Coming off seven straight wins, No. 5 Duke entered last Sunday’s contest against a mediocre Wake Forest team looking to add to their perfect ACC record. Although the Blue Devils notched the win, it now seems like a loss would have been preferable to what the team has now lost for the season.
With 8:01 left in the first half, junior guard Chelsea Gray hit the floor clutching her knee with a dislocated kneecap. With this injury, Gray will miss the remainder of the season and leave Duke with a large hole to fill on the team.
Gray led the ACC in assists and steals, as well as leading Duke in minutes played, proving herself to be the ultimate team player for a talented Blue Devil squad. She had already totaled 136 assists on the season, which made up 40.8 percent among starters.
Life without Gray will be difficult, as the Blue Devils have not spent a lot of time without her on the floor. She has started the past 60 games for Duke and has played 75.8 percent of the possible game minutes this season, which will make the next few weeks a test of the Blue Devils’ depth.
Unlike when sophomore Elizabeth Williams missed time early on in the season, the Blue Devils are now playing the top teams in the ACC and in the nation. Their upcoming four games include contests against No. 19 Florida State, No. 7 Maryland and No. 16 North Carolina.
Although Gray will be missed for her ability to take over games. The team will now look to find a new leader, as Gray had largely taken on the role at the beginning of the season.
“[Head coach Joanne P. McCallie] has talked to all of us actually. She’s told us all that we need to step up our roles,” junior guard Chloe Wells said. “As far as maturity, we can’t be putting our heads down or waiting on someone else to do it, it has to come from us now.”
The Blue Devils will look to three of Gray’s teammates to step up and share the load when it comes to replacing the star point guard. Junior forward Richa Jackson, freshman guard Alexis Jones and Wells will all see their roles dramatically increase as they try to fill Gray’s shoes.
Ever since mid-January, Wells has seen her playing time increase from 14.3 to 23.2 minutes per game, allowing her to flourish at times, particularly in the Blue Devils’ February contest against then-No.11 North Carolina when she notched season-highs of 18 points and 31 minutes.
Wells will not be the Blue Devils’ main ball handler, but if called upon, she has shown she is more than equipped to do so, turning it over only 19 times in 20 games. The biggest concern facing Wells will be her consistency, as she has played six games this year in which she failed to score.
“I have to be able to come out night-by-night and play a full game,” she said. “I can’t keep coming out some games having a good game, some games falling off, I have to be there every night.”
Wells has started the past eight games, which will make the transition much easier for her as the team moves on without Gray. With this increase in playing time, Wells will have to step up as a veteran leader with the team’s championship hopes hanging in the balance.
Jackson will look to be the Blue Devils’ new sixth man, as it is likely that junior shooting guard Tricia Liston will regain her spot as a starter with Gray out of the lineup now.
Jackson has been the most consistent player in her output, failing to score only twice in the 16 games she has played. Although she is not Duke’s most gifted scorer, Jackson will have to step up her production on the offensive end in order for the Blue Devils to remain effective.
“[Gray] was a great offensive player. [I will] try to score, but I don’t think I could ever pass like her,” Jackson said. “She’s a terrific passer, but I’ll try to get assists because that’s what we need to win.”
The player who will be faced with the most daunting task is freshman Alexis Jones. She will have to take over as the Blue Devils’ new point guard. She is second in assists with 77, but has struggled with turning the ball over. She leads the team with 79 turnovers.
It will be a much more immersive role than what Jones said she originally imagined she would undertake as a freshman, as she will have to become the main distributor and court commander for the Blue Devils.
“This is a learning experience for me,” Jones said. “It’s more like an early start for me.”
Although losing Gray will hurt the Blue Devils, the team believes they can benefit from seeing certain roles increased. Jones, Wells and Jackson will focus on maturing quickly and learning on the fly.
“We’re definitely going to miss her on and off the court, but now I think that just means that everybody has to come into their own a little faster,” Wells said. “We have to grow up. We can’t keep relying on Chelsea and everyone just has to step up.”
Wells and Jackson are no strangers to injury, with both suffering frustrating leg injuries that sidelined them within the past year alone. This makes the recovery process easier for Gray, as she will have a supporting cast of teammates and friends around her.
“I went to go see her, just to see how she’s doing. She looks like she’s holding up pretty well,” Jackson said. “I just told her, ‘I’m sorry, it’s the same thing that happened to me. Just keep your head up.’ It seems like she’s handling it pretty well.”
With Gray gone, many are predicting that the Blue Devils lack the ability to get past any of the top-caliber teams due the lack of court leadership and vision that Gray brought to the team. But Duke players are not even close to throwing in the towel on this season.
“Our season is a new beginning from now, so we’ll see where it goes from here,” Wells said.