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'We support them': Kara Lawson focused on relationships as Duke women's basketball head coach

Lawson spoke with reporters over Zoom Wednesday to discuss the initial stages of her tenure as Duke's head coach.
Lawson spoke with reporters over Zoom Wednesday to discuss the initial stages of her tenure as Duke's head coach.

On the court, the Blue Devils plan to be competitive, disciplined and mentally tough.

In the six weeks since Kara Lawson was named head coach of the Duke women’s basketball program, she has also put into place a few different critical mechanisms to achieve a relationship-based culture off the court.

“Your culture is really what you do every day. It’s who you are,” Lawson said in a press conference via Zoom Wednesday afternoon. “We want our players to feel comfortable. We want our players to know that they’re cared for, that we support them.”

In order to build these relationships between herself and her new team, Lawson began meeting the team via Zoom through the final weeks of the summer. Now since her players returned to campus earlier this month, Lawson has connected with her entire team through both full-team meetings as well as one-on-one meetings with each and every player.

Relationship-driven culture

The first round of these personal discussions transpired within the first two weeks of the team being back in Durham, with each lasting approximately one hour long. These relationships will ultimately allow each party to trust one another and have each other’s best interests in mind.

Because of Lawson’s multitude of experiences that ultimately led to her taking over the program, she can pull from different parts of her career for advice and actionable plans for her players. Just 18 years ago, Lawson stood in the same shoes as current Blue Devil freshman Vanessa de Jesus, albeit as a freshman at Tennessee as opposed to Duke. De Jesus was one of four players who met individually with Lawson Wednesday for their second round of scheduled conversations, and the lone freshman on the roster learned about Lawson’s transition to college.

“I use my personal experiences a lot,” Lawson said. “Today, we spoke about challenges of making the jump from high school to college.”

Lawson explained to de Jesus what she found difficult and had to work extra hard on in order to succeed. But the new head coach had a key caveat: the trials and tribulations may look different for different individuals.

While the relationships between the head coach and players are vital to success of the team, they serve as just one communication avenue. Another one is between the players and the assistant coaches, an area in which Lawson’s coaching philosophy has allowed for increased connections.

In her introductory press conference back in July, Lawson spoke about her need for experience alongside her on the bench. The trio of Beth Cunningham, Winston Gandy and Tia Jackson all bring that to the table. All three coaches share qualities of being strong teachers, communicators, scouters and recruiters. In addition, the three assistant coaching hires shed light on another one of Lawson’s key values: versatility.

How Lawson’s staff displays her values

The ability, willingness and expertise to coach all different positions on the hardwood allows the assistant coaches to quickly build strong relationships with the team, as team practices presently consist of only one-on-one drills between one player and one coach. 

Because each coach can teach all positions, the practice pairs have continually shifted. In addition, the assistant coaches meet individually with the players after practice to further build those relationships and create an open line of communication between the coaching staff and the players. This intense focus on relationships between coaches and players will remain a staple during Lawson’s tenure at Duke.

The same can be said about Lawson’s link with her new staff. They have only all been together for about the past 10 days, but they are getting to know each other well in that short period of time. Coming into her current position, Lawson knew Cunningham and Jackson through her many years in the women’s basketball circle, though she didn’t have a personal relationship with either. Her strongest prior relationship came with Gandy, whom she first met when she was still a WNBA player.

In 2014, Lawson was traded to the Washington Mystics, where she spent her final two professional seasons. That same year, the Washington Wizards hired Gandy as their coordinator of player development. Gandy would occasionally spend time at Mystics practices, where Lawson received a first-hand account of the type of coach he is. 

“He was a bright, bright young coach and had a specialty for player development,” Lawson said. “He is someone that will be a head coach, I believe, very soon.”

Meanwhile, Jackson’s previous experience as an assistant coach at Duke appealed to Lawson. She will bring prior understandings as to how Duke and the women’s basketball program run as well as relationships both within the staff as well as the University. 

Lawson also noted the head coaching experience that Jackson and Cunningham bring to the table, with Jackson leading Washington for four years and Cunningham leading VCU for nine.

Versatility in action

During this past season as an assistant coach with the Boston Celtics, Lawson saw the benefits of versatility leading to less predictability on both ends of the floor. She believed one of the Celtics’ main strengths was that the team had “so many players that were interchangeable,” which made them difficult to guard and switching on the defensive end more seamless. 

In this early stage of practice at Duke, Lawson and her staff are only in the evaluation stage, with on-court workouts only starting last week. In the future, once the team begins practicing together, they will be able to more easily see how the different players fit together and how the team’s versatility can be used as a strength going forward. In addition, Lawson noted a player’s flexibility will be used as an evaluation tool in recruiting.

Versatility may also be the common theme throughout this entire basketball season.

Lawson shared her thoughts about the potential that the season is played in a bubble, similar to how the NBA and WNBA have conducted their returns. The feasibility of doing a bubble for the teams, as she explained, is challenging on two fronts: First, the sheer number of teams is initially too large and second, the differing academic requirements, notably the presence of in-person courses. Lawson did note a bubble may be possible for the postseason as the number of teams is smaller and it’s a shorter period of time.

And given the current environment, remaining flexible must be a priority.

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