Phil Jackson, Duke Basketball, and why Kyrie Irving Matters

originally published Feb 26, 2015

By now it’s so run of the mill to hear Phil Jackson jam a player up, it no longer brings anything more than a raised eyebrow and a “really, he said that?” Contrary to his mystical wisdom identity, Jackson’s sarcastic observations hidden beneath a caustic smirk and laughing eyes linger like an airless balloon. It’s all so very passive-aggressive the way he attacks one of his high profile players in front of the camera, something he gets away with because his success has created a different standard.

So, it’s hardly a surprise then that behind closed doors Jackson is that same sort of person. It doesn’t matter whether it is dark or light. This time it was dark, over dinner. In January, he was discussing Jahlil Okafor, perhaps weighing the merits of Okafor on the Knicks.

“If you look at guys who came to the NBA from Duke, aside from Grant Hill, which ones lived up to expectations?”

Jackson broke no new ground, this was a familiar attack levied upon a Duke program that may have clout and prestige within its closed circle of influence but has not developed players who have created glamorous and exceptional NBA careers. Lump them all together and they have not risen to the top of the NBA food chain. Basically, Jackson was saying Duke players are mediocre role players who are only elevated to anything of interest because they are attached to the Duke program.

He is mostly right.

There are 15 players in the NBA from Duke (not counting this year’s draft picks). Only one, Kyrie Irving, has been an All-Star and an All-NBA selection and Rookie of the Year. Luol Deng was an All-Star twice and on the All-Defensive team. Jabari Parker has potential but a torn ACL has the doubters circling the drain. J.J. Redick was in the NBA Finals when he played with Dwight Howard. Carlos Boozer routinely made it to the playoffs but there was that issue of stiffing the Cavs. The rest of the Duke bunch have been hit or miss, nothing special or as Jackson noted, underachievers.

Seth Curry just signed a NBA contract after two years of trying. Mike Dunleavy was the #3 pick in 2002 and has never made an All-Star team nor played in a conference final. Gerald Henderson is forgettable. Rodney Hood…he went to Duke? Ryan Kelly was supposed to do one thing well, shoot, and last season he made 33% of his shots. Josh McRoberts plays hard. The Plumlee brothers are athletic but can’t give you 10 points a night. Austin Rivers hovers above average. Lance Thomas is Lance Thomas. Kyle Singler is a three-point shooter.

That’s the Duke crew.

Irving is the headliner, the one special player, a Hall of Fame talent who in his short career has been extraordinary in every facet of the game except defense and he is only 23 years old. The rest of his college alums have never made much of a dent in the NBA, at least not in the wow factor, a point that Phil Jackson was quick to seize upon. Perhaps it was Jackson’s way of saying he doubted Okafor, in the long run, will be worthy of his top of the draft status. Perhaps it was just Phil being Phil, hiding the real truth behind his sarcasm because that’s his thing. But we all know if the Knicks hadn’t screwed up the last week of the season and had the #3 pick in the NBA draft Jackson would have drafted Okafor.

Duke is singled out here. They are a program that produces average NBA players as compared to Kentucky that has given the NBA Anthony Davis, Eric Bledsoe, DeMarcus Cousins. Syracuse has had its share of busts (Wesley Johnson and Jonny Flynn) but they also produced Rookie of the Year Michael Carter- Williams. North Carolina has produced two NBA champions: Harrison Barnes and Danny Green.

For the next few years, Kyrie Irving will carry the Duke flag as the exception to the Duke rule of great in college, average in the NBA unless he is more like Grant Hill than anyone hoped, and he follows the injury trail. It’s already on Irving’s resume, the penchant to not play 82 games because of his body falling apart. But even if Irving follows that particular cruel path, the former Rookie of the Year is still the best NBA player Duke has produced since Grant Hill electrified the NBA with his athletic dunks and paralyzing defense and versatile playmaking.