Chron Chat: Duke women's basketball loses Stevens and Salvadores

Star sophomore Azurá Stevens and freshman point guard Angela Salvadores both announced they were leaving Duke last Friday, dealing an unexpected blow to a Blue Devil team that was returning most of its main contributors from this season. Stevens is expected to transfer to another college to play, and Salvadores will return to Europe to pursue a professional career. The Chronicle's women's basketball beat writers examine how the departures will impact Duke looking ahead to next season.

How much will Duke miss Stevens next year?

Drew Johnson: Stevens' absence is a huge blow to the Blue Devils for two reasons. First, the loss of her team-leading scoring and rebounding production and consistent performance will have a massive negative impact on Duke's ability to score in the paint and match up against teams with a large inside presence. Second, Stevens' departure will negatively impact recruiting, as potential Blue Devils now will no longer have the opportunity to play alongside one of the nation's best forwards.

Mitchell Gladstone: Losing Stevens is a major blow to this Blue Devil team. Duke’s overall struggles were evident during a late-season stretch that saw the squad lose six of its final 10 games, seven of which were played without the 6-foot-6 forward. Now, the Blue Devils enter next season with just one proven scoring threat—Rebecca Greenwell—and a thin frontcourt of Oderah Chidom, Kendall Cooper and Erin Mathias, none of whom have the combination of skill and athleticism to replace what Stevens brought to both ends of the floor on a nightly basis.

Hank Tucker: Like Mitchell and Drew described, there is no way to find a silver lining in this news. Stevens will be irreplaceable as a 6-foot-6 forward with the versatility to play on the perimeter. There are no Blue Devils and few players in the country that can replicate her skill-set, and she will be an immediate star wherever she decides to transfer after sitting out next season due to NCAA transfer regulations. Duke will try to patch up her absence in the post with the possible return of Cooper—who is not enrolled at Duke for the spring semester and missed most of last season—and the continuing emergence of Chidom, who had multiple 20-point games in Stevens' absence.

How much will the Blue Devils miss Salvadores next year?

DJ: Although Salvadores will be missed, her absence is not as big a blow compared to that of Stevens, especially considering that Duke has several other impressive point guards on the roster to fill in for the Spaniard—think Kyra Lambert and newly eligible Maryland transfer Lexie Brown. Salvadores' remarkable passing and court vision will surely be missed, but compensating for her loss will be easy compared to the adjustment needed for Stevens' departure.

MG: The departure of Salvadores should not hit the Duke program nearly as hard as Stevens’ transfer. Although she is a talented ball-handler with the ability to knock down shots from beyond the arc, Salvadores started off slowly as a freshman and never made as big of an impact in games as many fans expected her to. Her defense was suspect at times and the Blue Devils’ backcourt rotation is loaded with talent—including classmates Haley Gorecki, Crystal Primm, Lambert and Faith Suggs, as well as incoming top-10 recruit Leaonna Odom. Throw in an All-American transfer in Brown—who will be eligible next season after sitting out this year—and head coach Joanne P. McCallie should have more than enough options to replace the Spanish national.

HT: Salvadores’ absence is a bit easier to work around for Duke because the Blue Devils have so much point guard depth. Brown will be eligible to play next year and will likely slide right into the starting point guard role. She was a third-team All-American as a sophomore at Maryland and was expected to take a lot of minutes away from Salvadores in the backcourt anyway next season, and I expect Lambert to provide reliable production as a floor general off the bench as well.

Six major contributors have now departed Duke early in the last four years. What does that say about the Blue Devil program and do you expect it to have an impact on recruiting in the near future?

DJ: It says a few bad things about the Duke program as a whole and suggests that coaches and players may not be on the same page. Players choosing to leave Durham could mean that they lack confidence in the coaching staff's ability to turn things around following this season, which would be a red flag to potential recruits considering committing to the Blue Devils. If Stevens is willing to leave one of the best academic institutions in the nation and sit out a year to switch teams, it is bound to plant seeds of doubt in recruits' minds wondering why she left. I suspect that Duke's recruiting classes will take a hit moving forward, and McCallie will have a tough challenge ahead.

MG: For any team to lose not one, but two critical players in one offseason is one thing. But for a high-major program with a consistent history of relative success to see six players transfer or go pro in a four-year span, that has to be a concern for players, coaches, fans and recruits. Up until this season, McCallie had taken her team to the NCAA tournament each season, but the Blue Devils have not made a Final Four in her tenure. Recruiting in the short term could take a hit as Duke tries to move back into the top-tier of programs contending for Final Fours and conference championships.

HT: Duke is not the only major program that sees starters and even All-Americans transfer—Brown leaving Maryland is a prime example—but the recurring pattern of departures is concerning. It certainly does not reflect well on the program, but transfers are not the only reason Duke has had a subpar past few years and failed to make the tournament this season for the first time in 22 years. Injuries have derailed several seasons in a row, and winning would solve a lot of problems. If the Blue Devils can stay healthy and make a couple deep NCAA tournament runs in the coming years, top recruits will be inclined to keep coming and start staying for their whole careers. McCallie is certainly under pressure from an impatient fan base, but a finish near the top of the ACC and a few postseason wins would do a lot to silence the doubters.

What's your projected starting five for next season now? What are reasonable expectations for this team without Stevens or Salvadores.

DJ: Projected starters: Primm, Lambert, Greenwell, Odom and Chidom.

After an 8-8 conference showing this season, the Blue Devils will be hard-pressed to reach the .500 mark in the ACC next year. It would be a stretch to suggest that Duke could be selected to next year's NCAA tournament field. The Blue Devils failed to do it with Stevens and Salvadores, and it will only be tougher to do it without them.

MG: Projected starters: Brown, Primm, Gorecki, Greenwell and Chidom

I'm more optimistic than Drew and think Duke should be able to get back on track with a collection of players that is still solid. Although it is unlikely that they will contend for the national title, the Blue Devils have a talented group and a proven coach at the helm. Despite what has unfolded in the past week, expect them, if nothing else, to return to the NCAA tournament next season.

HT: Projected starters: Brown, Greenwell, Odom, Chidom and Cooper

Duke could have been a top-10 national contender if Stevens and Salvadores were still in the mix with the addition of Brown, one of the best point guards in the nation. There is still talent on this roster even without the departures, and the Blue Devils should still be ranked in the top 25 for much of the year and qualify for the NCAA tournament comfortably after the nightmare season of 2015-16—unless the injury bug strikes again. 

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