Although Duke women's basketball returns nine players from an 18-win season, things are starting to feel a bit like freshman year for even the upperclassmen learning a new system under head coach Kara Lawson.
With the season nearing a month away, Duke took its next step in preparation with its first official practice Wednesday morning. That being said, the practice did not feel much different from previous ones in the preseason. Lawson outlined a few more tenets to her coaching philosophy after meeting with the media post-practice.
“It was a solid first session, a continuation of what we've been teaching throughout the preseason,” Lawson said. “Our players have done a great job of trying to pick up as quickly as possible what we are trying to teach them… and work hard to try to make reads and finish the way we want them to.”
In her first season as a collegiate head coach, Lawson is still in the midst of figuring out how her team will play. She continues to assess the team’s strengths and will analyze her opponents to determine the most effective playing style, which may “change on a game-by-game basis.”
While the specific system is not yet set, Lawson’s team wants to emphasize taking care of the ball on the offensive end and challenging the opponents without fouling on the other end. The Blue Devils will play both man and zone defenses and will mix in different offensive sets. The coaching staff is also continuing to introduce all of its new concepts and terminology in these practices, and once the players grasp the information, the staff will add on more.
Lawson also further explained her teaching philosophy, which centers on the role patience should play in any level of sports.
“You have to be patient enough for them to be able to learn it,” Lawson said. “But you have to be willing to be impatient enough and challenge them enough to push them to go a little farther than maybe they’re courageous enough to get to at that point.”
That balance allows her team to improve at a reasonable pace, but at the same time, she is attempting to get the best out of each and every player on the hardwood. This idea coincides with Lawson’s emphasis throughout the preseason on developing meaningful relationships with all of her players, with numerous one-on-one meetings and workouts early on.
“As you get to know someone more and more… you start to really understand their capabilities,” Lawson said. “You can almost know if they're going to pick it up fast or slow before you even teach it to them because you know how their brain works or physically how they move.”
Consistency will also be a focal point for this year’s Duke team. Lawson explained that she looks for dependability in both a player’s focus and effort, which when aligned, will yield favorable results.
“Consistency is one of the hardest things to find as a player,” Lawson said. “If they come in every day and they play with great effort, and if they're focused on the details of what we're trying to achieve and the details of our system, then they're going to set themselves up to be really consistent.”
For junior Miela Goodchild, the experience playing for a coach with a WNBA Championship and a gold medal in her pocket has been “awesome.”
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“She’s literally done everything I’d want to achieve in my life,” Goodchild told GoDuke. “She explains everything, and you just know she knows what she’s doing.”
In practice thus far, the Queensland, Australia native has worked on her midrange shooting game by fitting those shots into her mix of long-range treys. She is also working to extend that 3-point range to open up other aspects of her game.
Goodchild is among a group of experienced players for whom Lawson can lean on for leadership this season. The head coach also noted the significant role guard Mikayla Boykin will play.
“To have an experienced player like Mikayla that's played in a lot of big games, that has the high-level skill, high-level basketball IQ, that's really important for us,” Lawson said. “We’re definitely a more settled team when Mikayla’s out on the floor. She's very confident and she has a good understanding of what we're trying to do. She also has the skill to be able to execute what we're trying to do.”
With much of last year’s Duke team returning, the players already have a baseline chemistry that will be built upon as the preseason continues. Lone freshman Vanessa de Jesus has been improving on the court, and Jennifer Ezeh, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL and meniscus, is also practicing.
Lawson is still waiting on the ACC schedule to be released before she can finalize a non-conference slate. But in the meantime, the Blue Devils will continue to put together all of the lessons they have grasped from Lawson’s tenure with the program.