In a sport where over half the scheduled games are being canceled every day, it was inevitable that Duke would have to deal with COVID at some point. But Thursday night, it showed it still has to find a way to deal with absences from the rotation.
The Blue Devil roster started 9-1 in its first 10 games, including a win against then-No. 9 Iowa and a quality loss to No. 1 South Carolina. A 77-55 loss to Virginia Tech showed that there are still some things to figure out. With leading scorer Shayeann Day-Wilson out due to Duke's health and safety protocols (Imani Lewis and Emma Schmidt also missed the game), the Blue Devil offense had to shift its weight to other players, and the team’s scoring slogged.
"As we go through this year, kind of everybody's trying to do their best…. There's gonna be games you have people, and games you don't have people," said head coach Kara Lawson. "What I will never do is make an excuse."
Duke came into the season with a versatile roster, capable of playing a variety of styles and stretching defenses in different ways. It had shooting in the backcourt and frontcourt, handling across the roster, and passing at the point, wing and post. The one offensive skill the Blue Devils did not possess in abundance was off-the-dribble production. Sophomore point guard Vanessa de Jesus showed on-ball chops last year, but in only four games, three against weaker competition.
Through its first 10 games this season, Duke's best creator off the dribble was Day-Wilson, the freshman backup point guard. Big wing Elizabeth Balogun was the only other consistent on-ball creator, but she only ranks in the 52nd percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, per Synergy Sports. Combo guard Celeste Taylor had proven a good threat as well, though her handling reps came more within the flow of the offense than a deliberate two-player game.
The problem with such a limited array of on-ball offense is that it's not a skill that can be made up for. The famous quote from Moneyball, about recreating a player in the aggregate when you can't directly replace them, doesn't apply either. Because there's one basketball, and at the end of the shot clock, it's got to end up in one person's hands and they have to bend the game in the offense's favor.
Day-Wilson has bent many a game in Duke's favor, be it scoring 26 points on 82.3% true-shooting with four assists against Troy, or her second-half dramatics against No. 1 South Carolina. She fundamentally alters the gravity of the court, simultaneously pulling defenders in to mark her lethal pull-up three and forcing would-be help defense to stay home because of her laser kick-outs and dump-offs. Even without the ball in her hands, her 50% effective field goal percentage on spot-up shots (per Synergy) bends defense toward her. She may not be the true foundation of Duke's offense, but she has been its ace in the hole, the player it turns to for production when the game plan isn't cutting it.
With Day-Wilson off the court, though, the Blue Devils have no counters. Virginia Tech was quite familiar with that concept, and such a well-coached team was all too happy to force overtasked Blue Devils to fill her role: De Jesus, who is a PnR maestra but uncomfortable with high-volume shooting, was forced into a season-high 11 shots, making only four while pairing a career-low one assist with a career-high five turnovers; Miela Goodchild, a combo guard specializing in perimeter shooting, went 0-for-6 from two; Taylor shot 2-for-12 while forced into numerous late-clock situations. (Balogun was at least up to the task, tallying a season-high 22 points while scoring from every level.)
It was clear Day-Wilson's contributions were a keystone in maintaining Duke's offense. Taylor, who came into the contest ranking second on the team in scoring, third in assists, and first in rebounding while drawing 3.7 fouls per game, had only averaged 1.3 fouls per game to start the season. Lawson limited Taylor's time after she picked up two early fouls, and when Taylor came back after sitting 17 minutes, she missed her first six second-half attempts.
Duke's offense was shaky enough without Day-Wilson. Without Taylor's usual contributions, it crumbled.
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