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'The place for me': Graduate transfer Camilla Emsbo brings leadership, experience to Duke women's basketball

<p>Camilla Emsbo wins the tipoff at 2023 Countdown to Craziness.</p>

Camilla Emsbo wins the tipoff at 2023 Countdown to Craziness.

Camilla Emsbo sits down in a Duke-branded chair. It’s Oct. 19, 2023, Duke’s preseason media day —  almost exactly a year to the day when the Ivy League women’s basketball world was rocked with news of the former five-star recruit’s ACL injury. Five-hundred-and-sixty-eight miles south of Yale in her new home, hair pulled back into a long blonde ponytail, clad in a Duke-blue sweatshirt, Emsbo smiles. 

“It’s good to be here,” she says.

The road to Durham was certainly unexpected for Emsbo. It started in Lakewood, Colo., before taking her to Connecticut and Denmark. While she uses her last year of eligibility at Duke to pursue a master’s degree in global health, Emsbo’s grit, prowess and leadership qualities could be just the cure Duke needs to fill a void left by transfers who left the program at the end of last season.

“It’s so good to be on the floor. It’s a long time coming,” Emsbo said. “I’m just really grateful that I have this extra opportunity that I wasn’t expecting … to finish off my college career in a really happy way.”

Twin power

During her early years in Lakewood, Emsbo grabbed the attention of scouts starting in 2014, when, as a 6-foot-5 freshman varsity starter averaging one block per game, she ranked 11th in her class in the state of Colorado. With her towering stature and her impressive agility, few could challenge Emsbo physically — other than her identical twin sister Kira.

“Kira’s my biggest motivator,” Camilla told The Denver Post in 2018. “She doesn’t let me make excuses and she’s always pushing me … to have someone who knows you that well — and knows how to develop you in ways that most coaches and teammates don’t understand — I can’t express how valuable that is.”

The siblings pushed one another throughout their time at Lakewood High School, becoming a dynamic duo in the paint during their sophomore season. Camilla averaged 8.5 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, while Kira added 5.2 points and 4.0 rebounds of her own. The Tigers finished 21-5 and went on to win the 5A Jeffco Girls Basketball championship. Although teammates, the siblings used their competitive nature to fuel each other’s success.

“We’ve never played against each other in a game — the elbows [would] probably be flying,” Camilla joked to The Denver Post. 

Although injuries sidelined much of Kira’s junior and senior seasons, the twins’ bond helped Camilla have her breakout season senior year, where she averaged 18.1 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game. She earned national attention as a five-star ESPN recruit, ranked No. 50 in the nation and won the Gatorade Player of the Year for Colorado, all while maintaining a 4.83 GPA. Partnering with guards Jessica Woodhead and Hannah Renstrom, Emsbo led the Lakewood Tigers to win 23 games and finish second in the state.

“Kira and I realized what we were missing on our team from those first two years was really great chemistry. That’s something we dedicated ourselves toward as juniors and seniors.”

“Camilla enabled the team to grow … she wants everybody involved, and she’s great at creating a selfless culture even though she’s a star,” high school coach Chris Poisson told the Denver Post.  

Climbing the Ivy

Emsbo immediately made a splash at Yale, winning Ivy League Rookie of the Week seven times while averaging 11 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. She established herself as a center who can make plays with her back to the basket while also knocking down shots when left open.

When the pandemic shut down competition, the Ivy League canceled its 2021-22 season. Emsbo made the decision to take a gap year in Denmark, where thanks to her talents and father’s Danish nationality, she was given the opportunity to represent the country in the FIBA qualifiers. She also practiced with the professional Horsholm club team, but was unable to play in any of the games due to NCAA regulations.

“It was really an unexpected honor, I would say,” Emsbo told the Yale Daily News in 2020. “A lot of pressure and a really incredible experience.”

Her time in Europe playing against older, fiercer competition sharpened Emsbo’s game. She focused much more on honing her technical skills, specifically passing and off-ball movement. No longer able to out-muscle opponents with just her frame, she improved her athleticism, hustle and grit when fighting for rebounds. Although going abroad meant she sacrificed her chance to get an extra year of eligibility, the experience primed her for an Ivy League takeover. 

“I think there’s a lot better ball movement with and without the ball,” Emsbo said of her competition in Europe. “There’s a huge focus on … really the fundamentals.”

Emsbo returned to Yale on a mission, averaging 14.1 points per game on 51% shooting. She dominated on the glass, grabbing 3.2 offensive and 7.0 defensive rebounds per game. In just 26 games, Emsbo blocked 58 shots, proving her ability to make an impact on both ends of the floor. In a contest against Dartmouth her junior year, Emsbo scored her 1000th career collegiate point on a fast break in transition, solidifying herself as the 18th Bulldog to ever hit that margin. Thanks to a flourishing partnership with Yale guard Jenna Clark, expectations were high for Emsbo’s senior season with the Bulldogs. 

However, on October 18, 2022, the sun rose on a brisk morning in New Haven, Conn. Ivy League media day for women’s basketball was scheduled to begin at 11 a.m., and questions were swirling around the Yale basketball team. Just a week earlier, the program had announced that team captain and preseason favorite for Ivy League Player of the Year, Emsbo, would not participate in media day. The decision seemed to add credibility to the rumor of a season-ending injury that arose when The Next’s Jenn Hatfield reported that according to “a source familiar with the situation,” Emsbo was entering the transfer portal for the following season. However, exactly three hours before anyone could pose questions to Yale head coach Dalila Eshe, the team released a press statement confirming the worst: Emsbo would miss the entire 2022-23 season with a torn ACL.

Team mom

Emsbo knew the road back would be challenging, and considered a fantastic strength and conditioning staff as one of the priorities for her new home. Combined with the passion surrounding sports, the academic prowess and the high level of competition of the ACC, Emsbo made the choice to join the Blue Devils back in February. She also has a special place in her heart for the injury training staff.

“I could literally sing their praises for hours and hours — the Duke performance team is incredible,” Emsbo said at the team’s preseason media day. “Honestly, they’re a huge reason why I chose Duke … they really set themselves just miles above any other program that I talked to.” 

Although questions swirl surrounding exactly what her impact will be in game given the nature of recovering from such an extensive injury, Emsbo has already made a positive impact in Durham, personally mentoring freshmen Jadyn Donovan, Oluchi Okananwa, Delaney Thomas and Jordan Wood. So much so that the female freshman four have a new nickname for Emsbo:

“They call me mom,” Emsbo said at media day. “I really do feel like a proud mom.”

On Saturday, when Duke takes on Wingate in its first exhibition match of the season, Emsbo will get her first taste of action in 603 long days. For the Blue Devils’ motherly leader, the opportunity to re-establish herself as an elite ball player in this environment is one she feels extremely grateful for. 

“This really felt like the place for me,” Emsbo said. “And I made the right decision. I feel really good about it. Happy to be here.”


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