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ChronChat: Predicting the 2020-21 Duke women's basketball season

Could senior center Jade Williams emerge as Duke's MVP this season?
Could senior center Jade Williams emerge as Duke's MVP this season?

With the Blue Devils' 2020-21 season beginning tomorrow, five of our beat writers break down their predictions for the upcoming campaign. How do you think Duke will fare?

What do you think Duke’s record will be?

Em Adler: 12-12 (8-12, 10th in ACC)

The tiers in the ACC have rarely been this fluid, which could be both a positive and a negative for Duke. On the one hand, opponents like Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Florida State could end up in the midpack and provide surprising wins for the Blue Devils, or they could be strong conference contenders and crush Duke. The way I see it, the Blue Devils are clearly in the lower-middle tier of the ACC. They have the top talent to secure some big wins, but their schedule is much less forgiving than Miami’s or Florida State’s.

Christian Olsen: 15-9 (11-9, 7th in ACC)

With the loss of Haley Gorecki and Leaonna Odom, along with a head coach turnover, it would be a miracle for this team to have its identity right out of the gate. It’s going to take time for Duke to get into a rhythm and become as cohesive and reliable as it was toward the end of last season. The four mismatched nonconference opponents should be easy wins but also provide an opportunity for the Blue Devils to get their footing before getting thrown headfirst into the ACC. With Kara Lawson’s new but proven leadership and a solid roster—barring injury—I see the Blue Devils ending up somewhere in the middle of the ACC rankings.

Micah Hurewitz: 13-11 (9-11, 9th in ACC)

Lawson rolls out a very different looking Duke team in her first year. It’s hard to tell at this point what this team can do against tough opponents in the conference, but I have confidence that the Blue Devils’ returning players and Lawson’s coaching can push them to a few quality ACC wins. The conference overall outmatches this inexperienced Duke squad, but the Blue Devils have the potential to hang near the middle of the pack.

Alex Jackson: 12-12 (9-11, 9th in ACC)

This is going to be a season of mystery and surprises for the Blue Devils, and it’s unlikely those surprises are good with the way the team is transitioning this year. I have a hard time seeing Duke finish the year over .500, but it may flirt with greatness at times. In terms of the ACC, there are some really good squads this year, and the Blue Devils just won’t be able to compete with all the top teams. 

Sasha Richie: 12-12 (8-12, 9th in ACC)

I think this season is going to be chaotic. For one, the pandemic throws a whole new variable into the mix, and the Blue Devils may not actually play 24 games. Second, this team is so different from last year’s that it’s honestly hard to predict. Gorecki and Odom’s scoring has to be made up somewhere, but it probably won’t be. However, Lawson and her new coaching staff could light a fire under the returning members of the team, especially with an easy string of confidence-building nonconference matchups to start the season. That being said, the ACC has a lot of good teams this year, but it has an equal number of wild cards. The Blue Devils probably won’t beat the really good teams, but whether they can beat the wild cards will decide whether they land in the middle or toward the bottom. 

Who will be the team MVP?

Em Adler: Mikayla Boykin

Hot take, I know, to pick the starting point guard and most heavily-acclaimed player on the team. But I think Boykin has a chance to be a superstar in a conference that’s a bit stronger at post than at guard. She’s been one of the best shooters in the country whenever she’s gotten on the court and has incredible passing instincts and face-up moves. There’s reason to think she could excel in what’s sure to be a better pick-and-roll this season, and that her defense could be a strength against on-ball guards. I genuinely expect her to make an All-ACC team come March.

Christian Olsen: Mikayla Boykin

Micah Hurewitz: Jade Williams

Williams is destined to be one of the leaders for this year’s squad following the departures of Gorecki and Odom. My colleagues would argue that Boykin is the choice for MVP, but her injury past and overall lack of experience over her first three years make Williams stand out in comparison—she has played in 93 games, starting in 57. She has size at 6-foot-5, making her a force inside on both sides of the floor. She also has the plus of being an efficient shooter, meaning if she can get in position, she has a good chance of giving Duke two points.

Alex Jackson: Miela Goodchild

After an electric freshman campaign in which she dominated from beyond the arc, Goodchild disappointed in her sophomore year She averaged only 7.3 points per game, while shooting 33.1 percent from three (down from 44.5 percent the previous year). I see this as a revenge year for Goodchild. The junior guard will see her fair share of minutes and with the need for more scoring following the departures of Gorecki and Odom, I see Lawson working hard to get Goodchild the ball whenever possible. 

Sasha Richie: Miela Goodchild

Who is Duke’s most underrated player?

Em Adler: Jaida Patrick

It’s hard to pick an underrated player on this team, but I think Patrick’s name isn’t being dropped often enough. In what’s likely to be a development year for Duke, she should get a significant amount of playing time at the wing, especially considering the team’s dearth of depth at the position. If nothing else, she brings borderline-elite defense against guards and undersized wings, though her speed and strength provide a lot of promise on the offensive side as well.

Christian Olsen: Jada Claude

It’s difficult to make this pick between the two clear choices of Patrick and Jada Claude. Viewed side-by-side, I see their respective potentials as almost identical. However, in the context of this team, I think we’re going to see more of Claude this season, both in terms of playing time and in overall impact. Having lost the team’s go-to big in Odom, a 6-foot rebounding machine like Claude has more of a gap to fill than Patrick, a 5-foot-10 guard on a team that’s already saturated with backcourt options.

Micah Hurewitz: Miela Goodchild

This may be a hot take given that she was a top pickup for Duke, but Goodchild is my pick for the impact player most likely to go under the radar. I say this mostly because her 2019-20 season looked miserable in comparison to her freshman campaign the year prior. Her 3-point percentage plummeted from nearly 45 percent to just above 33, but her fundamental shooting abilities would suggest that drop was a fluke. I expect her to quietly return back to her record-setting freshman-year form, silencing the doubters (even if she won't surpass Williams as team MVP).

Alex Jackson: Vanessa de Jesus

De Jesus joins the team as the only freshman in her class, and Lawson and many others have high hopes for the guard out of Sierra Canyon. It is likely that we will see many different lineups this year as Lawson tries to figure this team out, and I expect de Jesus to be featured in many of them. She’s a flexible player with a high basketball IQ and can really work the ball around. The No. 37 ranked recruit may not fill the stat sheet, but she’ll contribute consistent play for a potentially very inconsistent team.

Sasha Richie: Jade Williams

It may be odd to call a senior starter underrated, but I think Williams’ contributions to the team have been overshadowed by her more high-profile teammates. She and Goodchild are tied as the team’s highest-scoring returners, and she has the benefit of being 6-foot-5. Not to mention, Williams is one of the most efficient players on the team and has the potential to take over a game. As she steps into more of a leadership role this year, she will only get more valuable to the team, even if she’s not the most valuable.

What will Duke’s best win be?

Em Adler: Virginia Tech

I’ve already given my somewhat pessimistic outlook on the team’s ACC outlook, so it goes without saying why I don’t see the Blue Devils stealing a win from any of the top teams in the conference. But Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech are there for the taking, the latter of which Duke plays twice. And while I’m not a fan of the way the Yellow Jackets and Blue Devils match up, I love how Duke could look against the Hokies, with the Blue Devils having waves of great defenders to throw at Virginia Tech’s preseason All-ACC stars, point guard Aisha Sheppard and center Elizabeth Kitley. Furthermore, I just don’t see the Hokies having enough scoring at forward or enough backcourt defense for Duke not to take at least one of the two teams’ matches this season.

Christian Olsen: Florida State

I’ll be the first to say that the door is wide open for a repeat upset against No. 8 N.C. State. However, am I going to stake my reputation on that take? Absolutely not, considering that those games were carried completely by players who are no longer on the roster. Instead, I would count on an opponent that our current players have proven themselves against. Williams and Onome Akinbode-James both had breakout performances in last season’s nail-biting win against Florida State, and given that the Seminoles have only lost talent in the offseason, this should be another close but attainable win for the Blue Devils.

Micah Hurewitz: North Carolina

Like Duke, North Carolina lost two top scorers from last season. The Blue Devils took care of their Tobacco Road rivals twice last season, so who’s to say they don’t have the grit to give the Tar Heels a run for their money again? Additionally, Duke’s conference schedule doesn’t bode particularly well for any major upsets, so a win against North Carolina will likely go down as the best.

Alex Jackson: N.C. State

Have you ever just had a gut feeling that you can’t necessarily explain? That’s what’s going on here for my pick of Duke upsetting N.C. State come Jan. 28 in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Last year, the Blue Devils pulled off a stunning victory in Raleigh led by Gorecki, and while the team looks a lot different this year, I just have that feeling. The game comes late in Duke’s schedule, probably after the Blue Devils have suffered some tough defeats (one of those most likely being at N.C. State earlier in the season) and this is the game I’m picking for them to come together as a team, put it all on the floor and make a statement. 

Sasha Richie: Miami

Duke will play Miami twice this year, and I think both contests will be more of a nail-biter than people may think. The Blue Devils defeated the Hurricanes handily last season, but Miami was missing its star senior. Now, the Hurricanes have had time to adjust to that lineup change, and Duke is the one missing its former stars. With both squads placed right around one another in the preseason ACC rankings, one of these games is bound to go down to the wire. And in a developing season, that alone could make for the Blue Devils’ “best” win of the year.

What will be Coach Lawson's go-to lineup?

Em Adler: Boykin, de Jesus, Goodchild, Ezeh, Akinbode-James

At face value, this is surely a strange lineup. Boykin and Goodchild are indubitably the best Blue Devils on the team and are locks to start. And this lineup does go a bit small in the backcourt and push Goodchild onto taller wings, while possibly continuing the logjam in the post. But this is without a doubt Duke’s best offensive lineup, and doesn’t sacrifice much defense. It even follows the Rule of Threes: at least three really good defenders, three offensive creators, three spot-up threats, etc; and it can be switch-heavy on defense. A lot will come down to how well sophomore forward Jennifer Ezeh can attack and defend in space.

Christian Olsen: Boykin, de Jesus, Goodchild, Williams, Akinbode-James

To me, the backcourt lineup is a no-brainer. With Boykin and Goodchild likely to carry the team and newcomer de Jesus as a necessary supplement, there isn’t much room for debate here. With this in mind, it will be interesting to see what direction Lawson decides to take the rest of the starting lineup. Personally, I’d like to see as much of Williams as possible. She can maneuver the paint like no one else and her range extends much further than you’d expect from someone her height. Finally, you can’t forget about Akinbode-James, the only player on last season’s roster to grab more offensive rebounds than defensive. I think this lineup is as well-rounded as you’ll get from Duke’s roster and one that I’m excited to see in action.

Micah Hurewitz: Boykin, de Jesus, Goodchild, Williams, Ezeh

With no obvious choices for several starting spots, it will certainly take a few games to find which players can click with each other. While Ezeh missed all of last season and will likely start the 2020-21 campaign off the bench, Lawson will likely find that she provides an improvement over Akinbode-James efficiency-wise, and also helps space the court to create shots for Williams, the team's senior centerpiece and my MVP pick. In the backcourt, there are no surprises here, as Lawson will look to feature Boykin alongside Goodchild and hyped-freshman de Jesus. This offensive-minded lineup has a high ceiling I hope we get to revel in. 

Alex Jackson: Boykin, de Jesus, Goodchild, Williams, Akinbode-James

Sasha Richie: Boykin, de Jesus, Goodchild, Williams, Akinbode-James

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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