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Point Guard U: McCallie and Duke women's basketball educating top floor generals year after year

<p>Chelsea Gray is thriving in her third WNBA season and was in the national player of the year discussion as a senior at Duke before she fractured her kneecap.</p>

Chelsea Gray is thriving in her third WNBA season and was in the national player of the year discussion as a senior at Duke before she fractured her kneecap.

Some coaches have a distinct brand of basketball. Joanne P. McCallie is not one of them, generally keeping the Blue Devils among the ACC’s best programs from year to year with teams that have few similarities.

But one thing has almost always remained consistent: elite point guard play.

McCallie’s floor generals have gone on to succeed en masse after Duke—former Blue Devil Jasmine Thomas started in Saturday’s WNBA All-Star Game for the East, while fellow All-Star Chelsea Gray, who is in the middle of a breakout season, came off the West's bench. And Alexis Jones, who played for Duke for two years before transferring to Baylor, was also a first-round pick in this year’s draft.

With all of that recent success, has McCallie turned Duke into Point Guard U? 

Graduate student guard Lexie Brown thinks so.

“I think that’s fair,” Brown said. “When I was at Maryland, I go to Duke and didn’t realize how many point guards we had in the WNBA and overseas. Coach P does a really good job at instilling her values into us on and off the court.”

The 25-year coaching veteran has had teams with three point guards on the floor at once, a strategy she took all the way to the 2005 national championship game with Michigan State. It would not be a surprise to see her use the tactic again this season with Brown, Kyra Lambert and freshman Mikayla Boykin. But McCallie has also had taller rosters, like her 2014-15 team anchored by 6-foot-6 forward Azurá Stevens and All-American center Elizabeth Williams.

A former guard herself at Northwestern, McCallie has been able to recruit and facilitate strong two-way point guard play to bring her teams together.

“She lets them have total control of the floor,” Brown said. “If you’re the point guard, you’re also the heart and soul of the defense. Some coaches let the point guard run the offense, but don’t want them to do too much on defense. Coach P wants me to do it all, and she’s always pushed her point guards.”

Brown finished fourth in the ACC in scoring and third in steals last season, exemplifying the dual threat that McCallie searches for. At the top of the Blue Devils’ ACC-best scoring defense, the Suwanee, Ga., native sparked a team that missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1994 a year earlier to make the biggest jump in the ACC standings ever for a team that finished in the top three.

When paired with fellow floor generals Boykin and Lambert—who reportedly could be ready to return in October from a torn ACL she suffered during the NCAA tournament in March—Brown could help Duke have an even faster-moving offense than it had last season.

“Coach P always makes references to the Golden State Warriors," Brown said. "She just wants us to run and score, run and score—and then of course defend. But having three point guards on the floor.... It makes it easier to get into an offensive flow.”

A five-star recruit, Boykin could help take the Blue Devils’ offense to the next level this season. With physical strength that McCallie says could eventually equal Thomas’ top-notch power and a lethal outside shot, Boykin could be the next in a long list of great point guards at Duke.

While she was being recruited, the Clinton, S.C., native looked up to Gray, who was taken in first round of the 2014 WNBA draft by the Connecticut Sun.

“She was one of the best point guards ever at Duke,” Boykin said. “When I was coming up, I always wanted to do things that she did.”

That sets the bar high for Boykin to follow—Gray was one of the best passers in school history from 2010-14 and was in the running for the Wooden Award her senior year before missing the second half of the season with a fractured kneecap.

McCallie has watched Gray closely and stayed in touch with her in her third WNBA season. After spending most of her time on the bench in her first two years in the league, Gray has scored 15.9 points per game for the Los Angeles Sparks and shined in Saturday’s All-Star Game with 11 points and four assists.

“Look at her now—people said she would never do that after an injury that seemed so unfair at the time,” McCallie said. “She deserves everything coming to her. She’s worked her tail off and now is flourishing.”

Thomas, a lights-out scorer who played at Duke from 2007-11 and took the Blue Devils to the Elite Eight as a junior and senior, has established herself as one of the best guards in the league in her seventh season. She scored eight points for the East Saturday, including a dazzling pass over four West defenders to set up a lay-in for Jonquel Jones.

With Brown appearing to be on track to join the duo in the WNBA, McCallie is proud of her team's growing tradition at the position.

“We’re the most unique place to be a point guard, or one of them because of the academic demands,” McCallie said. “Some kids go to college and don’t have academic demands, so they just focus on basketball. They’re setting themselves up for success because they’ve had to manage so much. But we’re one of the very best universities for point guards.”

Ben Leonard

Managing Editor 2018-19, 2019-2020 Features & Investigations Editor 

A member of the class of 2020 hailing from San Mateo, Calif., Ben is The Chronicle's Towerview Editor and Investigations Editor. Outside of the Chronicle, he is a public policy major working towards a journalism certificate, has interned at the Tampa Bay Times and NBC News and frequents Pitchforks. 


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