Since the 2008 NBA Draft blue-blood programs (Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, Indiana, North Carolina, UCLA and UConn) have produced some of the best professional talent. Kansas produced the 2023 NBA MVP (Joel Embiid) and UCLA can claim Russell Westbrook, who won the most prestigious individual award in the NBA following the 2016-17 season.
The player who headlines the list of best NBA players from blue blood programs is Kentucky’s Anthony Davis. During his peak, he helped lead the Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA title in 2020 and could be argued to be the best player in the association at the peak of his NBA career that’s been headlined by injuries the last few seasons.
Rounding out the top-five players on this list is a pair of Duke stars from last decade: Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum. Irving’s Duke career was short-lived. He only appeared in nine college games, but his NBA career has been nothing short of a rollercoaster. As for Tatum, it appears he hasn’t reached his full potential and should be considered an MVP candidate for years to come.
CBS Sports recently ranked the NBA peaks from Kentucky players under John Calipari, Kansas players under Bill Self and Duke players under Mike Krzyzewski. Here are the 25 best NBA peaks from players who came from the programs mentioned.
- Anthony Davis (Kentucky, 2012)
Davis in recent years has struggled with injuries. He played in only 56 games last season and 40 games the season before but when he’s healthy, he is one of the best players in the world. In his 11-year NBA career, Davis has averaged 24 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.3 blocks. Davis in his lone season at Kentucky compiled one of the best defensive seasons in NCAA history, and those traits directly carried over to the NBA. After starting his career with the Pelicans, Davis was traded to the Lakers and created a championship-caliber 1-2 punch with LeBron James. He is an eight-time NBA All-Star, made the All-NBA First Team four times and appeared on the All-Defensive Team four times.
- Joel Embiid (Kansas, 2014)
There is no debate that Embiid is the best player Self has produced during his time at Kansas. You can even debate that Embiid is the best player on this list. Only he and Westbrook have won the MVP award during their respective career. It seems like yesterday that injuries looked like they would derail his NBA career before it even got started. He missed two full seasons before playing an NBA game. Now he’s considered one of the best players in the world and a dominant force inside for the Philadelphia 76ers. Embiid has been in contention for MVP the past few seasons but he finally broke through and won the award. The next step for Embiid is helping the 76ers get over the hump and make a deep playoff run.
- Russell Westbrook (UCLA, 2008)
When Kevin Durant departed Oklahoma City for Golden State during the 2016 NBA offseason, Westbrook became the No. 1 option. In his first season without KD, Westbrook averaged a triple-double (31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists). Westbrook earned MVP honors that season and to this day is one of the best individual seasons in NBA history. Westbrook recently re-signed with the Los Angeles Clippers this offseason and will look to help them make a title push.
- Jayson Tatum (Duke, 2017)
Tatum had the best season of his career this past season. The former Duke standout averaged 30.1 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.6 assists for the Celtics. Tatum also racked up All-NBA First Team honors and finished fourth in NBA MVP voting behind Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokić and Giannis Antetokounmpo. As a rookie, Tatum helped Boston reach the Eastern Conference Finals. The four-time NBA All-Star earned NBA Eastern Conference Finals MVP in 2022 before the Celtics lost in the NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors. The best years of his career are ahead of him and the Celtics dynamic duo of Tatum and Jaylen Brown are locked up for years to come.
- Kyrie Irving (Duke, 2011)
From the moment Irving stepped on campus in Durham, his basketball career has been a rollercoaster. The former No. 1 overall pick only appeared in nine games before the Cleveland Cavaliers drafted him in 2011 with the No. 1 overall pick. During the first postseason of his career during the 2015 NBA Finals, Irving fractured his left kneecap in Game 1 of the series, which forced him to miss the remainder of the series. Irving hit one of the most iconic shots in NBA history one year later — a stepback 3-pointer with the game tied at 89 in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals to put the Cavs ahead of the 73-9 Warriors for good. Not only did the Cavs beat arguably the greatest team of all time, but completed the first 3-1 comeback in NBA Finals history. Since then, Irving has been on three teams (Celtics, Nets and Mavericks) and he just signed a three-year deal this offseason to stay in Dallas.
- Kevin Love (UCLA, 2008)
Love’s NBA career can be remembered for two things: his dominance with the Timberwolves and the part he played on the Cavs 2016 championship team. Before Love was traded to Cleveland during the 2014 offseason, he was one of the best big men in the NBA. His best individual season came during the 2013-14 season when he averaged 26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists. When he joined the Cavs, he took a backseat to Irving and James but was still the third-best player during his tenure in Cleveland.
- Devin Booker (Kentucky, 2015)
Booker flew under the radar during his time at Kentucky and came off the bench during his lone season in Lexington. The Phoenix Suns selected him with the No. 13 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft and his career has been on a steady climb since. He scored 70 points in a game at just 20 years old and is now considered one of the best shooting guards in the game. The addition of Chris Paul helped jolt the Suns from a lottery team to champions of the Western Conference in 2021. Booker is a three-time All-Star and appeared on the All-NBA First Team in 2022. He hasn’t hit his peak just yet but is coming off a season in which he averaged 27.8 points and 5.5 assists.
- Zion Willamson (Duke, 2019)
Willamson is one of the trickiest players to rank on any list and is one of the greatest mysteries in the NBA. When he’s healthy, he looks like an MVP candidate. Before Victor Wembanyama came along, Williamson was considered arguably the most hyped-up NBA prospect behind LeBron James. During his four-year NBA career, he’s only appeared in 114 total games. He missed the entire 2021-22 NBA season and only played in 29 games last year. The averages he put up in those 29 games: 26.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 4.6 assists. Willamson averaged 27.0 points and 7.2 rebounds during the 2020-21 season and made the NBA All-Star team. Pure talent will never be a concern for Williamson because when healthy he’s one of the best players in the league. The biggest question mark going forward for his career is how healthy can/will he be for the rest of his career.
- John Wall (Kentucky, 2010)
Wall’s prime in the NBA was simply electric. He was an explosive and flashy guard and one of the best two-way players in the league. Wall was the first selection from the Calipari era at Kentucky and became a five-time NBA All-Star. He was named to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team in 2015, and despite the Wizards never making it past the second round of the playoffs during his time with the team, his college and NBA legacy will forever be remembered despite the final years of his professional career which included him holding out a full season with the Rockets and then being traded back to Houston after spending just over half a season with the Los Angeles Clippers.
DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall gave Kentucky two top-five picks in the 2010 NBA Draft. Getty Images
- DeMarcus Cousins (Kentucky, 2010)
During his peak in the NBA, Cousins was arguably the best center in the association. During his later years with the Sacramento Kings, he started to develop a shot from distance, which tremendously expanded his game. Cousins made the NBA All-Star Game four times and was famously traded to the Pelicans after the 2016 NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans. Cousins suffered a handful of devastating injuries during the peak of his NBA career, which is headlined by a ruptured left Achilles tendon. That injury knocked out Cousins for almost an entire calendar year. Cousins is currently playing in Puerto Rico, and it appears his NBA career is over. Having more team success during his time in Sacramento would’ve gone a long way in boosting his personal accolades.
- Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Kentucky, 2018)
The best days of Gilgeous-Alexander’s career are ahead of him. The Thunder are loaded with young players and draft assets and have the potential to be a real player in the west for seasons to come. This past season was certainly the best of his career. He ranked fourth in scoring, made First Team All-NBA and received some MVP consideration. It was clear when the Thunder traded away Paul George to the Clippers in a deal that included SGA that he would be the centerpiece behind one of the most fascinating rebuilds in NBA history. The Thunder weren’t expected to do much this season as a rebuilding team but made it all the way to the play-in game. SGA’s ceiling is still sky-high, and he has the chance to be an MVP candidate for seasons to come.
- De’Aaron Fox (Kentucky 2017)
Fox deserves bonus points for helping snap one of the largest playoff droughts in North American sports this past season. Fox was the head of the snake for the Sacramento Kings who made the NBA playoffs for the first time in 16 seasons. Not only did Fox help the Kings qualify for the postseason, but Sacramento also earned the No. 3 seed in the west and won the Pacific Division. Fox elevated his game from star to superstar with his performances in the playoffs, which included a 38-point outburst in his first-ever NBA postseason action. Fox shined at Kentucky during the 2017 NCAA Tournament and raised his game even more during the NBA playoffs. A knock on Fox’s game is his team couldn’t win during his first five seasons, but he put those doubts aside this past season. Fox hasn’t hit his peak yet, but the 2022-23 season was by far the most successful season of his career.
- Jamal Murray (Kentucky, 2016)
One thing that Murray has that most players on this list don’t have is a ring. Murray was a true second option for Nikola Jokić during the 2023 playoffs and provided the 1-2 punch the Denver Nuggets needed to win the title. Injuries are something that Murray struggled with in his career. He tore his ACL in 2021 and missed significant time because of it. He hasn’t been named to any NBA All-Star or All-NBA teams, but he’s proved to be one of the best point guards in the game during his peak.
- Kemba Walker (UConn, 2011)
Walker is currently out of the NBA and recently signed a deal with AS Monaco of the French LNB Pro A league this off-season. Walker’s best days of his career came as a member of the Hornets, where he became a four-time NBA All-Star and one of the best true point guards during his era. Walker had an electric career with the Huskies in college and followed it up with an NBA career to remember.
- Karl Anthony-Towns (Kentucky, 2015)
It wasn’t long ago that KAT was considered one of the few players you would want to build your team around. The Minnesota Timberwolves acquiring Rudy Gobert made KAT change his game completely. While Anthony-Towns and Gobert shared the floor together, KAT played more on the perimeter as a stretch-four and less inside as he did at the start of his career. KAT is one of the best shooters at his position but the addition of Gobert hurt his game more than it helped it. He has regressed ever so slightly from his 2019-2020 season when he averaged 26.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 4.4 assists. He missed time this past season because of injury, and this season will be a big indicator if he can get back to that level of play. The season that was cut short because of COVID-19 remains the best of his career.
- Bam Adebayo (Kentucky, 2017)
The debate between KAT and Adebayo right now certainly is a spicy one. Adebayo has been the second option on two separate Heat teams that reached the NBA Finals and lost. He is a two-time NBA All-Star but has made NBA All-Defensive Second Team four seasons in a row. He is one of the best rim protectors in the league and a true threat to win Defensive Player of the Year every season. He’s still yet to reach his peak and hasn’t put up a statical season like KAT did at the position, but he’s still one of the best big men in the NBA.
- Brandon Ingram (Duke, 2016)
Ingram is coming off the best season of his NBA career and the long-term health of Willamson will determine if he will be the No. 1 option going forward for the Pelicans. After starting his career with the Lakers, Ingram was traded to New Orleans in the Anthony Davis deal. Ingram averaged 24.7 points, 5.5 rebounds and a career-high 5.8 assists this past season but the Pelicans lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the No. 9 vs. No. 10 play-in game. Being the No. 1 option in New Orleans is a true possibility if Williamson can’t get healthy.
- Andrew Wiggins (Kansas, 2014)
Getting traded to the Golden State Warriors was the best thing that could’ve happened to Wiggins and his career. Once considered a “bust” Wiggins proved his ability to be an elite two-way player during Golden State’s playoff run in 2022. He is a major reason why the Dubs were able to beat the Celtics in six games after falling behind 2-1 in the series. Wiggins is part of one of the most notable NBA trades to happen this century. The Cavs traded away Wiggins in exchange for Timberwolves star big man Kevin Love to pair with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, which paid off big time for Cleveland. Wiggins missed a big chunk of last season due to personal issues but his impact in the playoffs was felt immediately when he returned.
- Jrue Holiday (UCLA, 2009)
The Bucks went all-in during the 2020 offseason and traded for Holiday after he spent seven seasons with the Pelicans. The gamble paid off big time and Holiday joined a “Big 3” in Milwaukee with Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton that won the NBA title in 2021. Holiday is one of the best two-way players in the league and is considered one of the best on-ball defenders at the guard position.
- Julius Randle (Kentucky, 2014)
Randle’s NBA career has had its peaks and valleys. He broke his right tibia in his first NBA game and missed his full rookie season with the Lakers, spent one season with the New Orleans Pelicans and became an NBA All-Star with the New York Knicks. Randle isn’t the most notable player to come out of Kentucky during the last decade, but he’s still had a very respectable NBA career.
- Victor Oladipo (Indiana, 2013)
Oladipo suffered a devastating knee injury during the 2023 NBA playoffs. He tore his patellar tendon in the opening round of the playoffs, which forced him to miss the rest of the postseason. Injuries have been an unfortunate theme for the two-time NBA All-Star. When he was healthy and at his peak with the Indiana Pacers, he was one of the most exciting players in the league. Now he faces another uphill battle to get back on the court.
- Eric Gordon (Indiana, 2008)
Gordon will play for his fourth NBA team this fall after splitting time with the Clippers and Houston Rockets during the 2022-23 season. Gordon has played in over 800 games during his career and his best individual season came during the 2010-11 season when he averaged 22.3 points and 4.4 assists. Gordon will look to help the Suns get over the hump this season.
- Paolo Banchero (Duke, 2022)
After only one season in the league, Banchero is already climbing up the leaderboards for the best NBA players to come out of Duke. Banchero averaged 20 points and nearly seven rebounds in his first season, en route to winning NBA Rookie of the Year. Banchero’s bruising style of play makes him one of the most versatile young players in the league. The Magic appear to be close to getting out of a long rebuild and Banchero will certainly be the centerpiece of the organization for years to come if he keeps developing his game.
- Harrison Barnes (North Carolina, 2011)
The player that’s had the best NBA career from North Carolina the last decade-plus is Barnes. After starting his career with the Warriors and winning a championship with the organization in 2015, he signed with the Mavs the following offseason and then was traded to the Kings in 2019. Barnes has been a reliable veteran presence for a young Kings team and signed a three-year contract extension to stay with the organization. He was one of only a handful of players who played all 82 NBA regular season games during the 2022-23 season.
- Marcus Morris (Kansas, 2010)
During Morris’ NBA career, he has played for six different NBA teams and almost added to that list when he was nearly dealt to the Washington Wizards in a three-team deal before it fell apart just 24 hours after it was reportedly accepted earlier in the offseason. The best statistical season of his career came during the 2019-20 season with the New York Knicks where he averaged 19.6 points and 5.4 rebounds. He’s played in almost 800 NBA games during his career and is a respected veteran in the NBA. Morris was never considered a star and hasn’t won any major NBA awards, but his longevity has to be admired. He is one of the best players Self has produced during his time with the Jayhawks.