With early national signing day just three months away, it’s prime commitment season for recruits. And the 2022 class is pivotal for the Blue Devils. While Duke enters the 2021-22 season with a path to national contention, the five-star recruits they await decisions from are among the brightest future stars in the sport.
The Blue Devils’ roster construction in particular creates clear needs on the recruiting trail; there’s three roster spots available for 2022-23, coming after centers Jade Williams and Amaya Finklea-Guity and wing Lexi Gordon using their final year of eligibility this season, so Duke will have some frontcourt production to replace. And with four quality guards and wings entering the 2022-23 season with at least three more years of eligibility remaining, the Blue Devils may not be as appealing to some backcourt players.
The No. 2-overall recruit in the country, wing Janiah Barker, recently announced her five finalists. Included in her list are Duke, South Carolina, Georgia, Louisville and Ole Miss. Barker has kept her recruitment quite private, opting not to post about visits or offers received. The 6-foot-3 Tampa, Fla., native played for Essence in the EYBL circuit, has a floor game and pull-up three to dream on, and it’s easy to imagine how much the Blue Devils could benefit from that kind of versatility at forward. But there seems to be little consensus on what school she’s favoring, given her seeming interest in South Carolina and Georgia, but also having long been active on Duke and Lawson’s Instagram pages.
The nation’s top point guard, Kiki Rice, is likely due for a commitment soon as well. Rice, a 5-foot-11 Washington D.C. native, who has played for EYBL’s Fairfax Stars, announced her list of 11 schools nearly a year ago, and it included Stanford, Duke, UConn, UCLA and Arizona.
A Big need
Not only is Duke going to lose most of its frontcourt production next summer, but Williams and Finklea-Guity are the Blue Devils’ only true centers. Bigs Onome Akinbode-James and Imani Lewis will likely still be around for the 2022-23 season, but while Akinbode-James’ skills suggest possible success at the five and Lewis has spent roughly a third of her time there, according to CBB Analytics, neither has shown enough to rely on for full-time minutes at center. And they could always decide not to utilize their fifth year of eligibility. If neither Akinbode-James nor Lewis return for 2022-23, Duke’s only player above 6-foot-1 will be then-freshman forward Shay Bollin.
Which is why it’s imperative that the Blue Devils are able to nab a commitment from at least one of the two bigs they’re heavily recruiting: Kennedy Basham, a 6-foot-7 center from Phoenix, Ariz., and the No. 44 player in the class, and Tabitha Amanze, a 6-foot-4 big from Blairstown, N.J., and the No. 36. Both players come from programs that Duke is well-familiar with; Basham plays for Cal Storm, an AAU program which has sent five players to Durham over the past decade—including sophomore point guard Vanessa de Jesus—while Amanze came from Nigeria to Blairstown, N.J., and played for Blair Academy HS and the AAU NJ Demons, the same path as Akinbode-James.
In a 2022 class stacked with wings, there's a dearth of posts beyond the absolute best prospects; outside the top five, ESPN ranks just 11 players at least 6-foot-3 in their top 60. And the remaining options are thinner than even that would suggest: two of those 6-foot-3 players, Bollin and Duke-finalist No. 13 Grace VanSlooten, who has Duke in her final few, are more wing than big, while Cary, N.C., native and consensus No. 50 Imani Lester picking Louisville over Duke leaves just five other uncommitted players in that group. And the Blue Devil coaches don’t appear to be recruiting some of the remaining bigs as much as Kennedy and Amanze. The program’s strong connection to each’s background should instill some confidence in getting a commitment from at least one, and at this point, Duke’s really going to need that to come through.
The Blue Devils came into the 2020-21 season weak at forward but with a lot of depth in the backcourt, and after all this spring’s transfers and commitments, that rotation is set to be even more competitive across the next couple seasons. So the deck may be stacked against a commitment from off-ball guard KK Bransford, who named Duke among their most recent finalists a couple months ago. Bransford, the No. 14 prospect recently said on Instagram live that she wouldn’t be going to Connecticut or Notre Dame. Duke also offered off-ball guard Ruby Whitehorn.
In a world where every current Blue Devil uses their extra year of eligibility, a top 2022 guard recruit would find herself in a backcourt of six five-stars for her underclassmen years. As such, if Rice does end up committing to Duke, that’s likely the end of the team’s chances with Bransford and Whitehorn, and perhaps vice versa.
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Which makes it all the more interesting that the Blue Devils have found themselves on yet another top guard’s final list. Talaysia Cooper, a 6-foot point guard from Turbeville, S.C., just released her final seven schools, and Duke was one of them. Cooper’s a riser in the class—she wasn’t ranked highly, if at all, a few months ago and the industry is quite split on her, with ESPN and All Star Girls Report ranking her in their top 20, but she sits just outside Blue Star and Prep Girls Hoop’s top 60.
It’s safe to say that the next couple months could truly go in any direction.