During Coach K’s 34 years at Duke, he has had seven players enter the draft who were not at least a junior. Four of those seven players were freshmen. Many argue early entrants, particularly one-and-done’s, do more harm than good for Duke Basketball.
Let’s take a look back at those players, the seasons they and the team had, as well as how the team fared the season before and after they left.
The nearly magical year. Undefeated in conference play. Headed into the NCAA Tournament with one loss. Lose the National Title to Connecticut. Many argue had the team won the National Championship, it would’ve gone down as the greatest team in Duke history. This would be the first year Duke would know what it would feel like to have a mass exodus of early entrants to the NBA.
Freshmen Corey Maggette, as well as sophomores William Avery and Elton Brand, all elected to turn pro following the National Title loss. Each would wind up being drafted in the NBA lottery, with Brand being selected #1 overall by the Chicago Bulls. The three underclassmen were three of Duke’s top four scorers that year, with Maggette having played 450 minutes less than Elton Brand.
Brand and Maggette would go on to have long and successful NBA careers, while Avery would be out of the league after just three seasons. Many felt he wasn’t ready when he left and that the move would cost him dearly long term.
Losing all four of your top scorers back then usually meant the next season would not be good for your team. But Duke showed why they don’t rebuild, they reload, as they would bring in a stellar freshmen class of Jason Williams, Carlos Boozer, and Mike Dunleavy. That class, along with returning upperclassmen Shane Battier, Chris Carrawell, and Nate James, would advance to the regional semifinal in the 1999-2000 season where they would lose to Florida. We all know what happened the year after.
The season prior to 1998-99, (Avery and Brand’s freshmen year) Duke lost a heart breaker in the regional final against Kentucky. That was another team many felt should have won the National Championship.
As you can see, the loss of Avery, Brand, and Maggette, did not hurt Duke over the long term. Had they returned, it is possible they could’ve run the table again and won the National Championship. But how would that have affected the development of other players that were key to winning the 2001 National Championship? We’ll never know.
Another season ended by Connecticut in the Final Four, another one-and-done player for Duke. Luol Deng had one of the most impressive freshmen seasons in Duke Basketball history. He averaged 15 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, as well as a steal and block per game. He was the second leading scorer on the team behind some kid named J.J. Redick.
Deng would be selected 7th overall in the 2004 NBA Draft and has been an NBA All-Star. Duke would enter the 2005 NCAA Tournament as the #1 seed in the South Region, only to be upset by #5 Michigan State. Had Deng stayed, Duke again would’ve been the favorite to win it all returning a veteran club of Sean Dockery, Daniel Ewing, Shavlik Randolph, J.J. Redick, and Shelden Williams. It would’ve been a nice progression for a team that in 2002-03 lost to veteran Kansas team in the regional semifinal.
Many might argue this season is where the “slide” of Duke Basketball began. Duke would not reach another Final Four until the 2009-10 season.
Duke is coming off a shocking loss to LSU in the regional semifinals the season before. A season in which many experts picked Duke to cut down the nets. The Blue Devils would follow that season up with an even more shocking ending, a first round loss to #11 seed VCU.
After the loss to VCU, Josh McRoberts, bolted for the NBA Draft, where he wouldn’t be selected until the second round. For a former top high school recruit, this was quite the fall. He would bounce around from team to team until finally finding a home with the Charlotte Bobcats where he has become a vital part of the team’s playoff push.
Had McRoberts returned for his JR year, there is a good chance their season doesn’t end in the second round against West Virginia. The Blue Devils would’ve had a nice mix of veterans with SR DeMarcus Nelson, JRs McRoberts and Greg Paulus, SO Gerald Henderson and Jon Scheyer, and two kids named Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith.
Fresh off their fourth National Championship season (including a 82-50 drubbing of North Carolina) and with the commitment of stud PG Kyrie Irving, Duke fans, and many in college basketball, felt the Blue Devils were in line to go back-to-back for the second time in school history. There were many who felt Duke may also go undefeated, especially after starting the season 15-0. But it was not meant to be as Kyrie was lost for the rest of the regular season following the National Title rematch against Butler. He would return in the tournament, but it was for naught, as Duke lost to a red hot Arizona team, led by Derrick Williams.
Irving would go on to become the #1 overall pick in the NBA Draft, while Duke would usher in the era of Austin Rivers.
In an up and down season reminiscent of the mid 2000s, the only real bright spot from the lone year of Austin Rivers was his game winning three over North Carolina. Duke would start the season off on high note, with Coach K’s passing of Bob Knight for first place in Division I history for most wins, by beating Michigan State, as well as staying undefeated in and winning the Maui Invitational (thanks to Tyler Thornton). The team would, however, struggle all season long with team chemistry and leadership, as well as at the point guard position.
The team would ultimately flame out in yet another embarrassing opening round loss to Lehigh. Many fans were grateful the Austin Rivers era was a one-and-done, especially after a more mature team would go on to the Elite 8 the following season. Rivers would go on to be a lottery pick in the NBA Draft, but is already being labeled a bust by many in the industry.
As you can see, those who decide to leave early for the NBA can be an extremely valuable part of Duke Basketball. One could argue the only time early entrants have hurt Duke were the years McRoberts and Rivers left early. But also look at those teams. They were still somewhat young, and lacked any true leadership on the court (much like this season). What happened in those years wouldn’t have been allowed to happen had there been stronger leadership on the team. That, more than a single player leaving a team, has had more of a negative effect on Duke Basketball than even Austin Rivers could cause. Could some of the players who left early been leaders? Possibly. But looking at most of their careers after they left Duke, it’s more likely they would’ve let or relied on others to be the leaders on the team.