So how good was Ryan Kelly last Saturday night? If you only looked at the box score (career high 36 points, 7 boards, 1 assist, 2 steals, and 1 block) you would have to say damn good. The box score would also point out his super-efficient shooting 10-14 from the floor (incl. a double-take-inducing 7-9 from distance) and 9-12 from the line. But as always, the box score only tells part of the story. First you have to consider the contextual angles: Kelly missing 13 games to injury, having virtually no practice time, and Duke playing a legit top-5 team in Miami who blew them out just a few weeks ago. Then you need to consider his actual impact in game: significance of the timing of his scoring, bailing out Duke with shots late in the shot clock, defensive effectiveness, and the piercing cry of the White Raven instilling fear in the hearts of all opponents who hear it (loved seeing him yelling "I've still got it!" to the bench as he came running back after that first made three).
So lets take a look at Krzyzewkski's claim that Kelly's night was, "Probably as good a performance as any player has had -- a Duke player has had -- in Cameron." Notice the carefully worded avoidance of a superlative - not the 'best' ever - but just for kicks, lets try and find the best.
Before we dive in on this journey, here are some ground rules: Coach K clearly said the best performance (1) by a Duke player (2) in Cameron. So for the sake of my research, I imposed these limiting factors: no opponents' performances, no road games, no post-season games. Also, since I do have other things I have to do in my life, I cut off looking back at games prior to 1980. As you go further back, a lot of stats weren't tracked so well and comparing performances from other eras (especially eras where the writer was still in preschool) becomes harder. I did include Duke legends Mike Gminski and Gene Banks in the pool as they were right around the cutoff. But sadly, Art Heyman's legendary 40-point 24-rebound performance against UNC his senior year is not in the running.
It's obviously harder to weigh in completely about the context of each performance, but I gave a lot of weight to strength of opponent. It's great to score a boatload of points, but doing it against Creampuff University is not as impressive as against an ACC foe, or - even better - a ranked team. Even harder is trying to consider the importance of the game in the scope of the season or being able to talk about the impact of the player on the game - sadly my DVR doesn't go back too far.
So for the sake of comparison, we are looking at the following criterion:
1. Box Score Stats
2. Quality of Opponent
3. Efficiency of offensive production
4. Impact of the game (Win or loss, domination, % of team points)
5. Context if known or applicable
BTW - if any Duke fans don't know about the Stats Database at GoDuke.com, it is awesome. But beware falling down the rabbit hole...
Honorable mention/Special Interest Category:
Robert Brickey ('87) - 25pts (10-17), 9 reb, 2 ast, 1 blk in only 27 minutes played. Noteworthy because this was off the bench. Sadly it was in a 121-62 drubbing of Harvard. Unfortunately, the quiz-bowl prowess of the team didn't show on the floor.
William Avery ('98) - 26pts (8-10 from 3), 3 reb, 9 ast. Great game with all his makes coming from behind the arc - only he, Singler and Redick (below) were better performances from distance than Kelly. Suffers by coming against an unranked Florida team (though there were some pros on the squad).
Elton Brand ('99) - 33pts (12-14, 9-11FT) 6 reb, 3 blk, 1 stl. Oddly never had a monster game at home stat-wise. Could certainly add some weight to some games with his "Impact on the Game" category. This one was not a dominant effort on the boards. This was also unnecessary since Duke was throttling unranked UVA 115-69.
Shane Battier ('00) - 30pts (6-9 from 3) 5 reb, 2 ast, 1 blk, 3 stl. A great showing from someone who blossomed into a scoring threat on his Senior year against UNC. Weight is always added for rivalry games; sadly, UNC was not very good that year and Duke won convincingly.
Chris Carrawell ('00) - 30pts (9-16, 12-17FT) 4 reb, 2 stl. Best home statistical performance from an undervalued favorite. An overtime win against unranked NC State. Misses the cut based on opponent strength and efficiency - which I realize sounds silly when someone shoots over 50% from the field.
Daniel Ewing ('04) - 29pts (5-7 from 3) 5 reb, 6 ast, 1blk. I always really liked Ewing so I included his best game here. Came in a win against #11 Mich St in early years of ACC/Big Ten challenge. It was a stat-stuffing showing against a good team. Suffers in the Impact category since JJ also had 29 in the game.
Just Missed the Cut - in chronological order:
Mark Alarie - ('84) 29pts (10-17, 9-12FT) 16 reb, 1 ast, 1blk. Alarie grabbed almost half of Duke's rebounds that night and was relatively efficient. Unfortunately, it came against an unranked Clemson team and was the only game compared here that was a Duke loss, 76-77. He did have his revenge against Clemson at home two years later with 29 and 7 (with a much more efficient 10-12, 9-10FT).
Bobby Hurley ('93) - 23pts (6-14, 5-8 from 3) 15 ast, 4 reb 8 TO. Best home game for someone who had some amazing post-season showings. Came in a win against #11 Oklahoma but suffers in the efficiency category with missed shots and TOs.
Carlos Boozer ('00) - 32pts (13-14, 6-8 FT) 6 reb, 1 ast, 1 blk, 1 stl. An amazing shooting percentage in a win over #24 NC State which adds in the opponent category. Not a dominant statistical performance otherwise though for a big guy, and the win was a huge blowout, 108-71.
Jason WIlliams ('02) - 37pts (12-22, 8-15 from 3) 5 ast, 3 stl, 1 reb. Not content with dropping 32 on the Heels his sophomore year, JWill upped the ante his final season at Duke. It was an impressive and dominating showing. Non-extreme shooting % gives this a tiny knock, as does the fact that some clowns named Adam Boone and Kris Lang were STARTERS for UNC that year. Competition grade... D-
Shelden WIlliams ('06) - 27pts (8-14) 13 reb, 4 blk, 4 stl. Best home showing for someone who had some better games away from Cameron. Stat-stuffing and efficient. Did have the advantage of being an overtime game but against unranked FSU. Less personal impact as JJ also had a monster game scoring that night. (though that likely could be said of many games in their careers together).
Jon Scheyer ('09) - 36pts (11-13, 7-9 from 3, 7-7 FT) 7 reb, 9 ast, 1 blk 1 stl. Amazing stats. Super efficient. But... played Gardner-Webb (no offense, GW fans...). Could make an argument his game against Wake (referenced below) was a 'bigger' performance, but wasn't a near-triple-double like this one.
Gerald Henderson ('09) - 35pts (11-15, 1-4 from 3, 12-14FT) 1 reb, 1stl, 2 ast. His career high in a meaningful game against #8 Wake Forest. Super efficient scoring, but left out of the finals because Scheyer also had a monster game (30) and not enough impact in other categories besides scoring. I do miss his dunks though.
Kyle Singler ('10) - 30pts (9-17, 8-10 from 3) 5 reb, 2 ast, 1 stl. A great home showing for a warrior in a nice 20 point win over #21 Ga Tech. Made a lot of 3s but not much else. Scheyer also had a big game here and it wasn't super close so the meaningfulness of the big game gets diminished.
Brian Zoubekraken ('10) - 16pts (7-10) 17 reb, 2blk, 1 ast. So this was the game that officially released the Kraken against Maryland. I really wanted to put this one in the contenders category - for the board dominance and intangibles, maybe it belongs. Big Z had made little impact at Duke (being as incomplete passes were not a tracked stat) but his emergence into the starting lineup as a rebounding force transformed this Duke team into championship material. Maryland wasn't great that season and it was a blowout win - two things that just whisker it into the lower tier.
Nolan Smith ('11) - 34pts (13-23, 3-6 from 3) 2 reb, 3 ast, 1 stl. Last home game for my other brother against #20 UNC. Hard to knock him out of the finals since this is a rivalry performance, but we are splitting hairs here. Seth Curry also had a huge impact on this game with 22 big points if you'll recall.
Mason Plumlee ('13) - 30pts (9-11, 12-16 FT) 9 reb, 2 ast, 2 blk, 40 min played. This one I did have on the DVR still. Mason was a beast in a bounceback win against then-ranked NC State. The FT performance was especially un-Plumlee-like. Doesn't quite make the cut b/c State is not awesome and had 2 other players with huge contributions (Quinn and Seth).
Danny Ferry - ('88) 33pts (11-17, 3-5 from 3, 8-12FT) 9 reb, 9 ast. No one else scored more than 13 that night as #1 Duke beat Wake 94-88. Closest anyone came to a triple-double in this comparison. On the competition front though, Wake was not good that year - finishing 13-15 (though they did manage to beat Duke at their place...). If you took the "in Cameron" part out of the equation, there would be no reason to write this article. Against Miami that year Ferry had 58 pts (23-26 FG - that is not a misprint - 2-3 from 3, 10-12 FT) 6 reb, 7 ast, 2 blk, 3 stl. That is just a silly, silly line.
Christian Laettner ('92) 33pts (15-19 2-5FT) 11 reb, 2 ast, 3 stl. A guy who had a lot of big games, this was his best home statistical performance beating #14 Ga Tech in a close game 94-87. All five starters were in double figures that game, but Laettner nearly doubled the next closest, Hurley's 17.
Grant Hill ('94) 33 pts - ironic for a career high eh? (10-17, 2-3 from 3, 11-12 FT) 9 reb, 6 ast, 2 stl. Dominated while leading the team as a senior. Led the team in all 3 major categories that night in a win over Clemson - no one else had more than 12pts. The Tigers were an NIT team that year though, finishing 18-16, so not a great competition metric.
Miles Plumlee ('12) 13pts (6-11) 22 reb, 1 blk, 2 stl. Okay, so the modern Duke record for rebounding is nice. Amazing that it came from a bench player in only 28 minutes of action. Not as statistically overwhelming as some, the context though enhances the resume here. Miles had already contributed to a National Championship, but had never quite been able to take hold (pun intended) of his athletic talent at Duke. His Senior Year he had lost his starting job and was languishing in disappointment. Under-achieving Maryland was the antidote (or maybe the 'oh crap' factor of only having 4 remaining home games in your career) to his doldrums. Virtually every other player on this list was a star of some intensity at Duke. Miles was mostly a grinder who had an improbable, and therefore memorable, performance.
The Final Four
Mike Gminski - ('80) Picking his best home game is hard. Stats-wise, it's his last home game, an overtime thriller, against #12 Clemson (ranked higher than Duke at the time) with 29 pts (11-22, 7-7 FT) 19 reb, 7 blk, 1 ast. Gene Banks also had a big game with 24 and it wasn't G-man's most efficient performance. But from an overall dominance perspective, very impressive. His sophmore year he carried unranked Duke in a victory over #2 UNC with 29pts (12-15) 10 reb, 4 blk, 2 ast. So from a storyline perspective you could make an argument that it was awesomer - I'll go with the pressure of his last home game though.
Cherokee Parks ('95) 25pts (9-17, 3-8 from 3) 13 reb, 5 ast, 1 blk, 48 min played. Not as beastly statistically as some of the competition but context adds luster. This was the lost back-surgery year and this game - the 2OT thriller against UNC - is still used in so many promo videos (though usually for Stackhouse's dunk or Capel's half-court heave). I was attending Duke at this time, so I can't be totally objective here. But I do give extra weight to this performance based on how bad Duke was at the time and how little was expected against #2 UNC. The fact that this game is so often singled out in the 'you never know with this rivalry' argument makes the performance more meaningful. There were other big contributions that night but none bigger than 48/50 minutes played by Parks.
Trajan Langdon ('97) 28pts (9-15, 7-12 from 3) 1 reb, 3 ast, 3 stl. This line in his Junior season against #19 UNC is my nominee for him even though he has two other games in the running: 34pts (11-16, 3-6 from 3) 7 reb against #8 Clemson (side note: how was Clemson ever ranked #8???) a few weeks later and 34pts (again on 11-16, 6-10 from 3) 5 reb, 4 ast in a 40 point romp of #12 UCLA the next season on that redonkulous team. The game against the Heels was a great shooting exhibition by a great scorer. The value of the performance though was largely about getting back over the hump against our rival. Duke had lost 7 straight to the evil empire (if I'm not mistaken) and was emerging from the missed tourney season in 95 and being bounced by Earl Boykin the next. This really put Duke back on track in a lot of ways. I was also at this game, sitting perfectly in line over the shoulder of the Alaskan Assassin's final 3 of the night to seal the game. Quite a memory.
Ryan Kelly (last Saturday): 36pts (10-14, 7-9 from 3, 9-12 FT) 7 reb, 2 stl, 1 blk, 1 ast. Emerging from his foot-induced hibernation, Kelly's cave-bear facial hair is in full effect (as is the rest of his game). Scoring 21 more points than any other player, leading the team in rebounds and tweets per minute, Kelly is one of the only bright spots in a Duke victory over #5 Miami who had beaten them mercilessly a few weeks previous. Not playing in almost 2 months (and logging 32 minutes), having 20 minutes of practice time the day before, rescuing a team that has played well (but not Championship-caliber) without you.... this stuff just doesn't happen. Except when it does. Still shaking my head. To me its always a good barometer when my wife - a total non-sports-fan if not for being around me - chimes in with recognition of the moment. So when she is commenting on how amazing something is during a broadcast, it really must be.
I don't know how you decide, but if you put a Tar Heel to my head and made me choose, I would say Kelly. It has all the elements - Stats, Efficiency, Competition, Domination, and Storylines. The only entry that is truly strong in every category. And the most amazing thing about it is that it just happened. Cherish this one, Duke fans. We'll be talking about it for a while.
And oh by the way, I guess Coach K knows what he's talking about after all... (which will only come as a surprise to Carolina fans).