Once a top destination for basketball recruits, Duke seemed to become a destination to steer clear from last spring.
But just a few months later, it returned to being a recruit’s dream.
After a 2015-16 season in which the Blue Devils missed the postseason for the first time in more than 20 years, turmoil appeared to have taken seat in Durham. Leading scorer and rebounder Azurá Stevens transferred to Connecticut and point guard Angela Salvadores returned home to play professionally in Spain, and the turbulent offseason kept snowballing.
Following the departures, the school launched a human resources investigation into head coach Joanne P. McCallie’s program for alleged mistreatment of players and coaches.
But in spite of the distractions, when National Signing Day rolled around in November before their best regular season since 2012-13, the Blue Devils still managed to land the No. 8 recruiting class in the nation, according to ESPN.
“We signed an incredible class. That’s what’s kind of humorous,” McCallie said. “Here we were going through some stuff, and it was one of the easiest things we’ve ever done. Because they loved us and Duke for Duke’s sake, and they wouldn’t listen to anybody. Silly Twitter, silly person. They wanted to find out for themselves what was here.”
Headlining McCallie’s haul are forward Jade Williams, ESPN’s No. 14 recruit in this year’s class, and Mikayla Boykin, No. 21 overall and the seventh-best guard in the nation. McCallie didn’t stop there—her 2017 class rounds out with two more solid prospects, four-star post player Madison Treece and a strong scorer in Jayda Adams.
“These particular kids were challenged during that recruitment time and they still made the decision,” McCallie said. “They’re a strong-character, tough-minded group. It’s one of our strongest classes ever, and it’s also very balanced, with two guards and two posts.”
In May, McCallie also added graduate transfer Bego Faz Davalos, who averaged a double-double as a 6-foot-3 center last year at Fresno State, to bring the total to five newcomers on next year’s team.
The challenges the incoming recruits heard about were certainly palpable—the Durham Herald Sun’s Steve Wiseman reported four-time All-American Elizabeth Williams, who played with the Blue Devils from 2011-2015, had penned a letter to the administration about a negative atmosphere around the program.
After nearly a month of the investigation and interviews with former members of the program, though, Kevin White, vice president and director of athletics, said McCallie would keep her post as head coach.
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One year later, White declined to discuss any details about the investigation.
“I’m not going to get into that because I will take us back into drama,” White said. “We’re drama-free. Drama at this point is not in the best interest of these kids that are coming back, because they’re beyond that. That’s yesteryear for these kids, and the lion’s share were not part of that yesteryear mentality anyway.”
The turmoil did not seem to faze these recruits, who never decommitted or reopened their recruitment.
“They were pulled to wanting to find out truth,” McCallie said. “They took their five visits, but they liked Duke more and more, and yet people said you’re at Duke. They had problems in the spring. They were truth seekers in the most unbelievable way. It was so refreshing.”
A family affair
Another common thread that McCallie looked for and got in this class: strong families. As she has done with her own daughter Maddie, who just wrapped up her career at Elon, McCallie said she looks for families who support their daughters but let them be independent, unlike some of the “helicopter” parents of the generation.
Boykin certainly fits that mold—her close relationship with her brother, Michael, now a point guard at Division II Barton College, helped her develop her game. She said she played one-on-one constantly with her brother at the local gym in Clinton, S.C., where she eventually led Clinton High School to its first state title in nearly 20 years as a senior.
“He’s one of the most elite point guards I’ve ever played against,” Boykin said. “Not a lot of people have been paying attention to him, but he’s better than what people put out. I played against him, and it was like playing one of the players in the NBA Draft. He pushed me to the next level.”
Like her brother, Boykin figures to play point guard for the Blue Devils next season, and could step in immediately to start with floor general Kyra Lambert likely to miss time after tearing her ACL in the NCAA tournament against Hampton in March. Lambert said she is on schedule but has no timetable for her return, which could immediately thrust Boykin—who McCallie said still needs to get faster to adjust to the college game—into a big role.
Finding the right fit
Before her injury, Lambert was a force on and off the court for Duke, third on the team in minutes—and perhaps first in minutes spent recruiting prospects like Boykin.
Along with former Duke guard Crystal Primm, who is transferring to Auburn, Lambert dedicates significant time trying to make recruits feel at home while gauging their fit with the team over a meal.
“Kyra has been the biggest recruiter, if I had to pick one,” McCallie said. “She’s a heart-and-soul kid, and she’s done a lot. She’s a great communicator and does well one-on-one. She’s so committed to the program in a way that a point guard would be. She always has been that recruiter—I’m sure she likes all the meals she gets.”
But McCallie and recruiting coordinator Hernando Planells have done the majority of the work in seeking out new talent, scouring the country—and the world—for those who are drawn to Duke, and not the other way around.
McCallie learned that lesson the hard way with Salvadores’ departure. The 10-year Blue Devil head coach worked hard to get the Leon, Spain, native to come to Durham, but she left after just one season after McCallie said she wasn’t always interested academically.
“She was clear about it, she always talked about going pro,” McCallie said. “I tried so hard that we were going to plan to take a trip to Spain, to take the team to Spain. That’s how hard we tried. But I should have learned that you can’t work that hard. There are people that are really attracted to Duke. Those are the people that we should concentrate on.”
Boykin was one of the targets that was naturally drawn to Duke—Lambert said she jokes that Boykin committed to Duke before graduating senior Oderah Chidom did—as was Williams.
The Blue Devils had recruited the 6-foot-4 Williams since she was in eighth grade and beat out teams like Connecticut and Notre Dame for her services. A stretch player who can play on the wing or in the post, the forward was drawn to Duke in large part due to its academics—she plans on following the pre-medicine track to become either an anesthesiologist or a nurse.
With a void in the frontcourt left by graduating seniors Chidom and Kendall Cooper, Williams could get significant minutes as a freshman for the Blue Devils alongside Davalos next season—if she can build up the strength to complement her speed.
“She can get down the floor, she demands the ball, she’s not afraid to be physical,” McCallie said. “She’s just got to get stronger. If you think about her and Leaonna [Odom] being on the floor at the same time, that’s a fast-moving combination. This team will be unequivocally faster next season.”
And the Blue Devils were not exactly lacking in speed last season—they had star guard Lexie Brown and used their quickness to finish second in the conference in steals. A more up-tempo attack than the offense that revolved around Stevens in 2015-16 gave Duke much better results last season, making the largest jump ever in the ACC standings for a team that finished in the top three, from tied for seventh to tied for second.
A year after finishing 28-6 and making it to the ACC tournament championship game, the Blue Devils will return four of their top five scorers, including Brown and All-ACC guard Rebecca Greenwell. Duke flashed elite potential last season, racking up seven ranked wins, including a victory against then-No. 3 South Carolina, before an upset loss in its only game without Lambert against 10th-seeded Oregon in the NCAA tournament.
With the four freshmen and Davalos joining a proven core, the Blue Devils are well-positioned to contend for a deeper run next year.
“I don’t know that our program could be at a better place, based not only on how our season went, but when I interact with team members over the season, one or two have said to me personally that this is the most fun they’ve ever had,” White said. “The student-athletes are euphoric about where we are, where we’re heading and the kind of season and team chemistry they enjoyed.”