Of all the incredible things Tim Duncan did throughout his 19-year NBA career (and believe me, there were plenty) maybe the most incredible of all happened before he actually played an NBA game.
It came during his four years at Wake Forest where… (errr… record scratch…)… well, actually in a lot of ways that right there, might be the most incredible part of Duncan’s career altogether. The fact that he played four years of college basketball at all makes him an outlier of the highest kind. The fact that he did it when he could have easily left after his sophomore or junior years makes it all the more amazing.
And in a lot of ways, it’s a part of Duncan’s career that no one talks about. While tributes are pouring in over his 19-year NBA career (and rightfully so) let’s also never forget that he was the last of a kind at the college level as well. He truly was the last, great four-year college star, the final player who repeatedly turned down NBA millions to stick around campus.
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It’s something we haven’t seen since, and almost certainly never will again.
Of course by the time he got to college he had given up swimming, focused on basketball full-time, and by his sophomore year at Wake Forest he was a bona-fide star. After averaging just under 17 points and 12 rebounds that second college season, he could have easily gone into the NBA Draft, and according to none other than legendary Lakers GM Jerry West, would have been the No. 1 overall pick that year, ahead of guys Joe Smith, Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace. He could have just as easily left after his junior year, where he averaged 19 and 12 and won ACC Player of the Year. Instead, even in an era where it was becoming increasingly common to leave after a year or two of college, he stuck around for that senior year.
Understand that part of the logic behind the move was the promise to his mother to get that degree, but another large part was, that by all accounts he simply enjoyed the campus experience too much. This is the same guy who, while an undergraduate psychology major, helped co-author the chapter of a Psych book, and who may have had the perfect quote to sum up his entire experience during an interview during his senior year with the Cincinnati Enquirer.
That quote was quintessential Duncan, but little did anyone know that when he uttered it, it would essentially slam shut the door on the four-year college star.
At the time the whole concept of staying in school four years was fading, but still generally common-place; historically stars like Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin and David Robinson stayed in college for four years, with guys like Larry Johnson, Christian Laettner and Grant Hill doing it in the seasons that preceded Duncan. But as the NBA continued to grow, as contracts continued to be worth more and more it became harder for star players — of any age — to stay in college hoops any longer than they absolutely had to. Two years before Duncan came into the league in 1995 Kevin Garnett came to the NBA straight out of high school, and the sport of basketball as a whole has never looked back since.
That’s also why it’s staggering to look at how the landscape of the NBA (and in turn college basketball) has changed since Duncan left Wake Forest.
Since Duncan departed, there have only been two four-year college players to be selected No. 1 overall in the draft. They were Michael Olowokandi in 1998, and Kenyon Martin two years later. Both were developmental players who put it all together late in their careers; they weren’t bona-fide stars by the time they were sophomores like Duncan. Heck, forget being a senior. The last guy to go No. 1 overall after playing more than one year of college basketball was Blake Griffin in 2009. He played a grand total of two seasons at Oklahoma.
To take things one step further, look at where things stand today, in 2016 and the modern NBA.
If a guy decides to stay in college basketball more than one year these days he’s basically looked at as a leper; people were stunned when Marcus Smart and Ivan Rabb (both projected lottery picks) came back for their sophomore years, and Grayson Allen surprised everyone when he didn’t even test the waters as a fringe first round pick this spring. If a guy does end up as a four-year college player, well, there’s something wrong with him in some capacity. Sure Buddy Hield and Denzel Valentine went high in this past draft, but only because they basically had no other option following their junior years.
It also means that on a day where everyone is celebrating Duncan for his exploits with the Spurs, we make sure and do the same for his time at Wake Forest as well.