Is there a ‘Duke curse’ when it comes to NBA prospects?

2022 NBA draft: Meet the five Duke prospects that could go in the first round.

NBA scouts and pro talent evaluators will be out in force when the Duke Blue Devils visit the Syracuse Orange on Saturday night at the Carrier Dome (6 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN app). That group will be primarily observing the work of five Duke players who appeared in or near the first round of ESPN’s latest 2022 NBA mock draftPaolo Banchero (No. 3), AJ Griffin (No. 5), Mark Williams (No. 23), Trevor Keels (No. 24) and Wendell Moore Jr. (No. 33).

While the talent of all five players is undeniable, NBA fans considering the landing spots of the quintet might be doing so with a healthy dose of skepticism. Though 32 current Duke players are active in the NBA, per Basketball-Reference, not all of the school’s most heralded pro prospects have developed according to plan. Jayson TatumKyrie IrvingBrandon Ingram and Zion Williamson are all recent top-3 picks from Duke who became NBA All-Stars. Marvin Bagley III, Jahlil Okafor and Jabari Parker are recent top-3 picks who failed to become stars at the next level.

Where will Duke’s five 2022 phenoms fall on that continuum? ESPN’s NBA experts Jonathan Givony and Mike Schmitz considered the question, not only weighing on the notion of historical Duke struggles in the NBA but also evaluating the strengths, weaknesses, NBA comps and optimum NBA team fits for each of the 2022 five.

Is there a “Duke curse” when it comes to the NBA?

The evidence we have simply doesn’t back that up, as it doesn’t seem Duke players have been abnormally good or bad relative to where they were picked. They’ve had some busts (Bagley III, Parker, Okafor, Shelden Williams), and some guys that haven’t quite turned out quite the way we thought (Williamson and RJ Barrett so far). But it’s hard to look at the school that produced Tatum, Irving, Ingram, JJ Redick, Seth CurryGary Trent Jr., Grayson AllenWendell Carter Jr., not to mention Grant Hill, Elton Brand, Shane Battier, Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Luol Deng, Corey Maggette — and many more — and say those guys were failures because they went to Duke.

It’s a mixed bag, which comes with the territory to an extent with the way they recruit and how quickly they churn out draft picks, but no NBA team actively avoids drafting Duke players because of some systemic reason. If anything, they come into the league knowing how to handle immense pressure and scrutiny and are well-versed in modern basketball principles.

I’m personally not a fan of putting a large group of players in one uniform category for no other reason than what color uniforms they wear. Every school has pros and disappointments, Duke just has more of both because of their success on the recruiting trail.

The fact that three of the top five prospects in the 2022 high school class are committed to Duke shows how incredibly attractive the platform they’ve built is, but also hints at how stiff the competition for minutes and touches is for anyone that gets “left behind” and isn’t quite ready to be one and done. There’s always a degree of uncertainty regarding how a new coach will look in his first season at the helm full time, but that doesn’t seem to have prevented Jon Scheyer from reeling in maybe the best recruiting class they’ve ever had for next year. — Jonathan Givony

Paolo Banchero | 6-10 | PF/C | 19.2 Years Old | Mock draft: No. 3

Strengths: There really isn’t much Banchero can’t do on either end of the floor. Unlike the other two candidates for the No. 1 pick, Chet Holmgren and Jabari Smith, Banchero projects as the type of NBA player a team can run their offense through right off the bat early or late in the shot clock, soaking up a significant number of possessions and be reasonably efficient in the process, while also keeping teammates happy. Banchero is also a capable shooter, averaging one 3-pointer per game, 77% of his free throw attempts and a significant volume of mid-range jumpers and difficult short-range attempts, demonstrating his soft touch as a scorer that bodes well for his chances of extending his range and becoming more consistent from the perimeter in time.

At 6-foot-10, 250 pounds, with exceptional scoring instincts, versatility and feel for the game, Banchero won’t need any time at all to transition to the NBA either physically or skill-wise. Defensively, he’s more than capable one-on-one, has the strength to hold his ground effectively versus power forwards and centers alike and is switchable on the perimeter thanks to his good feet and solid instincts. His energy comes and goes, but when engaged, he does some very impressive things like sliding his feet against smaller players, putting a body on bigger guys inside and making plays getting in passing lanes or protecting the rim that suggest he could be outstanding if he brought a more consistent level of intensity on every possession.

The fact that we’re not talking about him as the sure-fire No. 1 pick speaks to the strength of this class.

Weaknesses: While NBA teams all uniformly love Banchero’s talent, some have questions about how much his style of play will translate to winning, at least early in his career, if he doesn’t improve his shortcomings. Banchero doesn’t always bring the level of engagement you might hope on either end of the floor in terms of the consistency of his approach. He can be a ball-stopper who tends to let defenders off the hook by settling for difficult shots in the mid-range, doesn’t always play with the type of physicality you might hope and has some lazy habits off the ball defensively that better teams in the ACC have punished for easy points.

It’s very possible that the high stakes of the NCAA tournament brings back that same level of engagement from Banchero we saw early in the season, which would put him squarely back in the conversation for the No. 1 pick, which he’s faded from somewhat over the past few months.

Comps at the next level (ceiling/floor): Julius Randle and prime Blake Griffin (a perennial All-Star and five-time All-NBA player prior to injuries) are comparisons you hear most often associated with Banchero — more so due to their style of play now and less than how they played in college. Banchero is not nearly as explosive as Griffin was at his peak, but was also far more skilled from the perimeter at the same age, which can similarly be said in comparison with Randle, who also didn’t start shooting 3s in earnest until his fifth NBA season. Those comparisons hint at some of the questions Banchero might face defensively early in his career, especially in the small-ball era where teams will likely want to see him play fairly significant minutes at center.

Chris Webber is another comparison teams may point to skill-wise, although he played in a different era in which NBA big men didn’t shoot 3-pointers as today’s game.

Optimal/practical NBA team fits: Banchero’s ability to play both power forward or center, and operate equally effectively on the perimeter or the paint, makes him an easy player to fit onto almost any NBA roster. The Detroit Pistons would be an excellent fit for Banchero, pairing him with a fellow cornerstone backcourt player in Cade Cunningham with some good young pieces to play alongside in Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart. Orlando is another, as he’s versatile enough to play alongside either Wendell Carter Jr. or Mo Bamba, while providing another playmaker to pair with Cole AnthonyJalen Suggs and Franz Wagner.

Houston would likely have a great deal of interest as well, as he could bring a great deal of firepower alongside either Christian Wood or Alperen Sengun, bringing the type of physical inside presence the team currently lacks.

Indiana could very well be in the market for another frontcourt scoring option after trading Domantas Sabonis for Tyrese Haliburton. Oklahoma City has very little scoring prowess in the frontcourt and would likely have a great deal of interest in Banchero’s ability to create offense and also finish plays around the basket.

AJ Griffin | 6-6 | SF/PF | 18.4 Years Old | Mock draft: No. 5

Strengths: Griffin has prototype tools for an NBA wing at 6-6 with a strong, proportionate 222-pound frame and a 7-0 wingspan. He’s a powerful two-foot leaper in space and, while not quite as tall as the 6-8 combo forwards in the Jimmy Butler mold, his strength, length and incredibly strong base allows him to play much bigger than his height. Griffin has a clear-cut NBA skill with his shooting as he’s converting a remarkable 48.1% of his triples while ranking 5th in the entire NCAA in catch and shoot efficiency. Despite a wide base and not the most traditional mechanics, Griffin is as close to automatic as you’ll see from an 18-year-old with his physical tools.

Defensively, Griffin also has a chance to be highly impactful and versatile, even if he’s still learning the nuances of on-and-off ball defense at this stage of his development. When you consider that Griffin is capable of sliding up to the small-ball 4 defensively while providing spacing as a shooter offensively, it’s easy to see why he has a relatively high floor. Add in the flashes of shot creation and the fact that he would be one of the youngest players in the draft and there’s an argument to be made that, especially given the coveted position he plays, Griffin has as much upside as any of Duke’s prospects.

WeaknessesGriffin entered his freshman season trying to do too much offensively, leading to questions about his feel for the game and skill level. Offensively, Griffin isn’t immune to a missed drop off or kick out pass, and he’s two-foot reliant, not nearly as explosive playing off of one. Defensively, Griffin’s discipline and awareness are question marks. He can be a bit too ball-oriented, losing sight of his man and allowing open 3s or back cuts. He’s not the forceful rebounder he could be, with some scouts questioning his toughness. Griffin will take aggressive angles on the ball too often, allowing straight line drives to the rim more than you’d hope from a prospect with defensive stopper potential. With a history of knee injuries, NBA scouts wonder whether or not Griffin will get medically red-flagged throughout the pre-draft process.

Comps at the next level (ceiling/floor): Although they have a very different shot profile at the same stage, Jaylen Brown is a best-case outcome for Griffin. While Brown shot just 30% from 3 at California and that’s Griffin’s clear NBA skill, the two hold some physical similarities and question marks in terms of decision-making. Like Brown as an 18-year-old, Griffin has the tools to be a multi-positional defender who can hang his hat on that end of the floor early in his career. Griffin, like a teenage Brown, is also an underrated ball handler relative to his frame and length, which gives him similar upside as a shot creator that Brown’s biggest naysayers didn’t believe he had.

OG Anunoby is a a solid mid-range outcome for Griffin. Although not quite as big, long and powerful, Griffin can offer similar defensive versatility and floor spacing while building out his shot creation slowly. Patrick Williams is another physical combo forward who rose in the pre-draft process due to his age, tools and glimpses of skill. While an inch or two shorter, Griffin is just as powerful with a far more refined skill set at the same stage.

Optimal/practical NBA team fits: There are no shortage of NBA teams in need of a two-way wing who can space the floor, making the list of theoretical suitors for Griffin arguably the longest amongst the five Duke prospects. The Sacramento Kings, which have been in the market for a rangy wing for years, comes to mind. Griffin would fit perfectly alongside De’Aaron FoxDavion Mitchell and Domantas Sabonis, and could learn from a pro like Harrison Barnes (even if he’s a Tar Heel).

Griffin would also be an interesting fit next to Pacers guards Tyrese Haliburton and Chris Duarte, giving Indiana a level of pop those two lack on the perimeter, while being able to add value without needing much volume given his spot shooting. With two picks in the top-10, the upstart Portland Trail Blazers also make some sense here, with Griffin as an exciting young fit next to Anfernee Simons. Should Oklahoma City fall out of the Banchero-Jabari Smith-Chet Holmgren sweepstakes, Griffin would give Josh Giddey and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander a valuable young wing defender who can knock down open 3s and potentially evolve into the Thunder’s missing perimeter piece.

Trevor Keels | 6-4 | PG/SG | 18.4 Years Old | Mock draft: No. 24

Strengths: Keels is a powerful combo guard with the exact offensive versatility teams generally covet. A far better shooter than his percentages suggest, Keels can add value in catch-and-shoot situations while also picking apart a shifting defense out of second-side pick-and-roll opportunities. From a skill perspective, Keels doesn’t have a ton of true holes in his game given his ability to spot shoot, knock down tough pull-ups and make most basic reads — he’s averaging 3.9 assists and just 1.8 turnovers per 40 minutes on the season.

While his pass, dribble, shoot skill set has shined bright in spurts this season, it was Keels’ defensive toughness that originally drew NBA scouts to the stocky 18-year-old guard. He’s proven more than capable of taking on the defensive challenge against elite guards — see Duke’s win against Kentucky and TyTy Washington Jr. — bringing the type of energy and toughness at the point of attack that coaches at all levels covet. There’s little downside to an ultra-confident guard like Keels, as he’s at the very least a longtime NBA rotation player.

Weaknesses: What is Keels’ elite NBA skill? He hasn’t yet proven himself to be a true threat as a shooter (32.5% from 3), isn’t all that quick or explosive off the dribble and isn’t quite the true lead guard to hand the keys of a franchise to. Although he has an incredibly high floor given all the things he does well on both ends, his oversized frame, lack of elite length (6-7 wingspan), average burst and major struggles playing in traffic as a finisher (46.3% at the rim in the half court) will give NBA teams some pause about his true upside. For as good as he can be at the point of attack, he’s had his struggles with quicker perimeter players, and has had his forgettable moments in terms of effort and ball screen navigation.

Comps at the next level (ceiling/floor): Lu Dort is a name you often hear linked to Keels given the football body and glimpses of defensive intensity. Dort was far more powerful and explosive at the same stage, while Keels is way ahead as a shooter, ball handler and passer. Sterling Brown is a realistic floor for Keels. While Brown was a four-year player at SMU and a mid-second-round pick, like Keels, he was a floor-spacing guard who had an inherent toughness and turned into a sound positional passer. If Keels were able to get himself into better shape and turn his shooting stroke into a real asset, Desmond Bane is a best-case prototype for him to model his game after.

Optimal/practical NBA team fits: A team that values Keels’ defensive toughness and isn’t overly enamored with length, burst and explosiveness would be ideal for a player like Keels. The Milwaukee Bucks, especially with Pat Connaughton entering the last year of his contract, Donte DiVincenzo now in Sacramento and Wes Matthews a free agent, could be a logical option. You can never have enough guards who can shoot, defend and pass around Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The same goes for Luka Doncic, making Keels an intriguing fit in Dallas, especially with Jalen Brunson entering free agency. Playoff teams looking for a readymade role player — Bucks, Mavericks, Miami Heat, etc. — make a lot of sense for Keels.

Mark Williams | 7-0 | C | 20.1 Years Old | Mock draft: No. 23

Strengths: Williams’ strengths are clear-cut: He’s a high-level rim protector, vertical spacer and tremendous offensive rebounder, making him an easy fit at the NBA level. Williams’ 7-foot-7 wingspan allows him to change all types of shots at the rim and is a huge reason he’s blocking 5.3 shots per 40 minutes so far this season, which ranks third among prospects in the ESPN Top 100.

Offensively, Williams puts his huge reach to good use both as a finisher and offensive rebounder. He’s already mastered the tap-out to create extra possessions, and his 13.2 offensive rebounding percentage is one of the best in the country. The fact that Williams has sound shooting mechanics (75% on free throws) and can make occasional high-low and backdoor reads is the cherry on top of an already NBA-ready shot-blocker and lob-catcher.

Weaknesses: The biggest question Williams has to answer is whether or not he’ll get played off the floor against small-ball teams in the NBA. His balance and physicality leave something to be desired, which shows both as a finisher, interior defender and defensive rebounder at times. With every NBA team looking for ball-handling, passing bigs in the Banchero mold, Williams still has questions to answer in those areas.

Comps at the next level (ceiling/floor): There aren’t many players in the NBA with Williams’ sheer length (7-7 wingspan), yet there is no shortage of effective centers who have carved out a role as lob-catching, shot-blocking bigs. Mitchell Robinson comes to mind as a tall, mobile 5 who has a huge catch radius and can put a lid on the rim defensively. Williams isn’t quite as agile on the perimeter as Robinson, while the Knicks’ big man never showed the same glimpses of passing as Duke’s 20-year-old sophomore.

Robert Williams, who was a potential lottery pick if it weren’t for injury red flags, would be an excellent possible projection for Mark Williams. The Celtics center has emerged as one of the league’s most underrated bigs thanks to his combination of lob-catching, rebounding, rim protection and passing. Like Boston’s starting center, Mark Williams has a similarly massive standing reach, can block jump shots like few bigs in all of basketball and is also somewhat underrated in his ability to make basic reads on the perimeter. If Williams’ passing never materializes, JaVale McGee, who has started over 350 NBA games at age 34, is a relatively stable outcome for the Blue Devils first-rounder.

Optimal/practical NBA team fits: Williams makes a lot of sense for teams that don’t rely on playing through their center too much on the perimeter. Basically, teams that have had success with run-and-jump style bigs in the past. The Mavericks come to mind, as Doncic hasn’t quite had a lob threat and rim protector like Williams since playing with Edy Tavares in Real Madrid. The Rockets make some sense, as Williams would give young guards like Jalen Green and Josh Christopher a lob threat they currently don’t have in Alperen Sengun or Christian Wood. Although his fit with Sengun is a little questionable, Williams would immediately give the NBA’s worst defense a face-lift in the rim protection department.

The Thunder and their treasure-trove of picks also make some sense as Williams’ vertical spacing would further unlock Josh Giddey and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s playmaking, and he gives the Thunder — who have been playing Jeremiah Robinson-Earl at center — a dimension its roster currently doesn’t have. The Spurs don’t have a big in Williams’ mold on their roster, and they hold three picks in the top-20. Gregg Popovich traditionally likes bigs who can transfer the ball side to side and keep the offense flowing, but Williams certainly fills a need if the Spurs buy his potential as a passer, at least to the level of a Jakob Poeltl-type.

Wendell Moore Jr. | 6-5 | SF | 20.3 years old | Mock draft: No. 33

Strengths: Moore checks quite a few boxes NBA teams look for at the small forward position. He has ideal size at 6-foot-6 in shoes with a huge 7-foot wingspan and a strong 213-pound frame. He’s making 40% of his 3-pointers on the season and is a career 80% free throw shooter in 94 games in our database. He’s a multi-positional defender as well, typically asked to guard the opposing team’s best perimeter player, whether that’s a point guard or wing as well, although the make-up of this year’s roster doesn’t require that.

Even though Moore has been a starter for the better part of three years, he’s only two months older than Kentucky’s Washington Jr., and is younger than many of the sophomores projected to be drafted.

Weaknesses: While Moore ticks virtually every box NBA teams look for as a 3-and-D wing, he’s still at times a better prospect in theory than in reality, prone to disappearing and making head-scratching plays on both ends of the floor, especially in high-leverage moments. Offense can be tough to come by for Moore at times, as he’s an average ball-handler who lacks a degree of explosiveness as a finisher. Defensively, he doesn’t always bring the level of physicality and intensity you might hope, having more lapses off the ball than you might hope for in a player with as much experience as he does.

Comps at the next level (ceiling/floor): There’s no shortage of high-level NBA wing players with similar physical dimensions as Moore (height/weight/wingspan), which is where teams often start their comparison-hunting. Many such players, including Dorian Finney-SmithAndre IguodalaThaddeus YoungKeldon JohnsonCody Martin and Nassir Little have seen significant minutes at the power forward position in the NBA, which Moore might lack a degree of physicality to do. If he can develop in that department as his career moves forward, it is difficult to see him completely failing, as switchable wings who can make an open shot and keep the ball moving offensively are extremely valuable these days.

Moore can look toward versatile wing such as Shake Milton, who also was a prolific passer in college, and hope to replicate some of his success. Romeo LangfordTheo Pinson and Josh Green are some other less successful players that come to mind.

Optimal/practical NBA team fits: The NBA is so starved for depth at the wing position that it would be easier to point to teams that don’t need a player in Moore’s mold than teams that do, such as any of the playoff teams picking in the late first round: the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, Denver Nuggets or Milwaukee Bucks. There’s a deep class of wing prospects vying for those spots in the late first and early second rounds, but also quite a bit of demand. A strong finish to the season would position Moore well in that crop. — Jonathan Givony

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