Duke in the NBA: Dec. 22, 2020-Jan. 4, 2021

Photo credit: Boston Celtics/NBA.com

For decades, Mike Krzyzewski has been regarded as the best coach in men’s college basketball. He has won five national championships, and accrued 1,123 wins (and counting).

Earlier in his career, however, Coach K was scrutinized for the lack of NBA talent that came from Duke University. The notion that he did not churn out pros stuck for years.

Recently, Krzyzewski has been able to shift that narrative. When the NBA tipped off on Dec. 22, there were 27 Duke players on NBA rosters, and the Detroit Pistons’ signing of Frank Jackson five days later made 28. Duke is behind only Kentucky for most current NBA players.

It is important to follow the careers of these former college stars as they make their way through the pros. Every two weeks during the season, we will be ranking the top five Duke players in the NBA, as well as top starting lineup consisting of former Blue Devils. 

We start with the best from the first two weeks of the 2020-21 NBA season:

Honorable Mention: RJ Barrett, F (New York Knicks)

Running in tandem with Zion Williamson at Duke, Barrett was lost in the void that is the New York Knicks during his rookie year. With Kentucky product Julius Randle seemingly on pace to finally break out, Barrett may soon find relevancy.

With the team sitting at 4-3 so far, Barrett is averaging 18.3 points, to compliment Randle’s 22.1 points, and 11.4 rebounds. If the Knicks can get into a groove, Barrett will find himself in the spotlight and potentially rebrand the franchise.

It’s not crazy talk anymore. Madison Square Garden could soon host its first NBA playoff game since 2013. 

5. Seth Curry, G (Philadelphia 76ers)

While his brother might be making headlines on the West Coast, Seth Curry is still doing his thing. The 8-year veteran is averaging 15.4 points and shooting 54% from behind the 3-point line. The journeyman guard is currently on his seventh team, and is already proving his value with the Philadelphia 76ers.

His 3-pointer against the Toronto Raptors with 1:05 left sealed one of Philly’s six wins. The Sixers sit at the top of the Eastern Conference, and Curry is playing his role as one of the best shooters in the NBA.

4. Zion Williamson, F (New Orleans Pelicans)

Limited last season after surgery for a torn meniscus, the NBA is getting their first glances at a healthy Zion Williamson. Averaging 20.3 points and 8.4 rebounds, the second-year forward is coming into his own.

He dropped the hammer with 32 points and 14 boards against the Miami Heat, and has scored double-figures in each game. His explosiveness is a force to be reckoned with, throwing down dunks reminiscent of a young Shaquille O’Neal. Having only seen seven games’ worth of Williamson at full strength, it will be interesting to see how the young star blossoms as the season continues.

3. Brandon Ingram, F (New Orleans Pelicans)

Williamson’s teammate on the Pelicans, Brandon Ingram, remains one of the game’s best young talents. Putting up 25 points per game in his second year in New Orleans and fifth overall, Ingram is a top small forward in the NBA.

The Durham-bred talent has shown he can score from anywhere, and is in the top 25 in player efficiency rating. He iced the Pelicans’ game against Toronto with 2.6 seconds remaining through two clutch free throws. “Durag B.I.” still has 65 games to go, but is already showing signs of having his best season yet.

2. Kyrie Irving, G (Brooklyn Nets)

The former No. 1 overall pick continues to shine. While the Nets may be sitting at 3-4, Irving is still playing like a top-5 point guard. Averaging 26.8 points and 6.3 assists in his 10th season, Irving has already scored at least 30 points twice.

Paired up with Kevin Durant on the newest NBA “super team,” Irving has taken a somewhat secondary role, similar to his years in Cleveland with LeBron James. Regardless, he still boasts the 11th-best player efficiency rating in the NBA. While Irving has impressed with his highlight-reel moves and passes, the team has had its struggles.

Brooklyn has given up at least 106 points in five of seven games this season. Once the Nets can figure out their defense, however, the team will be a force to be reckoned with. A healthy Irving and Durant will begin to dominate as everyone expected.

1. Jayson Tatum, F (Boston Celtics)

There is no denying: Jayson Tatum is the Boston Celtics. Coming off the best season of his young career, Tatum is making his case for a consecutive All-Star nod. Averaging 26.3 points and 6.9 rebounds, he is one of the most complete players in the NBA.

Tatum has single-handedly won two games for the Celtics with late-game heroics. His 3-pointer on opening night with 0.4 seconds left lifted Boston over the Milwaukee Bucks, and he hit a pull-up jumper with 2.9 left to beat the Detroit Pistons on Sunday.

Tatum also recorded his second career 40-point game this season in the Celtics’ most recent match-up against the Toronto Raptors. Once Kemba Walker returns from injury, Tatum and the Celtics will no-doubt be one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, and will make a strong push for the NBA Finals.

Best lineup

PG: Kyrie Irving
SG: R.J. Barrett
SF: Zion Williamson
PF: Jayson Tatum
C: Wendell Carter Jr.

Sixth Man: Brandon Ingram