'I can't turn this down': How Duke women's basketball turned over its roster and became a contender

Jade Williams is the most experienced Blue Devil on this roster filled with offseason transfers.
Jade Williams is the most experienced Blue Devil on this roster filled with offseason transfers.

The 2020-21 Blue Devils essentially played with a seven-person rotation. Three of them were former five-star recruits, but altogether they combined for just one career all-conference honor.

In the months that followed that Duke team cancelling its season, the program added six former five-stars and a collective six all-conference awards. The 2021-22 Blue Devils now welcome more new faces than anyone in the ACC, yet are favored to make an appearance in the NCAA tournament.

Though the roster has undeniably turned out well, it’s safe to say this wasn’t some master plan from the Duke staff.

“All [the incoming transfers] had different timelines. It wasn't like one day, we found out about all of them. They all got in the portal different times,” head coach Kara Lawson said. “Some had shorter recruitments, some had longer ones. Each case was completely different. So we just recruited them hard, and we were fortunate that we were able to convince them to come to Duke."

Early entrant

Just a week after it cancelled its season, Duke received its first commitment: former Louisville wing Nyah Green.

Green committed to Duke just two weeks after first entering the transfer portal, and told The Chronicle last January that she transferred to Duke in large part to play wing and to play specifically for Lawson.

“Duke’s education, that stood out to me,” Green said. “And Kara, she's very even-keel, and that's the type of coach that I want. She's gonna have a growth type of environment that I need as a player to grow my game. And her knowledge of the game—just from talking to her, I know I'm gonna learn a lot from her.”

Green added that Duke’s Visual Arts and Media Studies degree was a major draw as well.

Portal party

Green’s entrance in January was not the norm, though.

“Obviously, I feel like [my transfer process] was a little bit different, because the portal was very full at the end of the season last season,” said Green. “I'm not sure exactly to what extent it was different.”

The real onslaught of players entering the transfer portal came in April and May, after the collegiate season ended and players nationwide had the opportunity to review the landscape and assess their options. In the end, the number of players transferring roughly doubled from each of the two prior offseasons.

Included in the thousand-plus DI entrants to the portal were six Blue Devils—first graduate students Mikayla Boykin, Sara Anastasieska and Jayda Adams, then sophomores Jennifer Ezeh, Jaida Patrick and Jada Claude

The replacements for those six came in quick succession; after the underclassmen entered the portal in March, Duke added six players in a span of 22 days—in order: Lexi Gordon, Celeste Taylor, Amaya Finklea-Guity, Imani Lewis, Jordyn Oliver and Elizabeth Balogun.

Critical considerations

Duke had a clear need for incoming talent—but the talent themselves didn’t necessarily need Duke. They had options across conferences, across the country, many in which they’d have less competition for playing time. With six teams among the preseason top-10 set to feature a transfer in their starting lineup, the players had their pick of the litter.

And they chose Duke.

“I wanted to go to a school where I know that the coach knows what she's doing, [and] I know that, in the end, winning is a part of the process,” Gordon said. “And I wanted to go somewhere where I could go out with a bang and be with a lot of amazing teammates. And also, the school part played a huge role, just being able to get my Master's degree from Duke is a once-in-a-lifetime, phenomenal experience. So I was like, ‘I can't turn this down. And I can't turn down playing for Kara Lawson.’”

Among those six transfers, all cited Lawson as a crucial reason they committed, with several also mentioning the coaching staff as a whole, and all but one specifically mentioned the value of a Duke degree.

“My decision [to] come here was more of definitely [about] Coach Kara, because she was starting a new crew, so I was just excited to join the crew and just start a new legacy with her,” said Balogun. “So that was the biggest part. And part of it was more education-wise, just to push me a little bit. Because Duke [is] a really high academic school, so it's just more to see what I could do, just push me a little bit, too, out of my comfort zone.”

“I've always been big on academics,” said Lewis. “Because coming out of high school, I was very big on academics, I was very intelligent, and I was very into school. I'm a nerd low-key. So I kind of knew, when I went to the portal, the academic schools—just because in high school, I was searching academic schools, because I knew I wanted to be high in academics. So I kind of knew a lot about Duke.”

Lewis had also reached out to a former AAU teammate of hers, former Blue Devil Azana Baines. And it'd seem that Baines, who played her freshman year at Duke in 2019-20 under former head coach Joanne P. McCallie before transferring to Virginia Tech, must’ve had good things to say.

Lewis wasn’t the only one to reach out to other players. Balogun had the luxury of having a former teammate at Duke in Green, and a current teammate as an alum in fellow Nigerian Olympian Oderah Chidom.

“I asked [Green] a lot of questions before I came here. I was like 'What is it like here? How is it like here?' She was saying a lot of good things, which sold me to come here,” said Balogun. “[Chidom] was like 'Duke is really fun, it's really challenging, so prepare yourself.' But she told me I’m going to love it here. She was part of the reason I came here, because she gave me good advice and she told me good things about the school. So I was really like 'Okay, I think this is where I need to be.' Especially I have some of my teammates on the same team so I was like 'oh, it's probably God!'” 

Not only did Green praise the University and the coaches in her advising Balogun, but they both expressed interest in playing together again. And though graduate student Jade Williams says she didn’t play a part in the fact that three of the transfers—Green, Gordon and Oliver—are fellow Texas natives, they definitely knew they were linking up to become Blue Devils.

“I knew Celeste coming in, I knew a lot of people,” said Gordon. “I think we all kind of connected more so after the process, but we were super excited to get here.”

Creating chemistry

While the Blue Devils are certainly more talented right now than they were a year ago, this kind of roster turnover has its challenges.

“Trying to integrate them playing together is a challenge [that] I think we all, as coaches, face: you get a team at the start of the season, you got to figure how to get them playing together,” Lawson said at the ACC preseason media day. “[We] don't have players that are juniors and seniors, or fifth-years in our system. So if you think about that, in college—typically in women's college—what you get is, you get that continuity. There's some programs here with four senior starters or three senior starters or two fifth-years. And so that continuity—it's not just that they have experience playing college basketball, it's continuity for the system. And that's something we lack. That's not something we're going to get between now and November. So we have to work as hard as we can to grow our continuity within the season and grow our chemistry with each other.”

Duke’s more cautious approach to COVID safety than other schools has meant the team has had to get more creative in fostering off-the-court chemistry through the roster. Many group activities were off-limits, and team outings were limited. 

But that hasn’t seemed to hurt the Blue Devils too much. Williams describes them “acclimat[ing] really well,” with cohesion being “very natural.” Watching movies together, spending downtime in common rooms with each other, or going out to be featured on their teammates’ food vlog have helped them bond. And so far, everyone seems to be elated by how they’ve come together.

“[We’re] just spending a lot of time with each other on and off the court,” said Finklea-Guity. “It's been really great, just because everybody's been really friendly, and really encouraging, and really supportive.”

“I think we really focused on getting to know each other more in the summer, and spending tons of time with each other,” said returning point guard Vanessa de Jesus. “And I think building that good foundation off the court can help you so much on the court. And I think we've done a really good job just getting to know each other and spending time with different people, and then just going from there.”

Whether—and if so, how quickly—those off-court bonds develop into on-court harmony is the final hurdle for the new-look Duke. It’s also the most consequential.

The on-court chemistry was still very much in the development stage during the Blue Devils’ exhibition last Thursday. Though they showed a lot of promise, miscommunications were constant and influenced the second-smallest margin of victory for an ACC contender in its exhibition this year.

“The good news is all the players that came in are coming from universities that they played good basketball at,” said Williams. “I think we're already coming together. I think we're in the process. It can't happen overnight, we still have to practice and talk and get to know each other. But in terms of being able to perform, I think that we have all of our pieces. It's just a matter of actually playing them together. It's going to take a little bit of time, of course; we're a brand-new team. But I think we have all the pieces that we need for that to happen.”

While Williams likes to say that “good basketball knows good basketball,” ironing everything out is a deliberate project, between both the players themselves and the coaching staff.

“We wanted a group of players that would be willing to come in and play together,” said Lawson. “I can't tell you who's been the leading scorer [in practice], because I don't even know who's been all those things. But they have shown this willingness to play together that makes me really optimistic about what we can be."

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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