A Reputation of Excellence: The Best Duke Players of All Time

There are a few teams in sports history that are synonymous with the sport that they play. Baseball has the New York Yankees, football has the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers, and college basketball has the Duke Blue Devils.

While there are many other schools that can match the history that Duke has provided, few have done it with as much regularity, and with as much talent, as the Blue Devils.

In over 100 years of basketball, Duke has churned out some of the best players in college history. Here is a little background on the program, and some of the best players to ever come through the university.

The History of Duke University

Before it was Duke, it was Trinity, Normal, and Union Institute Academy. Before even that, it was Brown's Schoolhouse. The university wouldn't be renamed Duke until the early 1900s.

Grant Hill Autographed Duke Sports Memorabilia

A soldier and businessman named George Washington Duke of North Carolina declined to have Duke University named for him in 1892. He had donated $100,000 to bring Trinity College from the town of Trinity in Randolph County to Durham, where it stands now.

He would go on to donate the same amount three more times.

Instead of his name, he had something else in mind. It was enough to meet his first criterion, that women must be able to attend and earn degrees, equal with the male students. They would build a dormitory for the women, which was named after Duke's daughter Mary.

George Washington Duke would go on to earn a fortune in the tobacco industry after serving time in the Civil War.

Duke's son, James, donated $40,000,000 to start The Duke Endowment and only then was the university renamed for his father. James donated $67 million more in his will.

Duke Basketball

Wilbur Wade Card graduated from Trinity College in 1900, after outstanding years playing baseball for the college. In 1902 he became the athletic director at Trinity and stayed for 46 years until his death.

He started the first basketball team in 1905 when Wake Forest's coach asked him to schedule a game. The team only played 5 games that first season, and they ended with a losing record. 

Since these humble beginnings, the Duke University basketball program has grown to be one of the best. They are 4th in all-time wins, with the most ever NCAA tournament wins (91).

Coach K

Usually when a program becomes a reoccurring powerhouse, it comes down to the coach leading the way, and Duke is no exception. Though he has a unique name, Coach Mike Krzyzewski is no joke when it comes to his legacy in college basketball.

Coach K attended West Point for college, where he played basketball under the tutelage of coaching legend Bobby Knight. After graduating from the program, Krzyzewski would get the head coaching job at his alma mater for 5 years.

Mike Krzyzewski Autographed Duke Sports Memorabilia

In 1980, he would become the head coach for Duke. Fast forward 39 years, and Krzyzewski would become the all-time leader in wins (1,123), win five NCAA championships, five gold medals as a coach of the USA basketball team, and become a three-time coach of year winner.

The Best Duke Players of All Time

In over 100 years of basketball, Duke has turned out some phenomenal players, including 36 All-Americans.  In total, the NBA has drafted 71 Duke players. Here are some of the best.

Miles and Mason Plumlee

These two brothers were both fantastic basketball players. Miles, the older brother, played center for Duke starting in 2008, sticking with the university for all four years.

Then the Indiana Pacers drafted him, and he's played in the NBA ever since. He averaged about 5 points a game in college and the numbers haven't changed much in the pros. The older Plumlee is a solid, reliable player.

He's been traded many times, to the Phoenix Suns, the Milwaukee Bucks, and most recently the Atlanta Hawks.

Duke Basketball Signed Sports Memorabilia

Mason Plumlee, the younger brother of Miles, also played for Duke for all four years of his college career, but his stats far outstripped his brother. During his senior year, he averaged over 17 points per game.

Now in the NBA, Plumlee plays for the Portland Trail Blazers, and on average scores 11 points a game.

Grant Hill

Hill played basketball for Duke in the 90s, and he was fortunate enough to play in three national championship games. They won two, in 1991 and 1992, losing in 1994. Hill was also picked as the ACC Player of the Year during his senior year at Duke. He played with two other famous Blue Devils that we will get to later.

Hill's number, 33, is no longer worn by any Duke player. They retired his jersey, with a college career totaling more than 1900 points, only the 8th player ever with the honor of hanging up his number.

He was the third pick in the NBA draft and chosen as NBA Rookie of the year, going on to play for the Detroit Pistons. Hill also played for the Orlando Magic and the Phoenix Suns, spending 19 years in the pros before retiring.

Grant Hill Autographed Sports Memorabilia

Hill is one of the most successful Duke players ever, making sports memorabilia like this autographed basketball, very valuable. Besides his career in the NBA, Hill went on to purchase the Atlanta Hawks in 2015, along with Tony Ressler. He serves as Vice Chair of the Board and also hosts NBA Inside Stuff.

Billy Werber

Werber was the first All-American for the Duke basketball program. He graduated in 1930 and was also awarded the honor of being All-American in baseball, the sport he would go on to play professionally despite his success in basketball.

Werber was the first player to bat on TV, and at his death in 2009, he was the last surviving teammate of Babe Ruth.

Dick Groat

Many know Groat as a Major League Baseball player, playing shortstop and winning the MVP award in 1960. However, just like many players before him, Groat was a two-sport athlete, also playing basketball in addition to baseball for Duke.

Groat's jersey was the first retired jersey in Duke history after he broke an NCAA record for most points scored (839). He was an All-American twice and made the NBA draft to play for the Detroit Pistons. He also signed to play professional baseball for the Pittsburgh Pirates the same year.

Groat left professional athletics when the military drafted him but returned after a couple of years to play pro baseball again, making a career out of it.

Jim Spanarkel

In keeping with the rich tradition of Duke players, Spanarkel also played baseball in college, for 2 years as a pitcher. However, basketball was where he really shined, another player to achieve All-American status. Spanarkel was also the first ever Duke player to score 2000 points.

Mike-Krzyzewski Signed Basketball Memorabilia

Spanarkel was MVP for three seasons and played in the NCAA Championship, losing to Kentucky. He was chosen in the NBA draft and spent five years playing professional basketball for the Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks. Spanarkel is now a sports analyst in his spare time, while also working as a top executive in finance.

Johnny Dawkins

Dawkins spent all four years at Duke and was an All-American twice, just like Dick Groat. He was the leading scorer in Duke history with 2556 points at the end of his college career, and they retired his jersey, number 24.

He was taken in the first round of the NBA draft and spent 9 years in the pros, where he averaged more than 11 points a game. He played for the San Antonio Spurs, the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Detroit Pistons. Now, Dawkins coaches the men's basketball team for the University of Central Florida.

Kyrie Irving

While basketball often is viewed as an American sport, there's a large contingent of players from around the world. Kyrie Irving is one of them, hailing from Australia, although his family moved to the US when he was young.

Irving played for Duke for only one year before entering the NBA draft. He averaged over 17 points a game at the beginning of the season, until he suffered an injury that kept him out until the NCAA tournament.

Kyrie Irving Signed Sports Memorabilia

After that, Irving went on to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers, winning Rookie of the Year in his first season. He played for them until 2017, winning one NBA championship with teammate LeBron James. Now, he plays for the Boston Celtics.

Irving also represented the US for the 2016 Olympics, although Australia hoped he'd play for their national team. Team USA won gold, allowing Irving to become only the 4th player to win both a gold medal and an NBA title in the same year.

  1. JJ Redick

The sharpshooting Redick was the first player to pass Johnny Dawkins' record for leading scorer in Duke history by one point, ending at 2557. He also broke many other school records, including most points scored in one game.

Redick broke the NCAA record for most 3-point shots scored several times, finishing his college career in 2006 with 457, a record that would not be broken until 2014. Duke retired Redick's jersey number 4 in 2007.

JJ Redick Signed Duke Sports Memorabilia

The NBA drafted Redick (11th pick) in 2006. He's played for the Orlando Magic, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers, and his current team, the Philadelphia 76ers. He's still setting 3-point records in the NBA.

Bobby Hurley

A teammate of the earlier mentioned Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley would carve out his own legacy at Duke. The pass happy point guard would lead the Blue Devils to three final four appearances, winning the championship in back-to-back years in 1991 and 1992. Hurley would be named most outstanding player of the NCAA tournament in 1992. Christian Laettner Signed Duke Basketball Memorabilia

To this day, Hurley is still the NCAA all-time leader in assists with 1076 and earned All-American honors in 1993.

He would be drafted into the NBA by the Sacramento Kings in 1993, but unfortunately, a car accident would end his playing career before it could even get underway. Today, Hurley would follow in the footsteps of Coach K, taking over the reigns of the Arizona State basketball team.

Christian Laettner

The other major teammate of Hill and Hurley, and arguably the best college basketball player in the sport’s history, Christian Laettner is certainly one of the most memorable players to come from Duke.

Known for his late game heroics, including his famous buzzer-beater against Kentucky in 1992, Laettner would also become one of the most hated players to ever play college basketball. Though he was not a dirty player, people could not stand that he seemingly won all of the time, and was hot humble while doing it. His teams were also in a rivalry of sorts with the fan favorite “Fab 5” from the University of Michigan.

Christian Laettner Autographed Duke Basketball Jersey

Laettner would lead Duke to two NCAA championships, two All-American selections, a variety of NCAA tournament records, and even a gold medal with the Dream Team at the 1992 Summer Olympics.

He would be drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves, but his NBA career did not come close to his NCAA one. Laettner would play for the Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons, Dallas Mavericks, and Washington Wizards in addition to Minnesota, carving out a decent career, but not outstanding.

These days Laettner is an avid fisherman and runs several different youth basketball camps. Though it has been almost 30 years, Laettner’s legacy lives on in the hearts of every fan of Duke University.

Zion Williamson

The newest and youngest player on the list, Williamson has been described as one of best NBA prospects anyone has seen in 25 years. Though he would only spend one year at Duke, he make quite an impact during his time there. Williamson averaged over 20 points and 9 rebounds per game.

Few people in college are as big as Williamson (coming in at 6’7” and 285 pounds) or have the ability to get to the basket like he does. Players who've been hit by him say it's like getting hit by a bus.

Magic Johnson Signed Dream Team Photo Sports Memorabilia

Even though he is young, he's still a versatile player. He set a record at Duke for the highest jump at over 3 feet, with the ability to dunk from the free throw line. He is also projected to be the number 1 pick in the upcoming NBA draft. No wonder his autograph is sought after.

The Greatest Players in History

Duke University has a rich history, from its roots as Trinity College to its generous endowment fund and small beginnings in basketball.

Jim Spanarkel, J. J. Redick, Grant Hill, Christian Laettner and Zion Williamson are proof that Duke University knows how to recruit great talent, build a team around solid all-around fundamentals, and make themselves a contender every single year. With a coach like Mike Krzyzewski at the helm, they are certain to be one of the favorites each time they take the court.  

For more history and sports memorabilia, read more at Powers Sports Memorabilia's blog.

Duke Blue Devils Sports Memorabilia