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ChronChat: Predicting the 2021-22 Duke women's basketball season

Here's our beats' picks for how Duke will fare in the upcoming season.
Here's our beats' picks for how Duke will fare in the upcoming season.

Duke's season beings Tuesday, so what do our beats think about this upcoming year?

What do you think Duke’s record will be? 

Em Adler: 20-8 (12-6, 4th in the ACC)

When I picked Duke third in my ACC preseason poll, I figured I’d be the high-vote on it, and by a considerable margin. Apparently the atmosphere is more optimistic than I anticipated.

The reason I have hopes for this team is simple: it’s talented. Few teams in the conference are as talented as the Blue Devils, even though 60% of them have yet to play a regulation minute together. No other team in the ACC boasts a comparable volume of depth, and while Louisville and Virginia Tech could have an excellent top six or seven in their rotation, they aren’t as numerous or as malleable as the Blue Devils. Twelve conference wins is probably the high end for Duke—projecting there requires putting it on par with the Hokies and Georgia Tech and favoring it against Notre Dame and North Carolina. Whenever the team’s on-court chemistry clicks, the Blue Devils will likely be a top-4 team in the conference; especially with a front-loaded conference schedule, they could just as well end up 9-7 in the ACC with a strong finish. But come March, watch out.

Eric Gim: 20-8 (13-5, 3rd in the ACC)

The revamped Duke squad is deep and versatile. While many of the players are new to the program and head coach Kara Lawson hasn’t had a full season under her belt as Duke’s head coach, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Blue Devils surpass their No. 8 preseason ranking in the ACC. While there are concerns about chemistry and team instincts that are built by years of playing together—which the team especially lacks—the new additions are not new to the game. The many transfers who came to Durham are experienced upperclassmen who know how to play within a team and understand that working as a unit is the only way to achieve success. The focus of the program is not to build something for the future; no, the shared mentality is to win now. Thus, it may take some games in the beginning to get used to one another, but it may be the needed sacrifice to unlock the full potential of this talented team. 

Elena Karas: 19-9 (11-7, 5th in the ACC)

While the Duke squad is full of new and returning talent this season, I think that this year will be one of changing team inner workings and culture, resulting in an average performance on the court. Coming off of a coaching change and welcoming 10 new teammates to the family this year, the players will have to build relationships with each other and their coach from the ground up this season. This will not define their year, however. Athletes like Celeste Taylor and Jade Williams have the potential to serve as leaders and set the pace on the court, guiding Duke to secure wins over almost all non-conference competition and surpass their No. 8 preseason ranking in the ACC.

Andrew Long: 20-8 (12-6, 3rd in the ACC)

I think Duke will exceed expectations this year and make up for its foregone 2020-21 season, improving on its preseason No. 8 ranking in the ACC and picking up some high-profile wins along the way en route to a respectable third place in conference. The transfers the team has added this year in Louisville’s Elizabeth Balogun, Texas’ Celeste Taylor and Wisconsin’s Imani Lewis, among others, are experienced, capable and exciting and should complement existing stars like Vanessa de Jesus, Miela Goodchild and Jade Williams quite well. If Duke can find a fluid and balanced lineup, there’s serious depth and talent on this roster that may just lead to an impressive (full) debut season for Lawson and her Blue Devils.

Chinomnso Okechukwu: 20-8 (12-6, 4th in the ACC)

It is definitely an upgrade from what the Blue Devils had last season in terms of depth on the team. Hence, I expect them to exceed both the ACC coaches and Blue Ribbon Panel  expectations by climbing four spots into fourth position. It won’t be an easy season given that the players have not had an extended period of time to jell or create that chemistry. However, the star-studded names that Duke boasts in their roster should get them straight into the quarterfinals. A lot of results would have to be grinded out, resolve would be tested, but this team should have what it takes. 

Who will be the team MVP?

Em Adler: Celeste Taylor

Every good team needs a hard-nosed scorer and a relentless point-of-attack defender. For Duke, that player is Taylor. She already proved as much in the 2021 NCAA tournament, when she spent the better part of two games giving fits to first-team-all-conference-honorees Charisma Osborne, Ashley Owusu and Diamond Miller. She’s also a proficient downhill scorer, whose playmaking in that regard has continually improved. Her jumper may need work, but it’s fairly smooth; no other Blue Devil has both a higher floor and a more-achievable ceiling.

Andrew Long: Jade Williams

I’m going with Williams as MVP this season because we never really got a sustained look at what she’s capable of last year. She was projected as Duke’s standout performer leading into 2020-21, and as a senior and program veteran, she’ll be used by Lawson often for her experience and leadership this season. This should mean lots of game-time and the expectation to lead by example on and off the court, all of which contributes to elite performances not only on her end but on the team’s end too.

Who is Duke’s most underrated player?

Em Adler: Onome Akinbode-James

Lost in all the hype around the incoming transfers and Jade Williams’ elbow offense is Akinbode-James. A former top-100 recruit, Akinbode-James spent her first two years being miscast by head coach Joanne P. McCallie as an all-around big, spending some of her time at power forward alongside Williams, which meant defending the corner in McCallie’s 2-3 zone. She always had strong numbers in the paint on both ends, and frustrated preseason ACC Player of the Year Elissa Cunane in their most recent matchups; despite standing 6-foot-3, a full-time role at the five held untold riches. And this past Thursday, Akinbode-James was the first Duke big off the bench. Between Cunane, Virginia Tech's Elizabeth Kitley and Georgia Tech's Lorela Cubaj, she’ll have several opportunities to prove herself.

Eric Gim: Nyah Green

Nyah Green has the assets to become an offensive machine: she is tall for a guard, versatile from the outside, possesses smooth ball handling, and has improved shot-creating abilities. Yet, the former five-star prospect and ESPN’s 23rd-overall recruit in 2019 has been used in the frontcourt at Louisville, disrupting her flow as a true guard. With her playmaking mindset, it will be scary to see what Green can do in Lawson’s free-flowing approach especially as she transitions back to playing in her natural guard position. While the backcourt hype is centered on Vanessa de Jesus and Celeste Taylor, the former McDonald's All-American transferred to Duke looking to exceed the sky-high expectations she once had as a top recruit for the then preseason No. 5-ranked Louisville. 

Andrew Long: Day-Wilson

Amidst the hype surrounding the transfers and returning stars lies talented freshman point guard Shayeann Day-Wilson. The Toronto native was the No. 41 recruit in the class of 2021 and is widely regarded as Canada’s top point guard, having represented her country at the FIBA U19 World Cup earlier this year. The justified excitement around Vanessa de Jesus and Celeste Taylor at guard have let Day-Wilson somewhat slip under the radar, but she is a supremely talented player with international experience and time on her side. She has potential and she has the tools for an impressive breakthrough campaign should she be given the chance.

What will Duke’s best win be?

Em Adler: Virginia Tech

I said before that my record prediction required even odds against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. And while I think a Louisville win is quite possible, only one game against the Cardinals, on the road, doesn’t sound great to me. The Blue Devils play the Hokies and Yellow Jackets a combined three times, however. I’m not a fan of the way Georgia Tech and Duke match up, but much as I said last year, the Blue Devils have waves of good backcourt defenders to throw at All-ACC stars point guard Aisha Sheppard and center Elizabeth Kitley. The Hokies have added more punch to their backcourt offense, sure. But you know who else added to their backcourt? Duke.

With the latter of these teams’ two matchups coming at Cameron Indoor, and the Blue Devils only likely to jell more as the season goes on, give me a Duke victory in its Jan. 13 game. Either way, a showdown between the ACC’s most intriguing sideline play-callers is sure to be a good one.

Elena Karas: Notre Dame

Notre Dame is in a similar situation to Duke in that both teams had head coaching changes last season. Since the retirement of renowned coach Muffet McGraw, the Fighting Irish haven’t quite been able to find their groove, falling to No. 11-seed Clemson in the second round of the ACC tournament last season. While Notre Dame’s two transfer players Maya Dodson and Dara Mabrey put on an impressive performance in their exhibition game against Emporia State, scoring 24 and 12 respectively, Duke’s defense is strong enough to shut down certain players and force the ball into the hands of Notre Dame’s less frequent scorers. Maddy Westbeld, who led the Irish last season and is predicted for the All-ACC team by the Blue Ribbon Panel, will run into trouble when put against Duke’s talented transfers such as Elizabeth Balogun and Imani Lewis.

Andrew Long: Louisville

Maybe I’m going for the storyline here, but I’ll roll with it. Louisville is a powerhouse program that made last year’s Elite Eight, but I think Duke will surprise many with a narrow win away from home. The steal of Elizabeth Balogun could prove the difference against Louisville, as the Cardinals lost one of their best defensive forces that the Blue Devils now have on their side. It’s a big loss for Louisville and a big gain for Duke, and Lawson will be hoping to use this relative deficiency in the Cardinals’ roster to her, and the team’s, advantage. Though for Duke fans there’s nothing more satisfying than a commanding, convincing win against North Carolina, the Louisville game could prove to be the program’s most important win and the one that firmly cements them among the top teams in a very fluid, challenging conference.

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

Eric Gim: Vanessa de Jesus, Celeste Taylor, Elizabeth Balogun, Imani Lewis, Jade Williams

If Lawson is looking for depth, this lineup contains flashy offense and suffocating defense that can do everything from creating fast transitions to closing out games. In the backcourt, there are no questions about Vanessa de Jesus and Celeste Taylor running the plays. De Jesus possesses a veteran composure and vision that are necessary to lead the offense. As for Taylor, she has a strong basketball IQ who can read offenses and shift the tempo of the game with her signature midrange jump shots. In the frontcourt, seniors Elizabeth Balogun and Imani Lewis bring the experience necessary to close out games. Both veterans are elite, versatile two-way players who can give the team needed buckets and defensive stops when the game gets tight. As for the center position, Jade Williams needs no introduction. The 6-foot-5 graduate center will continue to dominate the pick-and-roll game and in cleaning the glass. 

Elena Karas: Vanessa de Jesus, Miela Goodchild, Celeste Taylor, Elizabeth Balogun, Jade Williams

I think Lawson will find her strongest lineup in a balanced group of returners and transfers. Goodchild, de Jesus and Williams have represented the Blue Devils before and can provide the court leadership needed for cohesive gameplay. Transfer Celeste Taylor was Texas’ second-highest scorer last season, and I believe that her ability to create opportunities for herself combined with de Jesus’s incredible court vision will be lethal on offense. Balogun’s defense will earn her a spot on the court throughout the season, especially since Lawson voiced her desire to improve defensively after their matchup against Wingate. 

Andrew Long: Vanessa de Jesus, Miela Goodchild, Elizabeth Balogun, Imani Lewis, Jade Williams

Though there’s no doubt Duke’s transfers are exciting and capable, there’s a value in program experience and I think Lawson will rely on that. De Jesus, Goodchild and Williams are all program returnees and are projected to be among the team’s top contributors, and I think the fact that Lawson has worked with them consistently for over a year bodes well for their chances at starting. In addition, Balogun provides a colossal defensive presence and Lewis a reliable close-scoring outlet, and their experience in well-performing teams (Louisville and Wisconsin) last year will be invaluable in adding real-game experience to this Blue Devil lineup. There are obviously other players that can and will contribute, but I think veteran presence and program know-how will prove crucial in jumpstarting the Lawson era.

Chinomnso Okechukwu: Vanessa de Jesus, Celeste Taylor, Elizabeth Balogun, Imani Lewis, Jade Williams

A recruit-heavy starting five, highlighted by Taylor, Lewis and Balogun, will be Duke's key to success. Taylor’s eye for the basket and de Jesus’ court vision will boast a lethal frontcourt while Balogun and Williams being present in the paint will provide the defensive armour needed. Guided by the experienced Lawson, it would be exciting to see how this team plays out with its combination of veteran presence and youthful energy. 

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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