Duke women’s basketball has retired only two jerseys in its history, those of Alana Beard and Lindsey Harding. But there is one player who stands out as a prime candidate to add her jersey to Cameron’s rafters.
And the unusual thing about her is that she is still just a freshman. In her limited time, however, she has already given many an indication that she is on the fast track to greatness. Trying to pinpoint her primary contribution, though, is difficult. Maybe it’s that she leads Duke in scoring as a freshman this year. Or it could be that she grabs seemingly every rebound remotely close to her. Perhaps it is the triple-double she registered against Wake Forest last week while setting a conference record with 12 blocks.
But one thing is clear—Elizabeth Williams is putting up a performance worthy of Duke’s greatest players, and it’s time for Blue Devil fans to start paying attention. After all, the 6-foot-3 center has an excellent chance to become the second Blue Devil to earn national rookie of the year honors. The only player to do so? Beard, in 2001.
“I think it’s very rare to see a first-year come in with such purpose, such conviction and such a willingness to help her team,” head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “She’s got a great sense of the whole, even though individually she’s been absolutely terrific.”
Williams has made a point of exceeding expectations ever since the team’s preseason workouts, when she finished a mile-and-a-half run in 10:18, 27 seconds faster than the goal her coaches set for her.
Her quick pace around a track is just one indication of her outstanding athleticism. Whereas most 6-foot-3 centers lumber up and down the court, Williams displays a quickness that many guards would envy.
Her athleticism has allowed the Blue Devils to play a much more up-tempo style compared to years past, with the offense averaging almost eight points more per game than they were at this time last year, despite the loss of leading scorer Jasmine Thomas.
“I like teams that run,” Williams said. “With our team, we have a lot of athletes and we can use that to our advantage and sprint the floor.”
Duke’s transition offense runs all the more smoothly due to the connection that Williams has developed with sophomore point guard Chelsea Gray, who paces the offense. Because Gray has a knack for incorporating her teammates so aggressively, assistant coach Al Brown, who works closely with the post players, has reminded Williams to keep her hands ready at all times.
Williams’ ready hands have turned many of Gray’s passes into buckets. The center leads the team with 13.0 points per game while Gray has seen her production rise to 6.3 assists per contest. Gray and Williams will form a tandem for the next two-and-a-half seasons that may be unguardable in transition.
“The connection she has with Chelsea Gray, the ability to run the floor—so many things open up,” McCallie said. “Great players have a way of elevating all those around them and making it look easier than it really is.”
Although Williams leads the Blue Devils in scoring, her dominance is more noticeable on the defensive end. Her ACC-record 12 blocks against Wake Forest have set her on pace to average four blocks per game, which gives her an outside shot at breaking Allison Bales’ conference record of 151 blocks in a season. By the time her four years are up, Williams should easily be able to break Bales’ career conference record of 434 blocks.
Williams has become the best by always playing against the best. In 2009 she earned the MVP award at the FIBA U16 World Championships, en route to a gold medal with the United States national team. The next year, she led the team in both scoring and rebounding as the U17 national team brought home gold from France.
This past summer, while her Duke teammates were in Durham preparing for school and the upcoming season, Williams was winning her third gold in as many years with the U.S. U19 team in Puerto Montt, Chile. “She’s always loved a challenge,” McCallie said. “She’s really driven to elevate her team.”
And her team-oriented attitude is especially important in women’s college basketball, where individual superstars rule. Duke made the Final Four in 2002 with Beard and again the next season when they added Harding, who would take the team to the program’s second-ever national championship game in 2006.
The team can be proud of its Elite Eight finishes the past two seasons, but Williams has the program-defining potential to usher in a new era of late-March basketball. And if she can do that, the duo of jerseys in Cameron will likely become a triumvirate.
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