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'The lifeblood of our program': Inside the beginning of Kara Lawson's recruiting revival

<p>Lawson is quickly Duke's women's basketball program in 2020.</p>

Lawson is quickly Duke's women's basketball program in 2020.

From 2007 to 2017, Duke signed 20 five-star recruits, according to ESPN. In the four classes since, the Blue Devils have signed just one.

That trend is about to change.

On October 28, Duke received a verbal commitment from Shay Bollin, a forward from Massachusetts. While Bollin is ranked as a four-star prospect by ESPN, her No. 19 class ranking makes her the highest-ranked Blue Devil commit since Jade Williams in 2017. And as of this article, Duke is a finalist for eight different prospects ranked among ESPN, Blue Star, Prospects Nation and ASGR’s top prospects in 2022. 

This is easily the best the program has done on the recruiting trail overall since 2017, despite nearly every offer having come in just the last couple of months. So how have new head coach Kara Lawson and the Blue Devils been able to make it happen?

The three steps to a recruiting turnaround

Step one was the hiring of Lawson. Despite a relatively quick coaching search after Joanne P. McCallie resigned in July, athletic director Kevin White and company seemed to find the perfect fit in Lawson, whose immense popularity among virtually everyone in the basketball world suggests she was the right choice to turn around a program struggling to attract top recruits.

“Kara has been awesome—very involved with recruiting,” new assistant coach Beth Cunningham told The Chronicle. “I don't think I've seen or heard of a head coach really pound the phones as much as she's been able to. Recruiting is the lifeblood of our program, and it's important to her to develop those relationships and to make sure that as we build this, we're not getting just the talented kids in here. Obviously, we want top top talent, but it's getting the right top talent in here and kids that really fit with what Duke is all about and with what Kara's vision is.”

Step two was to completely overhaul the assistant coaching staff. McCallie's recent staffs tended to consist of coaches better at developing players than recruiting them, which didn’t work with what was a rapidly changing landscape for engagement with prospects. 

So Lawson simply went out and collected one of the best assistant coaching staffs in the ACC before she even met her team on campus. First, she pulled in Muffet McGraw’s former associate head coach in Cunningham, and then former Blue Devil assistant coach and recruiting specialist Tia Jackson, and then former Maryland director of recruiting and Washington Wizards player development coordinator Winston Gandy. 

To say that was an upgrade would be an understatement—rather, it was a testament to what a sleeping giant Duke was.

“Twenty-five years ago, there was no social media, there was no language of ‘DM’ing a kid or liking a post or retweeting this or whatever. So that's a new language for me,” Jackson told The Chronicle. “Another one is [that] there's a lot of people in a recruit’s camp—they have like an entourage. Before, it was just your coach, your parents that you're probably building the relationships with in addition to the player. But now there's a lot more.”

Step three was to, well, get recruiting. As Lawson and Cunningham describe it, the former was on the phones the afternoon she got introduced as head coach. And it’s paid off—just look at the players Duke is a finalist for in the Class of 2022:

  • Kiki Rice, point guard from Washington D.C., ranked 6th on average
  • KK Bransford, off-ball guard from Cincinnati, ranked 11th on average
  • Londynn Jones, point guard from Calif., ranked 12th on average
  • T’yana Todd, combo guard from Toronto, ranked 17th by ASGR
  • Grace VanSlooten, wing from Ohio, ranked 18th on average
  • Brianna McDaniel, combo guard from Chicago, ranked 22nd on average
  • Ashlon Jackson, off-ball guard from Texas, ranked 28th on average
  • Imani Lester, big from Raleigh, ranked 59th on average by Blue Star and ASGR

What’s most notable about this list is the fact that just one player hails from the South—not because the South is a particular hotbed for basketball talent, but because teams with relatively poor recruiting generally have to find their rare talents locally. That’s not the case for Duke, due to a combination of experienced recruiters with extensive connections and one of the best brands in all of collegiate basketball.

“I've made a lot of contacts, not just being able to recruit in our region, but I'm able to get all over the country,” Jackson said. “I've never burned any bridges, because I can reach out to them. I still have my Seattle number, because there's so many contacts in there that I don't want to lose. And they see my number coming, they pick up.”

The Tar Heel way

If you’re looking for another model of a recruiting revival, look no further than right down Tobacco Road. 

North Carolina is bringing in the 11th-ranked freshman class in the nation this year in just head coach Courtney Banghart’s first full offseason. Given that the top high schoolers almost always verbally commit before their senior years, it almost always takes until a college coach’s second freshman class for them to have “their players.” And yet what was a toxic Tar Heel program preceding Banghart isn’t just turning around, it’s nearly arrived, and is in line for the second-ranked class next year.

Banghart inherited a North Carolina program in which former head coach Sylvia Hatchell was forced to resign after she made "racially insensitive" remarks and exercised "undue influence" on athletes to play while injured.  Even before Hatchell’s resignation, between players transferring out and a downturn in recruiting, it was clear the Tar Heels’ ways were no longer working.

But North Carolina could not have found a better replacement in Banghart. She’s always looking forward, is always focused individually on helping players achieve their goals and is an excellent communicator. Clearly that’s a combination that attracts talent.

'There's not a kid that won't be interested'

Duke’s struggles on the recruiting trail didn’t begin until the school’s investigation into McCallie's possible mistreatment of players in 2016. Though the investigation was resolved, McCallie couldn’t put together a top class after the problems and investigation were made public, leading to a 2016 class that was her first freshman class outside the top 20 in seven years.

The recruiting never returned, either—2017 brought in a couple of five-stars in Jade Williams and Mikayla Boykin, but Vanessa de Jesus has been the lone blue-chip player since. 

So how are Lawson and company selling recruits on a team that’s still a ways away from contention?

“I think the biggest sell is Kara, and this university—I think Duke and Stanford are the two schools that have the academic profile, as well as the athletic profile, that there's not a kid that won't be interested,” Gandy told The Chronicle. “I think that's kind of been evident thus far. When we first got here, and we're calling kids of schools that have been recruiting a lot of these top kids for two years, three years, on a weekly basis. And within a month, we're on the shortlist. I mean, I would like to think that they love us and all that jazz, but it's the university and it’s Kara as well. So I think that you essentially kind of immediately level the playing field.”

“Duke's not new, but our version of women's basketball at Duke is new to recruits,” Lawson added during a preseason press conference. “And so it's really important that we get in front of them, either on the phone or on a Zoom, and be able to have them get to know us, and get to learn us."

Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle's women's basketball season preview. Find the rest here.

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