Six decades of excellence — Duke’s all-time basketball greats

As a Maryland fan, I was disappointed that Duke defeated Gonzaga to reach the Final Four. On the bright side, trying to pick Duke’s all-time basketball greats is more fun than selecting Gonzaga’s.

Duke has reached the Final Four in every decade since the 1960s. They did it three times in 60’s under the great Vic Bubas. The program declined steeply in the the early 1970s, but bounced back and reached the Final Four again in 1978 under Bill Foster (Duke lost the final game to Kentucky).

Mike Krzyzewski took over the program in the 1980-81 season. He made the first of his 12 Final Fours in 1986 (Duke lost the final game to Louisville).

Duke finally won the national championship in 1991 and repeated in 1992. Since then, Coach K has brought home two more titles — 2001 and 2010.

Given this exceptional level of success, there’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to selecting Duke’s all-time best players. I only hope that, in attempting to do this, I don’t embarrass myself.

Here goes:
First Team:
Jason Williams (1999-2002)

He’s eighth on Duke’s all-time scoring list and every player ahead of him played four years (Williams played only three). He averaged 21.6 points per game in leading Duke to the national championship as a sophomore on 2000-01. Subjectively, there has never been an ACC point guard whom, as Maryland fan, I feared more as he dribbled up the court.

Johnny Dawkins (1982-86)

A product of Mackin High in Washington, DC, Dawkins is Duke’s second all-time leading scorer. He averaged 19.2 points during his career, on better than 50 percent shooting. In 1986, he led the Blue Devils all the way to the NCAA final game, averaging 20.2 points and making 55 percent of his shots. Dawkins is now the head basketball coach at Stanford.

Grant Hill (1990-94)

The stats are nice — e.g., 17.4 points per game on 58 percent shooting plus 6.4 rebounds per game as a junior — but they don’t tell the full story. Hill was a magical college player (and pro too, until injuries took their toll). He could do it all. That’s why he was 1994 ACC Player of the Year, a two-time All-American, and a two-time NCAA champion.

Christian Laettner (1988-92)

Lots of folks hate Christian Laettner, as a new ESPN documentary reminds us, and I’m not fond of him myself. But he’s the leading scorer in NCAA tournament history. He’s also Duke’s third all-time leading scorer and was the driving force on two national championship teams. As a senior, Laettner averaged 21.5 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. He shot .575 from the field and made a ridiculous 54 of his 97 3-point shots.

Mike Gminski (1976-80)

G-Man averaged 19.0 points and 10.2 rebounds during his four-year career. He made 53 percent of his career shots. Gminski was the star of the 77-78 team that lost in the NCAA finals to Louisville. He was first-team all-ACC for three years and ACC player of the year as a junior. Gminiski also picked up various first and second team All-American honors along the way.

Second Team:
Bobby Hurley (1988-93)

Hurley was the point guard on two national championship teams and one national runner-up. He’s easily Duke’s all-time assist leader, averaging a remarkable 7.7 per game during his career. Hurley made 40.5 percent of his career three-pointers. Oddly, he made only 41 percent of his total shots from the field.

Jim Spanarkl (1975-79)

He averaged 20.8 points for the national runner-up team of 77-78, and made 53 percent of his shots that year. Spanarkl also averaged 2.2 steals per game during his career. Duke’s first 2,000 point scorer, he was named MVP of the Blue Devils his final three seasons, including the year his teammate Mike Gminiski was ACC player of the year.

Art Heyman (1960-63)

Heyman led the Blue Devils to their first Final Four (1963). That year, he averaged 25 points and nearly 11 rebounds per game. In the national semi-final, which Duke lost, Heyman scored 29 with 12 boards. He was named both National and ACC player of the year.

Heyman was Jewish, and hot-tempered. Accordingly, he was involved in a several basketball-related fights on “Tobacco Road.” But his most famous fight was against fellow Jew Larry Brown of the University of North Carolina. According to Brown, he and Heyman had fought before on various playgrounds in New York City. Their fight in North Carolina is credited with taking the Duke-Carolina rivalry to another level.

Heyman was the first player taken in the 1964 NBA draft and averaged more than 15 points per game as a rookie for his hometown New York Knicks. However, his pro career fizzled out, probably in part because of his temperament.

When Heyman died in 2012, Brown, one of the best basketball coaches ever, described his old foe as “still one of the best of all time.” Vic Bubas, Heyman’s old coach said, “as much as any other human being, Art was responsible for Duke University becoming a national power in college basketball.”

Shane Battier (1997-2001)

A master of finding ways to beat you, especially ones that involved flopping to the floor, Battier averaged 19.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game for the 2001 national championship team. That season, he was national player of the year. Battier is tied with Heyman for 12th place on the all-time scoring list (but Heyman played one less season) and he’s also 12th in all-time rebounds. A fabulous defender, he was national defensive player of the year three times.

Danny Ferry (1985-89)

Another Washington DC area player (for DeMatha), Ferry is number six on Duke’s all-time scoring list and number eight in rebounds. As a senior, he averaged 22.6 points and 7.4 rebounds per game — good for national player of the year. Ferry was the first player in ACC history to collect more than 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 500 assists in his career. After a long NBA career, Ferry became an NBA executive (like his father Bob Ferry, former GM of the Washington Bullets). However, Ferry got into trouble by making an ethnically insensitive remark about fellow Duke basketball alum Luol Deng.

Third Team:
Dick Groat (1949-52)

He averaged 25.2 points per game as a junior and 26 a game as a senior. He was an All-American both seasons and the national player of the year in one of them.

Groat was the first man ever inducted into both the college basketball and college baseball halls of fame. He played both sports professionally — one year in the NBA and 14 in the major leagues. Groat was a superb shortstop for two World Champions and was the National League’s MVP in 1960 (though he shouldn’t have been).

J.J Redick (2002-06)

He’s Duke’s all-time scoring leader. As a senior Redick average 26.8 points per game, made 42 percent of his 3-point shots, and won major national player of the year awards.

For some reason, Redick was almost as hated as Christian Laettner had been. He proved his critics wrong by eventually becoming a first-rate NBA player, averaging double figures in points for the past five seasons and making 40 percent of his 3-point shots for his career.

Jeff Mullins (1961-64)

Mullins starred on the back-to-back Final Four teams of 1963 and 1964. He averaged more than 20 points per game in each of his three seasons in Durham, including 24.2 as a senior, after Art Heyman graduated. Mullins was also a high scorer in the NBA, exceeding 20 per game four times.

Kyle Singler (2007-11)

He’s fourth on Duke’s all-time scoring list and seventh in rebounds. Singler helped lead Duke to the 2010 national title and was named the most outstanding player of the final four, where he average 20 points, 9 rebounds, and 3.5 assists.

Randy Denton (1968-71)

Denton averaged 19.7 points and 12.7 rebounds during his Duke career. The rebounding average is the best in Blue Devils history. Denton had a successful pro career in the ABA.

Fourth Team:
Jon Scheyer (2006-10)

Scheyer was the leading scorer on the 2010 championship team. He’s number 10 on the all-time Duke scoring list. Scheyer makes it two Jews on this top 20 list. I understand that he was part of a high school team that started five Jews (with a Jewish sixth man) and won the Illinois state basketball championship.

Bob Verga (1964-67)

Verga averaged 22 points per game during his three years, and 26 as a senior. That mark is second only to J.J. Reddick. He had a long ABA career (plus one season in the NBA) during which he twice averaged more than 20 points.

Mark Alarie (1982-86)

A consistent scorer, Alarie averaged 16 points per game during his career, on 55 percent shooting, and stands seventh on the all-time scoring. He also chipped in 6.3 rebounds per game.

Eugene Banks (1977-81)

More highly recruited out of high school than Magic Johnson, his decision to attend Duke gave Bill Foster the final piece in his rebuilding puzzle. Though no Magic Johnson (there’s only one) “Tinkerbell” Banks made good on his potential and Duke made its first Final Four appearance in years his freshman season Banks is tied for eighth on Duke’s all-time scoring list and he’s ninth in rebounds.

Elton Brand (1997-99)

He only stayed at Duke for two seasons, but what seasons they were. Brand was national player of the year as a sophomore, when he led the Blue Devils to the championship game (only to lose to Connecticut). That season, he averaged 16.2 points and 8.9 rebounds a game, while shooting an astonishing .612 from the field.

The honorable mention list could go on almost indefinitely. I’ll list a few who stand out for me. The names will be familiar to just about anyone who has read this far:

Tommy Amaker – point guard (1983-87)
Trajan Langdon – shooting guard (1994-99)
Nolan Smith – shooting guard (2007-11)
Tate Armstrong – shooting guard (1973-77)
Mike Dunleavy – small forward (1999-2002)
Jack Marin – small forward (1963-66)
Carlos Boozer – power forward (1999-2002)
Shelden Williams – center (2002-06)
Mike Lewis – center (1965-68)

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