player off the 2009 team (Henderson) had not left for the NBA a year early?
Those questions can never be answered with any certainty. All we do know is that Duke basketball has flourished in the post-1999 era. The Blue Devils have done more than survive the early loss of such talented players as Brand, Jason Williams, Boozer, Henderson and Irving — they’ve prospered.
And the program is likely to continue to prosper going forward.
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