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Which NBA Factory Produces Better Pros: Duke or Kentucky?

While both schools chase the same talent, there are big differences in their programs, how NBA teams view their players, and where their players land in the draft

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

You can’t talk about the NBA draft without including Kentucky and Duke. The two schools have lapped the rest of the country when it comes to churning out pros. Kentucky had 28 players on NBA rosters at the start of last season. Duke had 24. No other school had more than 14.

It all goes back to when the league stopped letting high school players enter the draft in 2006. The ones who wanted only a pit stop in college needed programs that would make that process as smooth as possible. John Calipari was the first coach to capitalize on the opportunity. He signed Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans to Memphis in 2007 and 2008 and then brought the blueprint to Kentucky in 2009 when he signed John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and Eric Bledsoe. Mike Krzyzewski got on board when the relationships he built with NBA stars on Team USA made him more appealing to the next generation of elite recruits. He signed Kyrie Irving in 2010 and Austin Rivers in 2011 and never looked back.

But while both coaches recruit from the same pool of prospects, there are big differences in the way each runs his program. Those differences impact how NBA teams tend to view their players. You can see it in the draft histories of both schools over the last decade:

Duke vs. Kentucky

Draft Range Kentucky Duke
Draft Range Kentucky Duke
1-3 4 8
4-10 8 4
11-20 11 2
21-30 5 6
31+ 9 4

Duke has produced twice as many top-three picks as Kentucky during that span. The Blue Devils have had six straight drafts with at least one player in that range—Jabari Parker (2014), Jahlil Okafor (2015), Brandon Ingram (2016), Jayson Tatum (2017), Marvin Bagley III (2018), and Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett (2019)—while the Wildcats haven’t had anyone taken that high since Karl-Anthony Towns in 2015.

Calipari hasn’t been the best recruiter in the country for a while. Coach K snatched that title from him in the middle of the last decade. The turning point came with the high school class of 2014. The best way to track recruiting is the Recruiting Services Consensus Index (RSCI), which averages the rankings given to players by the major national recruiting services. Kentucky had an 8-3 edge over Duke in top-five recruits per RSCI from 2009 to 2013. Duke has had a 9-1 edge from 2015 to 2020.

So what happened in 2014? Kentucky went 38-0 before an upset loss to Wisconsin in the Final Four, while Duke won just its second national title in the one-and-done era with a team built around Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Tyus Jones. But more important than with whom was how. Calipari used a platoon system, making five-man hockey substitutions every few minutes as part of a 10-man rotation that featured nine future NBA players. That strategy not only backfired against the Badgers, but it may have turned off elite recruits that both coaches were chasing by suggesting they’d have limited playing time and lower statistical averages if they played for Kentucky.

Those are not small considerations for players looking to maximize their draft stock. The role a player has in their NCAA offense has a huge impact on how they are perceived by NBA teams. Krzyzewski prefers to run offenses that maximize the production of his top players, while Calipari likes to spread the ball around. The top-10 list of seasons by average field goal attempts in the last decade from players at both schools is almost all Blue Devils:

Field Goal Attempts

Player School Season FGAs per game
Player School Season FGAs per game
R.J. Barrett Duke 2018-19 18.3
Nolan Smith Duke 2010-11 15.4
Jamal Murray Kentucky 2015-16 14.9
Malik Monk Kentucky 2016-17 14.7
Jabari Parker Duke 2013-14 14.3
Grayson Allen Duke 2015-16 14.3
Kyle Singler Duke 2010-11 13.8
Brandon Ingram Duke 2015-16 13.4
Marvin Bagley III Duke 2017-18 13.3
Zion Williamson Duke 2018-19 13.2

JJ Redick (Duke) talked about the contrast on a recent episode of the Old Man and the Three podcast with DeAaron Fox (Kentucky): “Coach K figures out who the best players, who the toughest players are, and he’s like, ‘I’m maximizing two to three guys.’ I look back and think that it was probably tough to be a role player at Duke.”

This is why Duke stars almost never slide in the draft. Krzyzewski gives them as many shots and touches as they can handle, which can artificially inflate their stock. A player’s flaws can be hidden when he is holding the ball and putting up huge offensive numbers. That was the story for Bagley, Parker, and Okafor. All are one-dimensional scorers who haven’t been able to replicate their NCAA success in the NBA without the ball in their hands.

It’s hard to be drafted high when you aren’t the primary option on your college team. That was the problem for the five Blue Devils who were drafted in the latter half of the lottery—Wendell Carter Jr. (no. 7 in 2018), Austin Rivers (no. 10 in 2012), Justise Winslow (no. 10 in 2015), Cam Reddish (no. 10 in 2019), and Luke Kennard (no. 12 in 2017). Kennard leads that group in field goal attempts (13.1 per game) and even he had to share the ball with Tatum. Carter and Winslow both averaged less than 10.

Almost every player at Kentucky has that same problem. That’s why the Wildcats have had five times as many players drafted in the middle of the first round (11-20) as the Blue Devils. That list includes four massive steals—Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (no. 11 in 2018), Tyler Herro (no. 13 in 2019), Devin Booker (no. 13 in 2015), and Bam Adebayo (no. 14 in 2017). None of them took a lot of shots in college. Booker and Bam each averaged around seven field goal attempts per game. SGA and Herro averaged 10. NBA teams couldn’t see their potential because they weren’t given the chance to show it at the college level.

Talent can be obscured by the sheer weight of field goal attempts. That’s what happened in 2018, when the Cavs drafted Collin Sexton at no. 8, three spots ahead of SGA. Sexton averaged far more points (19.2 per game) and field goal attempts (13.3) because he played for a talent-starved Alabama team that let him dominate the ball. But none of that matters now that both are in the NBA, where SGA has been just as efficient a scorer as Sexton while being significantly more well-rounded.

Gilgeous-Alexander’s brief college career is the perfect example of how Calipari likes to structure his teams. He doesn’t build a team before the season. He collects as many elite recruits as possible and then figures out how they should fit together once they arrive on campus. It’s a high-wire juggling act that is harder than it looks. SGA started his freshman season coming off the bench while the offense ran through Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo. Once it became clear that SGA was the best talent, Calipari restructured the offense to feature him. But it happened too late in the season for some NBA teams to realize the significance.

That’s where Calipari’s ability to get his players to buy into a team concept becomes so important. The most surprising thing about Kentucky is how rarely you hear about players being unsatisfied with their role, especially given how many end up sacrificing their individual production for the good of the team.

What’s unclear is how much of that is a selection effect. A star recruit who wants to dominate the ball will probably not wind up at Kentucky. None of Calipari’s three no. 1 overall picks—Wall, Anthony Davis, and Towns—averaged more than 12 field goal attempts per game. Davis was fourth on his own team in shots. Towns was fifth. The “shoot first, second, and third” approach of someone like Barrett might not have gone over as well in Lexington as it did in Durham.

Offensive chemistry has been a bigger issue at Duke. There were rumors about infighting between Kennard and Tatum in their season together, which ended in a second-round flameout in the NCAA tournament. Carter and his family went on a mini–media tour at the end of his season to complain about having to play behind Bagley. A lot of Duke stars have struggled buying into a team concept at the next level, from Kyrie to Jabari to Okafor.

But Coach K’s more rigid offensive structure does have some upside for his role players.

They go into the NBA understanding that they will not get the ball very often and they have to find other ways to contribute. His track record among players taken after no. 20 is much better than Calipari’s. If we exclude Diallo, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Keldon Johnson, all of whom are too early in their NBA careers to draw any conclusions about, only one (Darius Miller) of the 11 Kentucky players drafted in that range has stuck. Duke has churned out several successful role players, most notably Mason Plumlee (no. 22 in 2013), Rodney Hood (no. 23 in 2014), Tyus Jones (no. 24 in 2015), and Gary Trent Jr. (no. 37 in 2018).

So what do these lessons tell us about 2020? It’s a down year for Duke, which may not have anyone drafted in the first round. But Duke does have three interesting role player types in Tre Jones (younger brother of Tyus), Vernon Carey Jr., and Cassius Stanley. Jones is a defensive-minded point guard with more scoring chops than his brother, but probably tops out as an excellent backup. Carey, the no. 5 player in the high school class of 2019, is a victim of the way the game has changed over the last few years. He’s a prototypical low-post scorer who plays like Okafor, limiting his ceiling. Stanley, as a 3-and-D wing who wasn’t asked to do much on offense at Duke, is the exact opposite. Trent, who exploded for the Blazers in the bubble, should be his role model. Players with their skill set can often be more valuable in the NBA than college.

Kentucky doesn’t have a great group of prospects, either. The most intriguing is Tyrese Maxey, a freshman combo guard who checks a lot of boxes when it comes to mid-first-round steals. He was an elite recruit who averaged 11.3 field goal attempts per game while sharing the ball with two second-round prospects in Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley. His ability to defend and score without dominating the ball could make him valuable in the right situation at the next level. But he doesn’t have the size (6-foot-3 and 200 pounds) of most Calipari guards, so he needs to find a team that will let him defend point guards without needing him to run the offense.

The larger lesson is the importance of team context when evaluating prospects. Never look at stats in a vacuum. You have to know what role that player had on his team as well as the way his coach structures things. NBA teams often miss out on what NCAA players will become because they don’t understand where they are coming from.