Over spring and summer 2021, Duke welcomed six veteran transfers into the program. Though three are currently regular rotation players, one has established themself as the best player on a top-15 team: Celeste Taylor.
“Celeste—that’s an All-American,” Georgia Tech head coach Nell Fortner said Sunday after her team’s 65-47 loss to the Blue Devils. “She might be Player of the Year in the ACC, she’s just having a heck of a season. She’s just so quick, and crafty, can shoot the heck out of the ball. And she’s just an all-around really, really good player. And she’s using every bit of her ability right now.”
After a cold start to the game at McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta, Taylor exploded for nine points on 4-of-4 shooting in the third quarter, adding a pair of second-half assists and steals. She led No. 13 Duke (16-1, 6-0 in the ACC) in points, rebounds, assists and steals, the eighth time this season that she has led the team in scoring and the 10th time she has led in steals. The Yellow Jackets (9-9, 0-7) had no answer for Taylor on either end, especially as she pulled Duke ahead after halftime.
Coming into the second half, the Blue Devils trailed by one point, and had scored just five points after the second-quarter media timeout. But over the first six-plus minutes of the third, Duke went on a 15-4 run. Taylor scored nine of those 15 and smothered the Yellow Jackets’ offense with a pair of steals and a block. Before she checked out with a minute left in the quarter, she added a pair of assists to keep the Blue Devils’ lead at double digits.
“Celeste is one of the finest two-way players in the country. And she impacts winning: The plays that she makes have a direct influence on winning games. And that’s the highest compliment that I can give a player,” said Duke head coach Kara Lawson. “She is very intelligent on both ends … and then she has really explosive athleticism. So you couple that brain with explosive athleticism and, well, it’s hard. So she’s everywhere. And she gets deflections, out in transition, she finishes, she really leads our team in every way.”
“And I thought, in that third quarter, she willed us to that lead and I thought took over the game,” Lawson added
It was clear from her first day in Durham that Taylor was a premier defensive force. In her first ranked matchup as a Blue Devil, Taylor spent her time covering Iowa superstar Caitlin Clark, who shot 9-of-27 that night. Against No. 1 South Carolina, Taylor helped hold the starting Gamecock backcourt to 4-of-22 from the field. Taylor’s assignment against Penn was Kayla Padilla, a two-time First Team All-Ivy selection, who shot 7-of-20 for the game.
In an ACC full of standout guard defenders, Taylor has been one of the very best. And it’s a boon to everyone around her, too.
“Man, Celeste gives us confidence,” Duke senior Elizabeth Balogun said. “Like, ‘if Celeste go, we go.’ She gives us so much confidence. People don’t understand how much confidence she gives us. [If] she’s doing good on defense, you have no choice but to do good on defense. Because it’s just so contagious. … When you see her going hard, you just go. It’d be dumb not to play hard for her, because she’s going hard for everybody. So that’s just a player that is rare to even find in today’s game.”
Taylor’s status as an excellent guard defender was known before she got to Duke. When she left Texas, her defensive playmaking was as good as any guard in the country, but her offensive game wasn’t quite as skilled: in her sophomore season at Texas, she ranked in the 89th percentile among guards in usage rate, but in only the 29th percentile in true-shooting, per CBB Analytics.
But that was the old Taylor. Per Her Hoop Stats, the only players in the ACC this year running higher usage rates and true-shooting marks than Taylor are preseason ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley and National Player of the Year candidate Ta’Niya Latson. Her once-suspect jumper has improved each and every year, and this year she ranks in the 74th percentile in jump shot efficiency and in the 85th percentile in shooting off the dribble, per Synergy. A 3-point form that was once herky-jerky has gotten smoother, helping her to shoot nearly 40% on more than four threes per game.
Taylor’s improvement has paid dividends for both the Blue Devils and for Taylor herself. Duke was in dire need of more efficient shot-creation and spacing last year, and Taylor’s development has been one of the biggest reasons for the team’s offensive growth. And for Taylor, the improved jumper has been a major reason why The Next and ESPN project her as a first-round pick in the 2023 WNBA Draft.
“Celeste is just a consistent worker,” said Lawson. “And I think the game is starting to slow down for her—mentally. She still plays fast, so when I say ‘the game is starting to slow down,’ she’s not slowing down, but she’s seeing the game and making reads quicker. … I just think her poise has gone to a different level. She’s seeing things easier and quicker, and that’s enabling her to make more plays.”
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