Dispelling The Duke Myth

I have a secret that I would like to share with you. Once upon a time, when I was young and foolish, I was a fan of Duke basketball.

I am still ashamed of this. It is not because, like so many people, I now equate Duke with innate evil. I have no quarrels with Coach Mike Krzyzewski (you’re not going to believe me, but I spelled that right on my first try) and his ego. I have not joined the ranks of those who hate out of envy, who snarl out of insecurity, mock out of fear. I simply left for Vanderbilt University, and the Commodores became my team. You see, I had no real college team growing up in New York. I enjoyed seeing St. John’s do well, but the late 1990s/early 2000s Red Storm did not capture the public imagination like earlier editions. There were no Walter Berrys, Boo Harveys, Mark Jacksons or Chris Mullins. Instead, there was Ron Artest, Zendon Hamilton, Erick Barkley and Bootsy Thornton. It was a perfectly fine group, but it failed to capture the city’s attention. I rooted dutifully for them, but without passion. This brought me to Duke.

During my time as a Duke fan, I was subjected to the taunts and jeers of the non-Duke world. This was fair. Friends and family wondered how I could lay claim to this team. I couldn’t. Duke was in North Carolina and I was from Manhattan, which made me a by-the-book bandwagoner. I understand that more now than I did then. There was, however, one popular barb that never sat well with me. Invariably, after defending my misguided loyalty for long enough, my opponent would dismissively say “well, Duke players never make it in the NBA anyway.” This sentiment has been popular in the last ten years of my life. I have heard it from friends, family, fans, and analysts, even after becoming a Vanderbilt fan. It was the common last resort against an unwavering Duke fan: “Duke players never make it in the NBA anyway.”

At the time, I was pretty sure this statement was unfounded. After doing some research, my suspicions have been confirmed. First, I somewhat arbitrarily chose the 20 best college basketball programs of the past decade or so. Twenty because 15 was not enough, and 25 was too many. A decade because I am positive I have heard this myth for the last ten years, and less sure about the preceding years. Then I recorded the current and active NBA players that came from these schools. Finally, I took down each player’s key career statistics. These numbers will show that the Duke Myth is just that – a myth.

I selected the following schools: Duke, North Carolina, UCLA, Arizona, Florida, Michigan State, Kansas, Georgetown, Kentucky, Louisville, Villanova, Indiana, Syracuse, Texas, UConn, Memphis, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Xavier. Remember, I selected these based on program prestige, and not based on NBA players produced, because I am looking for the latter relative to the former. As you might expect, the statistics I used are off the beaten path. I recorded each player’s Player Efficiency Rating, PPG, Total Rebound %, Assist %, Turnover %, True Shooting %, Steal %, and Block %. Explanations of each can be found here; they are designed to remove pace from the equation and are easy to grasp. Here are the results, in order of most players in the NBA.

Duke (13): Shane Battier, Carlos Boozer, Elton Brand, Luol Deng, Chris Duhon, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Grant Hill, Dahntay Jones, Corey Maggette, Josh McRoberts, DeMarcus Nelson, JJ Redick and Shelden Williams. 

  • 14.62 PER, 10.65 PPG, 10.7 TRB%, 13.14 AST%, 13.92 TO%, 52.8 TS%, 1.64 STL%, 1.48 BLK%

UConn (13): Ray Allen, Hilton Armstrong, Josh Boone, Caron Butler, Rudy Gay, Ben Gordon, Richard Hamilton, Donyell Marshall, Emeka Okafor, Kevin Ollie, Charlie Villanueva, Jake Voskuhl and Marcus Williams. 

  • 14.86 PER, 11.65 PPG, 10.8 TRB%, 12.95 AST%, 13.93 TO%, 52.95 TS%, 1.48 STL%, 1.62 BLK%

UCLA (11): Arron Afflalo, Trevor Ariza, Matt Barnes, Baron Davis, Jordan Farmar, Ryan Hollins, Jason Kapono, Kevin Love, Luc Mbah a Moute, Earl Watson and Russell Westbrook. 

  • 13.5 PER, 8.07 PPG, 9.83 TRB%, 15.24 AST%, 15.25 TO%, 52.15 TS%, 1.96 STL%, 1.32 BLK%

North Carolina (10): Vince Carter, Raymond Felton, Brendan Haywood, Antawn Jamison, Sean May, Rashad McCants, Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, Marvin Williams and Brandan Wright. 

  • 16.38 PER, 13.51 PPG, 10.26 TRB%, 13.16 AST%, 12.06 TO%, 53.35 TS%, 1.53 STL%, 1.91 BLK%

Arizona (9): Hassan Adams, Gilbert Arenas, Jerryd Bayless, Mike Bibby, Channing Frye, Andre Iguodala, Richard Jefferson, Jason Terry and Luke Walton.

  • 14.4 PER,  11.89 PPG, 8.33 TRB%, 18.44 AST%, 15.14 TO%, 52.26 TS%, 1.91 STL%, 0.71 BLK%

Florida (9): Matt Bonner, Corey Brewer, Udonis Haslem, Al Horford, The Right Honorable Gentleman and New York Knick David Lee, Mike Miller, Joakim Noah, Anthony Roberson, and Marreese Speights.

  • 14.92 PER, 8.31 PPG, 12.79 TRB%, 8.72 AST%, 12.19 TO%, 54.56 TS%, 1.57 STL%, 1.72 BLK%

Kansas (9): Darrell Arthur, Mario Chalmers, Nick Collison, Drew Gooden, Kirk Hinrich, Paul Pierce, Brandon Rush, Jacque Vaughn, and Julian Wright.

  • 13.67 PER, 9.83 PPG, 9.83 TRB%, 14.6 AST%, 14.28 TO%, 51.84 TS%, 1.96 STL%, 1.37 BLK%

Kentucky (8): Kelenna Azubuike, Keith Bogans, Chuck Hayes, Jamaal Magloire, Nazr Mohammed, Randolph Morris, Tayshaun Price, and Rajon Rondo.

  • 12.51 PER, 7.46 PPG, 12.06 TRB%, 9.5 AST%, 13.85 TO%, 51.11 TS%, 1.66 STL%, 1.52 BLK%

Texas (8): LaMarcus Aldridge, DJ Augustin, Kevin Durant, Maurice Evans, TJ Ford, Daniel Gibson, Royal Ivey, and Chris Mihm.

  • 13.85 PER, 10.8 PPG, 8.05 TRB%, 15.1 AST%, 13 TO%, 52.61 TS%, 1.42 STL%, 1.31 BLK%

Michigan State (7): Maurice Ager, Charlie Bell, Shannon Brown, Paul Davis, Morris Peterson, Zach Randolph, and Jason Richardson.

  • 11.87 PER, 9.3 PPG, 8.56 TRB%, 11.17 AST%, 11.63 TO%, 48.14 TS%, 1.61 STL%, 0.84 BLK%

Memphis (6): Rodney Carney, Joey Dorsey, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Derrick Rose, Shawne Williams, and Lorenzen Wright.

  • 12.15 PER, 6.53 PPG, 8.35 TRB%, 14.77 AST%, 9.8 TO%, 48.4 TS%, 1 STL%, 1.28 BLK%

Georgetown (4): Jeff Green, Roy Hibbert, Allen Iverson, and the inimitable Dikembe Mutombo.

  • 16.4 PER, 13.85 PPG, 11.42 TRB%, 13.07 AST%, 14.25 TO%, 53.25 TS%, 1.42 STL%, 3.42 BLK%

Villanova (4): Malik Allen, Randy Foye, Kyle Lowry, and Tim Thomas.

  • 13.15 PER, 9.5 PPG, 8.32 TRB%, 15.15 AST%, 13.52 TO%, 51.57 TS%, 1.57 STL%, 1.25 BLK%

Syracuse (4): Carmelo Anthony, Donte Greene, Etan Thomas, and Hakim Warrick.

  • 14.42 PER, 11.17 PPG, 11.15 TRB%, 7.6 AST%, 13.25 TO%, 53.47 TS%, 1.12 STL%, 1.95 BLK%

Indiana (2): Eric Gordon and Jared Jeffries.

  • 11.65 PER, 8.6 PPG, 7.75 TRB%, 10.1 AST%, 15.75 TO%, 52.95 TS%, 1.7 STL%, 1.25 BLK%

Pittsburgh (2): Mark Blount and Aaron Gray.

  • 12.9 PER, 6.2 PPG, 14.35 TRB%, 8.6 AST%, 17.3 TO%, 53.4 TS%, 1.25 STL%, 2.4 BLK%

Wisconsin (2): Michael Finley and Devin Harris.

  • 17 PER, 13.9 PPG, 6.25 TRB%, 20.8 AST%, 12.25 TO%, 54.6 TS%, 1.95 STL%, 0.65 BLK%

Xavier (2): James Posey and David West.

  • 15.95 PER, 11.95 PPG, 11.75 TRB%, 9.75 AST%, 11.55 TO%, 54.35 TS%, 1.7 STL%, 1.6 BLK%

Louisville (1): Francisco Garcia.

  • 12.8 PER, 8.3 PPG, 7.9 TRB%, 10.3 AST%, 14 TO%, 54.8 TS%, 2 STL%, 2.2 BLK%

Oklahoma (1): Eduardo Najera.

  • 12.7 PER, 5.4 PPG, 11.8 TRB%, 6.3 AST%, 12.2 TO%, 52.2 TS%, 2 STL%, 1.5 BLK%

All players (125): 6.25 per school in the NBA

  • 13.99 PER, 9.84 PPG, 10.01 TRB%, 12.42 AST%, 13.46 TO%, 52.64 TS%, 1.62 STL%, 1.57 BLK%

Got all that?

Wisconsin players have the highest career PER, which is the most encompassing statistic that I used. But they also only have two players in the NBA. Georgetown has the second-highest PER, but contributed a paltry four players. North Carolina, unsurprisingly, has the best combination of PER and matriculation; they have 10 players in the NBA, with a 16.38 PER. Florida, UConn, Arizona and, yes, Duke also do well in this respect. 

Indiana, Oklahoma, Louisville, Pittsburgh and Villanova recently have put few players in the NBA relative to their program prestige. Furthermore, the players from these schools that are in the NBA have not performed well. Michigan State has a bunch of players in the NBA, but a bad PER. That is a question that I am not yet prepared to address: is it better to have more mediocre players in the NBA, or a few good players? That is the difference between Michigan State and a team like Syracuse, at least in this study.

In any case, Duke fared well. My apologies for the forthcoming barrage. They tied UConn for most active players in the NBA with 13 (6.25 average). They were 7th in PER, 9th in PPG, 9th in TRB%, 9th in AST%, 9th in TO%, 12th in TS%, 10th in STL%, and 11th in BLK%. They were above-average in all categories except for TO% (13.92% to 13.46%)  and BLK% (1.48% to 1.57%). 

Knowing this, I am not sure where the whole Duke Myth came from. I have a few theories. The first is simply that many college basketball fans are incapable of thinking rationally or objectively about Duke, much like many baseball fans do with the Yankees. This clouds their ability to be impartial, particularly during a heated debate, and thus “Duke players don’t make it in the NBA anyway” is born. 

My second theory is that Duke has put forth more high-profile busts than other schools. A high-profile bust from a high-profile school is sure to garner chagrin. High picks such as Jay Williams, William Avery, Trajan Langdon, Rowshown McLeod, Bobby Hurley and Danny Ferry did not pan out for a variety of reasons. The same can be said, however, for many of the teams in this study. Mike Sweetney was drafted 9th overall out of Georgetown. Reece Gaines, Samaki Walker, and Clifford Rozier were drafted 15th, 9th, and 16th out of Louisville, respectively. Dave Johnson and John Wallace from Syracuse. Joseph Forte, Eric Montross, and Joe Wolf from North Carolina. Donnell Harvey and Dwayne Schintzius from Florida. Travis Knight and Tate George from UConn. Scott Padgett, Rex Chapman and Sam Bowie from Kentucky. Scot Pollard, Wayne Simien and Rex Walters from Kansas. Jerome Moiso, Ed O’Bannon and George Zidek from UCLA. Chris Mihm, BJ Tyler and Travis Mays from Texas. Dajuan Wagner from Memphis. Jared Jeffires, Kirk Haston and Greg Graham from Indiana. Michael Bradley from Villanova. Mateen Cleaves and Shawn Respert from Michigan State. Paul Grant from Wisconsin. Do you see where I’m going with this? Every elite college program has a few stinkers strewn across the landscape. Uncertainty is the nature of the business. For some reason, Duke seems to get its stinkers held against it more than other teams do. 

This brings me to my last and touchiest theory, so I will make it brief and then open to floor to discussion. I suspect that the Duke Myth exists also because of the perception of Duke as a “white” team. I say “perception” because I do not have any hard data in front of me, so I can neither confirm nor deny that Duke traditionally has more white players on its team than other schools do. I am, however, reasonably sure that the perception exists, and that is all that matters in this case. Duke is perceived to have more well-to-do white players pass through its program than most other schools, which in turn gives birth to the whole “Duke players never make it in the NBA” nonsense. I think we all know what links those two in the minds of many.

I am extraordinarily interested in what you have to say about this. I am curious to know what you think of my study, and the statistics, methods and constraints that were involved. I am also curious to know if you, in fact, agree that the Duke Myth exists. If you think it does, why do you think it exists? Are my theories off-base? The psychological and sociological elements of this myth are really interesting to me, so I would love to know what you think.

Be sure to check out the Dikembe Mutombo and Devin Harris links. If you’ve made it this far, you’ve earned it.


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