The five most underrated Duke basketball players in Blue Devils history.
When you think of Duke basketball, you think of some of the greatest players in college basketball history. Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, J.J. Redick and Bobby Hurley are among the many college hoops icons who have suited up in Durham. Star power is nice, but no team would be complete without great role players. Let’s take a look at five of the most underrated players in the history of Duke basketball.
5. Duke basketball underrated players: Quinn Cook, G, (2011-2015)
A key member of the 2015 national champions, Cook is not the first person you think of from that title-winning team. The Blue Devils were loaded with top young freshmen that year, including lottery pick Jahlil Okafor and Final Four Most Outstanding Player Tyus Jones.
The lone senior on that team was Cook, who provided valuable leadership to an extremely young group of Blue Devils. Cook also happened to be a very good player, earning second-team All-ACC and second-team All-American status as a senior.
There’s no doubt the freshmen got all the hype in 2015 but any smart Duke basketball fan will tell you they wouldn’t have won it all without Cook’s contributions. That skill has also translated to the NBA, where Cook is emerging as a solid role player.
4. Duke basketball underrated players: Amile Jefferson, F, (2012-2017)
Let’s stick with that mid-2010s theme here with the next underrated Blue Devil, forward Amile Jefferson. Another member of the 2015 national champs, Jefferson was always a solid contributor to Duke’s starting lineup.
Throughout his time at Duke, Jefferson was never really asked to be the guy carrying the load on offense. With star freshmen constantly coming through Durham, Mike Krzyzewski often asked Jefferson to do little things like rebound, set screens, and help facilitate the offense.
That kind of glue guy doesn’t get a ton of glory, which was often the case for Jefferson. Never considered to be the best player on his own team, Jefferson was never more than the third option in any given year.
The Blue Devils had Jefferson for five years thanks to an injury during his senior year, resulting in a redshirt that granted him extra eligibility. Jefferson was one of Duke’s best players during his senior year, averaging 10.9 points per game and 8.4 rebounds a night.
There is no doubt that Jefferson doesn’t get enough credit for his value to Duke. Jefferson’s ability to do all the little things made it much easier for his higher-profile teammates to rack up their points.
3. Duke basketball underrated players: Ryan Kelly, F, (2009-2013)
Of Duke basketball’s five national championship teams, the 2010 group may not be as highly regarded as the rest. Lacking a lot of dynamite star power, this Blue Devils team was a well-rounded group that truly had the heart of a champion.
One player who learned a lot from his time as a freshman on that squad was forward Ryan Kelly, who played a shade under seven minutes a game that year. Kelly made his way into the starting lineup as a sophomore and managed to stay there for the next three years.
There wasn’t a ton of pizzazz to Kelly’s game but he was always a dependable secondary option for Duke. Kelly’s offensive production improved as an upperclassman, peaking at 12.9 points per game and 5.3 rebounds a night as a senior.
Another area where Kelly excelled was in the classroom, where he was named to the ACC All-Academic team in each of his four years at Duke. Kelly’s smarts clearly translated to the court as well since he was a part of some very strong teams.
A bit of a glue guy like Jefferson, Kelly showed grit by battling through foot injuries in his final two years at Duke. Although he doesn’t get the love like other Duke stars there is no question that Kelly was an important player for Krzyzewski while he was in school.
2. Duke basketball underrated players: Lance Thomas, F, (2006-2010)
Let’s visit another member of the 2010 national champions, albeit one with a much larger role. Forward Lance Thomas was never one of Duke’s most productive offensive players, but he was a great leader for the Blue Devils.
Over the course of his four-year career, Thomas never averaged more than 5.3 points or 4.9 rebounds in a game. The modest counting stats undersell the value Thomas had for Duke, particularly on the defensive end.
Thomas was a dogged defender, making the ACC’s All-Defensive Team in 2010, his senior year at Duke. That team as a whole was a gritty bunch and Thomas’ will to win helped set the tempo for the Blue Devils’ championship run.
Going out as a champion certainly helps Thomas’ legacy, but he also deserves props for his hustle. The one category that Thomas ranked inside Duke’s all-time Top 10 in when he graduated was offensive rebounding, a stat that relies almost exclusively on a willingness to do the little things.
Thomas’ work ethic has translated into a strong NBA career that saw him carve out a niche as a role player. Few Duke fans will cite Thomas as one of the Blue Devils’ greats right away, which is a shame considering how much value he brought to the table.
1. Duke basketball underrated players: Nate James, G, (1996-2001)
There isn’t a Duke basketball alum who is as consistently underrated as Nate James. A redshirt year as a sophomore allowed James to play for five years at Duke, where he was a part of five regular-season ACC champions.
James was a key role player on Duke’s Final Four team in 1999 that is widely considered one of the best teams that failed to win a national championship. Coach Mike Krzyzewski named James a team captain the following year, a mantle he shared with Chris Carrawell and Shane Battier.
That leadership quality was a key for James, who was also a co-captain when Duke won the national championship in his senior year. James’ production grew as his career advanced, but the was never the lead guy for Duke in any season.
Great players like Battier, Elton Brand, Jay Williams and Mike Dunleavy got all the hype but James was an integral part of the late-90s Blue Devils. James’ leadership qualities made him a favorite of head coach Krzyzewski, who recruited him back to be an assistant coach after James’ playing career ended in 2008.
That is a role that James fills to this day, where he can help mentor the next generation of Duke basketball stars. James often doesn’t get enough credit for his value on those Duke teams, making him the clear choice to be the most underrated player in Blue Devils’ history.
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