In the last 30 years, Duke basketball has been able to recruit plenty of top-level athletes. That is why it is difficult to narrow down the list of five of the most athletic players in the school’s history.
What makes a player athletic? Success matters to a certain degree, but being able to pull off a few insane plays that become iconic is what will put people in the top five. These athletes had at least one or two highlight moments that Duke fans can remember to this day. It is impossible to say who is the best of the best, but all five of these guys deserve mentioning.
Some will say that Grant Hill was the recruit that changed at all for Duke. While they were always able to land talented players from around the country, Hill was the first bona fide superstar coming out of high school. He fit right into a championships team as a freshman, and he was able to play in three national championship games during his career.
Hill’s lasting memory as an NBA player is a guy who had trouble staying on the court. However, before he started to suffer from injuries, he was an extremely athletic player in Durham. His most memorable play came as a freshman when he caught a lob pass from Bobby Hurley to dunk the ball in the National Championship game against Kansas. Many thought the ball was heading out of bounds, but Hill fully extended and pulled off the dunk that lives on to this day.
Being a one and done player at Duke is fairly common these days, but the first guy to do it was Corey Maggette. Because he was on such a talented team as a freshman, many forget just how special of a player he was. Hill had some highlight dunks during his four years at Duke, but Maggette put on a show whenever he had the opportunity in that single season.
What helped Maggette significantly was that Maggette entered college built like a grown man. He had the muscles to play physical basketball against virtually any position, and his fearlessness opened up a lot of opportunities for him. It is crazy to think what he might have accomplished if he spent all four years in college like players before him did.
Perhaps the most memorable feat of athleticism came from a dare when going up against Florida. He had an opportunity to pull off a breakaway dunk, and he pulled himself up and slapped the backboard after the play. Was it unnecessary? Probably, but that kind of explosiveness and overall athleticism is just not usual for any freshman in basketball history.
Overlooked in college and the NBA, Dahntay Jones put together a very good career as a basketball player. His athleticism initially captured Mike Krzyzewski’s attention, as Jones was looking for a different college after spending two years at Rutgers. Once he arrived at Duke, he was ready to hit the ground running as a guy who could play multiple positions.
His athleticism allowed him to be one of the best defensive players in college basketball when he was on campus. This is also a major reason why he was able to stick around the NBA for so long. He was never a superstar at the NBA level, but he found a job in the league every year until 2017.
Duke might have underachieved a bit when Gerald Henderson was in school, but he is still one of the most memorable athletes to pass through in Durham. His ability to get the rim without any help gave him a lot of opportunities to score at any time. He has some of the most memorable dunks in team history, and he developed into a pretty complete player by the end of his career.
What made it even more impressive for Henderson is that he is the shortest player to make this list. Even though he was listed at 6’5″, many thought he could have been shorter. All of this working against him, while going up against some pretty tall and talented players in the ACC during his tenure. Some of his best dunks also came in big moments against Duke’s biggest rivals, so many people remember him as an outstanding athlete.
Before Zion Williamson showed up to campus, many people thought that Corey Maggette was the most physically built freshman in the history of the program. Williamson took things to another level, coming in with a lot of hype thanks to his viral YouTube videos from high school.
From the very beginning, Williamson did not disappoint. This guy came in right away and showed off a tremendous amount of athleticism and power that captured the attention of the entire basketball world. He became one of the most popular players in all of basketball, and the easy choice as the number one pick in the NBA Draft after just one year in college.
He only spent a single season on campus, but people will remember the type of impact he made from the very beginning. His NBA career is getting started, but many have high expectations that he will be one of the most decorated Duke basketball players ever.