Head coach Kara Lawson gave little in the way of clues as to what Duke’s playbook would look like this season. Three games in, there’s film to look at, and we can get a sense of what the team prefers to run.
“We like to lift our fives at the elbow in certain sets, just for the spacing, and you can see the spacing it gives us [and] the cuts,” Lawson said after the Western Carolina win. “Jade [Williams is] obviously a really important piece to what we do. She's an excellent passer, makes great reads. And so as you can see, she's somebody that's a big part of how we play, because she can pull away from the basket, she can make passes, she can make shots from out there.”
Williams, who set a career-high in assists per game at 1.7 last year, is averaging 5.7 after Duke’s non-conference slate. That absolutely shatters any three-game stretch in her entire career.
That’s been the result of Lawson making Williams the fulcrum of the offense, by moving her between the block and the elbow, opening up space below her and allowing her to move downhill in a way that maximizes her athleticism and doesn’t require her to get vertical. Let’s look at a play the Blue Devils have run several times that underscores this.
Duke comes out here in a four-out set with Miela Goodchild bringing the ball up, Williams on the low block, Jaida Patrick in the corner on Williams’s side, Venessa de Jesus on the wing beside her and Onome Akinbode-James in the opposite corner. It’s an unbalanced formation, with two shooting threats on the left side and none on the right—as the defense makes clear—making it obvious that a set play is coming.
The play has two distinct actions. The first involves a rotation on what will be the backside of the play, with Akinbode-James moving up to the wing and de Jesus running along the baseline to fill the now-vacated corner. On the frontside, Patrick slides up to the wing as she gets the ball from Goodchild, who replaces her in the corner, all while Williams curls around to the elbow.
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The result is that the Blue Devils are working with the spacing of a five-out set, without allowing Williams’s defender to sag into the paint and protect against cutters. It’s possible to critique exactly which players are in which positions in this example, but they’ve run this with the non-Williams personnel being essentially interchangeable. And the rotation forces the defense out of its set position, which is fairly useless against man-to-man defense like in this example, but would generally force a zone defense to show some of its tendencies.
The second action is the real meat of the play. Goodchild comes above the break, with Patrick acting like she’s setting a pindown screen before slipping the screen and cutting straight to the rim. As their two defenders come together, Williams reads them to determine her next move.
In this instance, Goodchild keeps running around the arc, but the effect would be the same if she stopped at the break. Longwood’s defenders try to switch on the presumed down screen, which would be the correct choice when a catch-and-shoot threat like Goodchild is spotting up. But Patrick’s initial defender doesn’t step up to her quickly enough and so both defenders take Goodchild—not that Goodchild’s initial defender had her hips turned in a way that would allow her to effectively cover Patrick anyway. By the time Patrick is a step clear of the defenders, Williams’s pass is already on its way.
The last key here is that first action on the play. By moving a catch-and-shoot threat in de Jesus to the far corner, the weakside baseline defender must respect a pass there if it’s a reasonable possibility. And Williams’s positioning here allows for a relatively easy skip pass to de Jesus. Thus, her defender can’t jump to Patrick until it’s too late, and the layup is fully uncontested.