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Duke Basketball: Who’s the Greatest ‘Sixth Man’ of All?

jon scheyer
Jon Scheyer

The concept of a ‘sixth man’ in basketball has probably existed since the game’s inception, but Red Auerbach apparently helped define it. He wanted a player whose skill set equaled that of starters, one who could enter a game at several different positions as needed, a smart player who could capitalize on exactly what was going on out there, an energetic spark plug who might inspire the team and/or cause turnovers, perhaps a specialist at scoring, defending, rebounding or whatever. The sixth men below are arranged chronologically. The Blue Devils have had some great ones.

David Henderson: Henderson was actually a starter as a freshman at Duke. Then Coach K changed him into a lethal sixth man for the next two years. Finally, he was starter and co-captain of the 1986 team that made it to the Final Four. As a soph, Henderson was upset at first, viewing sixth man status as a demotion but K told him he’d be playing in the crucial moments and he’d bring extra energy and toughness to the team—so Henderson made the best of it. Coach K has said that “David Henderson was the best—he showed what a sixth man could do…” Other sixth men have come and gone, so it isn’t certain if coach would still rate him the best, but he obviously performed very well in the role. He could score, rebound, assist, and defend.

’83-’86, 3325 minutes, 1570 points, 513 rebounds, 263 assists, 10 blocks, 151 steals.

Billy King: King performed as sixth man during his first two years as a Blue Devil. His stats aren’t amazing. Despite playing 2825 total career minutes he only scored 602 points and pulled down 390 rebounds. But he was a great defender, receiving National Defensive Player of the Year honors as a senior in 1988. Perhaps somewhat like yesteryear’s Steve Vacendak and today’s Tyler Thornton, King was out there doing the intangibles, fighting hard, causing turnovers, and inspiring his teammates to always go after it and never stop.

’85-’88, 2825 minutes, 602 points, 390 rebounds, 251 assists, 45 blocks, 140 steals

Billy McCaffrey: McCaffrey played only two seasons at Duke, averaging about 19 minutes per game. However, as a sophomore he was the second-leading scorer at 11.6 points with the best free throw percentage at 83.2. He actually played in all 38 games both seasons. Interesting to note is that McCaffrey contributed 94 points in post-season play, helping Duke very significantly in those key games. Unhappy with his back-up role, however, McCaffrey then transferred to Vanderbilt for the remainder of his college career (where he was an All American).

’90-’91, 1471 minutes, 691 points, 95 rebounds, 105 assists, 5 blocks, 59 steals

Nate James: James actually stayed at Duke for five seasons between 1997 and 2001, but he redshirted most of the ’99 season. He played almost 2000 less minutes than Jon Scheyer, another sixth man, but he became a crucial player. During those first two years at Duke he only played in 23 games for 185 minutes. Even in his third season he only averaged about 14 minutes per game. However, as he matured, it’s remarkable what an impact he had when he was on the court. He was a tough, wily player who was always in the thick of it, always making good things happen for his teammates. He was a clutch player and Coach wanted him there in the close ones. The guy would volunteer to defend the best shooter or fight the toughest rebounder. James was a player.

’97-’01, 2813 minutes, 1116 points, 500 rebounds, 147 assists, 27 blocks, 147 steals

Corey Maggette: Maggette was among the first three Duke players to go pro early—following the 1998-‘99 season. Surprisingly, his stats did not reflect those of a superstar about to storm NBA ranks. His points per game were only 10.6 with 3.9 rebounds. But scouts must have justly seen a very athletic upside because he’s gone on to play at least fourteen seasons in the NBA, averaging as many as 22.2 points per game. Maybe the scouts were enamored with Maggette’s outlandish dunks and high fiving the entire backboard…who knows?

’99, 691 minutes, 414 points, 151 rebounds, 59 assists, 15 blocks, 29 steals

Daniel Ewing: Maybe I’m fudging a little on Ewing. According to official minutes, it was only during his freshman year that he seemed to be a sixth man. However, when I think back to games he played, it sure seems as if he was shuttled in and out of games a lot. In the end, though, his sophomore through senior years list a lot of minutes by his name. Ewing was not a star, but he was pretty consistent. You could count on him to do some good things in just about every game he played. Never showed a whole lot of emotion—but steady as she goes. That’s not bad.

’02-’05, 3825 minutes, 1595 points, 382 rebounds, 293 assists, 24 blocks, 191 steals

Jon Scheyer: Scheyer entered the Duke program highly touted and he backed up the hype from the start. He was smart, skilled, and could do most anything Coach K asked of him—plus he didn’t turn the ball over much. While Scheyer started every game but one in his freshman season, Coach K began throwing out hints that the line-up was up for grabs. He was looking for anything that worked. Scheyer’s sophomore year he was in for a big disappointment. Coach said he wouldn’t be starting. However, he told Scheyer he would come off the bench at key moments and would finish games. He told the kid he had confidence in him—that he could come in and even turn a game around. Instead of pouting, Scheyer tried to look at it as a challenge and, if it helped the team win, he’d throw his whole self into it. And that’s exactly what he did. He basically made himself indispensable. Later in his career when K was looking desperately for a leader, a point guard, guess who filled the bill? And Scheyer went ahead and led the team to a national championship. All those hours of studying teams from the bench and learning to play anywhere on the court paid off big time.
’07-’10, 4759 minutes, 2077 points, 522 rebounds, 440 assists, 30 blocks, 208 steals

Andre Dawkins: The story of this next guy isn’t over yet. He’s starting his fourth season now and, again, his role this year might be as a sixth man. Dawkins is a pure shooter but he’s been streaky his first three years. He scored 28 against Bradley and 26 against a very tough Michigan State team, but in some other games he’d barely show up. Partly because of that streakiness, though Dawkins played a bit in almost every game, he only averaged in the end 18.5 minutes per game. He lost his sister while she was enroute to one of his games and he couldn’t seem to get past that grief. It was reflected in that his second year stats were higher than his third year’s in almost every category. So he took a year off to get his bearings. Now he’s back and hopefully we’ll see the potential that we all wanted to see in a healthy, developing Andre Dawkins.

’10-’12, 2015 minutes, 752 points, 183 rebounds, 54 assists, 8 blocks, 46 steals

For me, best sixth man is a toss-up between Henderson, James and Scheyer. Sounds like a law firm. Well, these guys learned the almost impossible challenge of coming into a game cold, playing all over the court, and making your team better—being that winning X factor, that extra kick that inspires the guys to play harder and better. That’s what a sixth man is all about.