Love them or hate them—and you almost certainly fall into one of those two camps—there’s no debating the fact that the Duke Blue Devils have been one of the most influential forces in college basketball history. Cameron Indoor Stadium with its “Cameron Crazies” is renowned for its electric atmosphere, and Duke’s rivalry with North Carolina is one of the most fierce in all of sports. Their reputation for greatness is a result of their five national championships, all under legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski. Year after year, Coach K has proven to be one of the top recruiters in college basketball, and as a result Duke has been host to some great amateurs who have gone on to have highly successful NBA careers, like Grant Hill, Elton Brand, and Kyrie Irving.
However, not all have been fortunate enough to take the success they experienced in college to the pro game. For all its historic greatness, Duke has developed a reputation for producing players who underperform at the next level. This has played no small part in why Dukies are so often reviled, as many NBA fans have been left bitterly disappointed by college studs who have turned into NBA duds once their team has drafted them. Because Duke tends to target players who are likely to stay several years, they sometimes miss out on the top-tier talent that has turned teams like Kentucky and Kansas into one-and-done factories lately. This might help explain why their teams are so good, yet their players underperform; the impression is of a team of grown men bullying younger opponents, then faltering once they’re forced to pick on players their own size. It could also be that Duke’s strong reputation causes general managers to view their prospects through rose-colored glasses, making a player who would be regarded as average on another team appear to have star power.
Whatever the case may be, it’s clear that many Duke players have failed to live up to the lofty expectations placed on them. Here are some of the worst offenders.
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15 Kyle Singler
For a brief moment, Singler was the “Great White Hope”, the next Larry Bird. He was the sixth ranked recruit in the outstanding 2007 high school class, ranking ahead of current stars like James Harden, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. A white kid with smooth scoring instincts and high basketball IQ is pretty much the ideal Duke recruit, and they were rewarded with a strong freshman season. He followed that up with a sophomore campaign that saw improvements across the board, and had he left for the league at that point, he very likely would have been a mid-to-late first rounder.
However, just like a true Blue Devil would, Singler decided to stay until the bitter end, but failed to show much if any improvement from his sophomore to senior years. He ended up falling to the second round, and has spent the past five seasons becoming less and less relevant to the point where he now averages a meager 10.4 minutes per game for Oklahoma City.
14 Jim Spanarkel
Spanarkel was a member of the 1978 Duke squad that is largely credited with jumpstarting the school’s rise to prominence, thanks to making it all the way to the national final against Kentucky. He parlayed his productive college career into being chosen 16th in the 1980 draft by the Philadelphia 76ers. As a rookie, he played a minor role on a team that made it all the way to the Finals, but were defeated by the transcendent play of a fellow rookie named Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Spanarkel had a breakout year the following season after being acquired in an expansion draft by Dallas, leading the team in points scored.
Unfortunately, the gruelling lifestyle and petty politics of the NBA eventually got to him, with Spanarkel reminiscing that “college and pro were vastly different in the sense that I went from playing ball for fun to having to survive training camps”. He’d play just three more seasons before leaving the game behind at just 26 years of age, failing to fulfill the promise of his Duke pedigree.
13 Mark Alarie
Alarie made an immediate impact at Duke as a freshman, averaging 13 points and 6.5 rebounds. He continued to be highly productive throughout his time in Durham, culminating in playing for a national title his senior year. Though Duke would lose the game in thrilling fashion to Louisville, it catapulted Alarie and his teammates into the national spotlight, and, in Alarie’s case, into the 18th pick of the 1986 NBA draft. His best season came four years into his NBA career when he averaged 10.5 points per game for the Washington Bullets, but the injuries that had plagued him throughout his professional career would finally bring his playing days to an end during the following season. It always feels a little unfair to label someone with injury issues a “bust”, so I gave Alarie a bit of a break by putting him low on this list.
12 Cherokee Parks
While at Duke, Parks was pretty much a caricature of a Duke center: big, slow, and, by his senior year, possessing a deft shooting touch. That combination of size and shooting ability made him an intriguing enough prospect for Dallas to use its 12th overall pick on him in the 1995 draft. Over his nine years in the league, he slowly shed his clean-cut Duke image by adorning himself with a plethora of tattoos.
Unfortunately, the change in image couldn’t make up for the fact that his game was ill-suited for the pro game. He was too cumbersome to keep up with the increasing athleticism of the league, and the shooting ability he displayed in college completely disappeared. With nothing to offer but his size, he faded into obscurity, another Dukie unable to reclaim his old glory days.
11 Austin Rivers
Perhaps the only type of player more scorned than a Duke Blue Devil is a coach’s son. Austin Rivers is both. At just 24, it’s probably too early to call him a definitive bust, but so far in his NBA career he’s been a shell of his former brash, bratty self. He wasn’t cocky without reason either; Rivers was ranked the number two high school recruit behind Anthony Davis in 2011 thanks to his unlimited offensive arsenal and aggressive scoring mentality. His one year at Duke tempered expectations somewhat as his ball-dominant style became apparent, but his talent was still evident enough that he chose to leave and become a top-ten pick. From there, things only got worse, as he struggled to make a mark with New Orleans, averaging just 6.9 points in three seasons.
His move to the Clippers to play for his dad Doc has revived his career somewhat, and he’s currently having his best career as a pro to the tune of 12.2 points per contest. Still, it took him playing for his freaking dad to find even this measure of success. I’m not optimistic about his future when he inevitably gets traded or his pops gets fired.
10 Roshown McLeod
McLeod actually began his career at St. John’s, before frustration with his role on the team caused him to seek a new situation. He became the first transfer ever accepted by Mike Krzyzewski, and the move turned out to be a good one for McLeod, finally allowing him to play his natural position of forward rather than center, and impressing scouts enough his senior year that he was taken 20th overall by the Atlanta Hawks. Once in the league however, he again ran into some bad luck, playing just 113 games in a three year career cut short by injury.
Had he been born 15 years later, he likely could have avoided the “bust” label since 22-year-old seniors these days are unlikely to sniff the first round, or even get drafted unless they put up truly spectacular numbers against good competition. McLeod could have just been another quietly forgotten fringe prospect instead of a potential difference-maker who never got his career off the ground.
9 Nolan Smith
Smith was a late bloomer, a role player in his first two seasons at Duke before blossoming into a true star. By his junior year, he was starting for a team that won 35 games, culminating in a national championship. His senior campaign was among the strongest of any Duke player ever, with Smith becoming just the ninth player under Coach Krzyzewski to average more than 20 points per game. Though his advanced age made scouts wary of his production, the fact that he had improved every year was a positive sign, and Portland made him the 21st pick of the 2011 draft.
Evidently, the concerns about his upside were well-founded, with Smith lasting just two seasons while averaging less than 10 minutes per contest. After a few years overseas and in the D-League, Smith finally decided to give up on his playing dreams and transition into coaching. He’s now back where he was most successful, at Duke, as an assistant coach.
8 Tate Armstrong
Armstrong played four years at Duke, and had standout junior and senior seasons due to his shooting and defensive prowess at the shooting guard spot. However, despite his admirable individual numbers, the teams he was a part of were mediocre at best. Duke would not gain a reputation for consistent greatness until the year after he graduated when they made the national final. Nevertheless, Armstrong was no stranger to success upon entering the league, having won gold at the 1976 Summer Olympic Games as a member of the U.S. Men’s National Team.
He would be picked 13th overall, sandwiched between future Finals MVP Cedric Maxwell and two-time All-Defensive team member Tree Rollins. Alas, Armstrong’s career would be dramatically less successful. He lasted just 92 games over two seasons with the Chicago Bulls and now works as a business consultant in what might be the most stereotypical Duke bust story ever.
7 William Avery
As a sophomore, Avery was the starting point guard on the 1998-99 powerhouse Duke team that went 37-2 and featured five future NBA players, including two-time All-Star Elton Brand. As expected, they made it all the way to the championship game, but were ousted by the UConn Huskies. Avery then left Duke to pursue his NBA dreams along with three of his teammates, becoming one of the rare Duke players to forego his remaining years of college eligibility.
After going 14th overall to the Minnesota Timberwolves, his NBA career ended up being nothing short of a complete disaster. He played only three seasons and never sniffed the league after that despite being just 22 when he played his last game. It’s hard to blame teams for passing up on him though when he shot an atrocious 33% from the field for his career and barely got off the bench. Hard to get much worse than that, right?
6 Trajan Langdon
Well, turns out Avery might not have even been the biggest Duke bust in his draft class. That title belongs to Trajan Langdon, who was picked three spots ahead of Avery and had a similarly brief and dismal stint as an NBA basketball player. One of the best shooters in Duke history, Langdon was expected to be ready to contribute in the league right away since he already had five years of college under his belt. However, in his three seasons with the Cavaliers the most notable thing he accomplished was becoming the first player from the state of Alaska to play an NBA game. He did end up having a successful career overseas, but obviously much greater things were expected of him. Maybe he should have stuck to baseball, which he actually played professionally in the San Diego Padres’ farm system while at Duke.
5 Bobby Hurley
Hurley has a case for being one of the greatest college point guards of all time, which makes his ultimate failure all the more tragic. Hurley was the floor general in the early ‘90s for Duke’s greatest run of dominance when they made three straight appearances in the championship game, winning the last two. His performance during their second title run earned him NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player Honours, and the following season he was named to the Consensus All-American First Team. Though not a physical specimen by any stretch at just 6’0”, 165 pounds, Hurley’s passing acumen and leadership assured him of a high draft position, and he was nabbed by the Kings with the seventh pick in the 1993 draft.
Unfortunately, disaster struck just 19 games into Hurley’s rookie season when he was involved in a serious car accident that left him fighting for his life. Needless to say, he sat out the rest of the year, but miraculously recovered in time to play the following season. However, he was never the same after his injury, and after four post-accident seasons struggling to even get on the court, he was finally traded and waived.
4 Jay Williams
In a terrible case of déja vu, Williams suffered an eerily similar fate to Hurley, only worse. He quickly rose to stardom at Duke, leading the team to a championship as a sophomore while averaging better than 21 points per game. After another stellar season in which he was inundated with awards and honours, Williams decided to pass on his senior year and head to the NBA instead. His exceptional production saw him go second off the board behind only Yao Ming. After an up-and-down but promising rookie campaign, Williams would suffer a life-changing accident. Riding his motorcycle (violating the terms of his contract), Williams crashed into a pole and suffered horrendous injuries that proved to be career-ending. Though he did attempt a comeback years later, the damage was too great and time away from the game too long, and he never played another NBA game.
3 Art Heyman
Heyman was arguably Duke’s first star, a heavily recruited high school player who made a last minute decision to switch his commitment from North Carolina to Duke. That was just the first of several clashes between the two schools that the hot-tempered Heyman would be in the middle of, causing an already bitter rivalry to escalate into the war of titans it is today. One scuffle between himself and future NBA player and Hall-of-Fame coach Larry Brown got them both suspended for the remainder of the season. Heyman would return strong for his junior and senior campaigns, leading Duke to a Final Four appearance and winning NCAA Player of the Year from The Sporting News along the way. His accolades and scoring dominance were so highly regarded that the Knicks made him the first pick of the 1963 draft.
A solid rookie season in which he averaged 15.4 points per game seemed to mark the beginning of a great career, but things went immediately south after that. He played only two more seasons in the NBA, seeing his scoring take a dramatic dive to 5.7 and then a paltry 2.9 points per game. A move to the newly formed ABA helped revive his career temporarily, but he retired from the game in 1970 at just 28.
2 Shelden Williams
Williams was a defensive menace in college, an imposing brick house of a power forward who averaged over three blocks per game three years in a row. This was enough to convince the Atlanta Hawks to take him fifth in the 2006 draft, despite several indications he might not be as successful as a pro. For starters, at 6’9”, he was a little on the smaller side for a player who made his living strictly in the paint. He didn’t have spectacular athleticism to make up for it either, casting serious doubt on his ability to deal with NBA length. Then there was his age, already 23 before his rookie season began which meant limited room for growth and improvement. The Hawks chose to ignore these red flags, so instead of winding up with someone like Brandon Roy or Rudy Gay, they got a benchwarmer who was promptly traded away in his second season. After bouncing around for a few more years, he bounced out of the league altogether in 2012, only resurfacing in the news recently to file for divorce from his WNBA star wife Candace Parker.
1 Danny Ferry
There are certainly worse players on this list than Ferry, who managed to stick around in the league for 13 seasons, but in terms of sheer disappointment he’s hard to top. As a senior he won multiple player of the year awards thanks to his unmatched versatility. At 6’10”, Ferry could shoot, pass, and rebound—at the college level. After being picked second by the Clippers in the 1989 draft, Ferry raised eyebrows around the league by electing to spurn the franchise and sign a one year contract to play in Italy instead. Judging by how the rest of his career unfolded, the Clippers may have actually dodged a bullet. Ferry would return stateside and sign with the Cleveland Cavaliers where he spent 10 remarkably underwhelming seasons averaging just 7.8 points per game. A move to San Antonio allowed him to become the spot-up bench shooter he was always destined to be, and in his final season his mediocrity was rewarded with a championship.
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