ChronChat: Predicting the 2023-24 Duke women's basketball season

<p>Head coach Kara Lawson is coming into her fourth season with one of the best recruiting classes in the country.&nbsp;</p>

Head coach Kara Lawson is coming into her fourth season with one of the best recruiting classes in the country. 

Ahead of the Blue Devils’ Monday season tipoff, The Chronicle’s beat writers are here to predict Duke’s record, team MVP, best win and more:

What do you think Duke’s record will be?

Caleb Dudley (18-11, 10-8, sixth in the ACC): 

This Duke team will not look anything like last year’s squad, except for a few returning faces. The program was faced with a mass exodus after its impressive 2022 campaign, but head coach Kara Lawson did a decent job of retooling the squad. The freshman class is promising, especially Jadyn Donovan, who projects to be a defensive nightmare from opening night. Add in transfers Taina Mair and Camilla Emsbo, and the Blue Devils have the making of a solid unit. However, the ACC is a tough conference, arguably the best in the country. I think Duke has neither the depth nor the star power to knock off any of the league’s top dogs, but it should be able to handle a large portion of the ACC if the defense looks anything similar to last season. I have Lawson’s team getting off to a roaring start, going 8-3 in nonconference play before getting slightly beat up in the ACC, dropping games to elite teams like Virginia Tech and Florida State, but handling all of the games it should be favored in, leading to a middle-of-the-road ACC finish. 

Lilah Gorfain: (20-9, 12-6, fourth in the ACC):

I’m currently in my optimistic era, so I’m going to slightly disagree with Caleb’s middle-of-the-road consensus. I think Duke’s record will look similar to that of last year, with a few extra bumps in the road as the Blue Devils find their new groove. Although Duke has lost many valuable players to the dark void of the transfer portal, the fresh faces on the team are not to be underestimated. Lawson has put together another forceful defensive team this year — a squad that seemed to have each other in a defensive lock at the start of their Countdown to Craziness scrimmage. But just like that night, the team needed time to get into their offensive groove, which is why I have the Blue Devils not completely up to par with last year’s performance. The big fish of women’s basketball will remain big, and Duke will end up losing out to teams like Florida State and South Carolina as they did last year. But overall, the Blue Devils will impress and end up finishing relatively high in the ACC table.

Garrett Spooner: (20-9, 11-7, seventh in the ACC):

There’s no doubt that this offseason was a tough one for the Blue Devils. Duke’s top two guards, Celeste Taylor and Shayeann Day-Wilson, both left the program, and another impact guard, Vanessa de Jesus, will miss the entirety of the season recovering from a knee injury. As a result, top freshman recruit Donovan will be thrown into the fire. With 10 active players on the roster, this Duke team will need consistent production from its starting five to compete in a tough ACC. To have sustained success, Lawson — known for her relentless defensive scheme — will need her roster to buy into her full-court press and transition offense game plan. At the end of the day, I see Duke struggling to compete against the stacked rosters at the upper-echelon of the ACC, such as Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Louisville. 

Brent Yoo: (19-10, 11-7, sixth in the ACC):

The transfer portal doomed the Blue Devils, and it will take longer than a season for them to recover completely. Duke lost its leading scorer and elite defender in Taylor and another fiery starter in Day-Wilson. The absence of these two key pieces, alongside Elizabeth Balogun, will take a noticeable toll on the team’s offensive firepower and veteran presence. 

At the same time, Lawson, the mastermind behind Duke’s suffocating defense, is still at the helm. And so are two big pieces from last season: Reigan Richardson and Kennedy Brown. Add some young talent to the squad, and the team will still hold its ground in a tough basketball conference. Though their season may not play out as well as it did last year, don’t be surprised if the Blue Devils still remain one of the better teams in the ACC. 

Franck Djidjeu: (18-11, 10-8, seventh in the ACC)

This season is in many ways a blank canvas for Duke. It is a far cry from last year’s team that boasted one of the nation’s most dominant defenses, propelling it to the peak of the ACC. That team was a product of the experience developed from the highs and lows of the 2021-22 season. Now, Lawson is back at square one and has to repaint this canvas into a team that can compete at the highest level. I don’t believe that will happen in one season, as this team, like the ones before them, will have to go through some growing pains. I anticipate some struggles on the road and a few dropped games that slip away from the Blue Devils. However, Lawson will keep them among the ACC’s best defenses, which may buy her squad some leeway as they develop in other areas.

Who will be the team MVP?

Jadyn Donovan: When evaluating team MVP, I’m not looking for who will have the best stats, I’m looking for who will impact winning in the greatest way, both on and off the box score. And off the early eye test, that is Donovan. The Washington, D.C., native is easily Duke’s most heralded player, and rightfully so. The former No. 3 recruit has looked the part in early practices and at Countdown to Craziness, showcasing her elite athleticism to slash towards the basket as well as pull down rebounds. But the freshman’s biggest impact from day one will likely be her defensive skill set, which slots in perfectly with Lawson’s style of play. The Sidwell Friends High School product will likely produce several steals and blocks from the jump, as well as being assigned to guard every team’s best player on the wing. With so many new faces, MVP will be hard to predict, but I think Donovan has as good of a chance as anyone. -Dudley

Taina Mair: Countdown to Craziness gave us a taste of the incoming talent this year with Donovan grabbing rebounds and bringing the ball down the court with ease, and graduate transfer Emsbo fortifying the team’s defensive power. There is a lot of talent to choose from, and I hesitate to pick one. However, I’ll highlight sophomore transfer Mair as an invaluable part of the team. Last year at Boston College, Mair was quite the forceful freshman, starting in all of the Eagles’ games, and racking up double-digit scoring in 19 games, more than any freshman in the country. During Countdown, the Boston native proved her offensive prowess, sinking a 3-pointer early into the scrimmage when Duke seemed to be struggling offensively — supplying the team with energy. Only the season will tell us who the team MVP will end up being, but Mair seems to have a good shot. -Gorfain

Who is Duke’s most underrated player?

Ashlon Jackson: Underrated isn’t the most accurate word to describe Ashlon Jackson, but perhaps needed will be a better fit. In her freshman season, Jackson struggled to find consistent playing time at 13.3 minutes per game. She has issues scoring the basketball, shooting just 31.5% from the field. Nonetheless, one would expect Jackson to see a significant uptick in her minutes and production as she returns to Durham for her second season. What will Jackson’s exact role be? I don’t know, and perhaps neither does Lawson. What we do know is that Jackson, a former five-star recruit, is a true scoring threat, and Duke will need her to contribute like one, especially with a tight rotation. -Spooner

Kennedy Brown: Often shadowed by the flair and prowess of the backcourt was Brown’s invaluable contribution to the team. As the team’s starting center, the Derby, Kan., native started all 33 games last season, averaging 6.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks. 

While she may not drain the same step-back 3-pointers as Day-Wilson or make the game-changing steals like Taylor, Brown is the backbone of this team. Not only is the senior center a competent finisher at the rim, but she is a juggernaut in the paint. Brown had two games with double-digit rebounds and logged a career-high five blocks against Virginia last season. In her first year at Duke, her heroics have often been overlooked. But regardless of how much attention she gets, Brown will continue to be the reliable big that complements the firepower of the backcourt. -Yoo

What will Duke’s best win be?

North Carolina, Feb. 11: Duke’s two regular-season losses against North Carolina tainted what would have been a near-flawless 2022-23 season. This time around, it may be time for the Blue Devils to level the score against the Tar Heels. North Carolina might have a deeper, more experienced team on paper, but it only takes one complete performance in front of the Cameron Crazies to send the Tar Heels back home with a loss.

This is not at all far-fetched. Duke excelled in front of a home crowd last season: Aside from the loss against North Carolina on senior day, the Blue Devils were undefeated at Cameron Indoor. Add the extra motivation of taking down their longtime rival, and Lawson’s team might have just what is needed to take the Tar Heels down at home. -Yoo

At Miami, Jan. 28: Although Duke beat Miami last year at home, those same Hurricanes flipped a switch come the NCAA tournament, making an Elite-Eight run as a No. 9-seed and only falling to the eventual national champion in LSU. If the Blue Devils can pull off a road win against a program coming off such a successful campaign, it would be a massive boost for the confidence of this young roster. Although Duke may not be able to compete at the level it did last year, neither may Miami. These two teams are similarly entering the season with revamped rosters. Both teams return only two starters and will need to heavily rely on production from transfers and freshmen to win big games. Interestingly enough, potentially the most notable roster addition in this matchup will be Day-Wilson, Duke’s standout starting guard that took her talents to Coral Gables, Fla. This is the opportunity for a bittersweet triumph against an ex-Blue Devil and a glimpse into a promising future. -Djidjeu

What will be Duke’s go-to lineup?

Mair, Richardson, Donovan, Thomas, Brown: Simply put, this is hard to pin down, largely because I don’t even think Lawson knows what the go-to lineup will be yet. Brown and Richardson seem like safe bets, as both players played major roles last season that should only increase this year. Mair also feels like a lock, as the Boston College transfer was brought in to run the offense and should play a large portion of minutes at the point guard position after leading the ACC in assists per game last season. The last two spots are more up for grabs, but I believe two freshmen in Donovan and Thomas will occupy them. It would be pretty odd if I didn’t think my team MVP would be in Lawson’s starting lineup, so Donovan was an easy choice. For the last spot, I went with Thomas, simply based off of positional need and what Lawson said in preseason. Although Donovan can likely guard positions one to four, her freshman counterpart should be able to hold down the power forward spot on both ends, with her consistency being a focal point of Lawson’s comments about the former No. 29 recruit. -Dudley

Mair, Richardson, Jackson, Donovan, Brown: Don’t get me wrong, this lineup is small. Donovan or Richardson playing the four is far from ideal; however, Lawson will benefit from having four players who can handle the ball, especially with her fast style of play. Mair, an All-ACC Freshman Team selection a year ago, averaged a team-high 36.7 minutes per game for Boston College. With the Eagles, she led the ACC in assists, carving a role for herself as one of the best point guards in the conference. Richardson, Jackson and Brown all return to the program following last season’s successful campaign, and all three are crucial as the Blue Devils look to run with the best in the country. If Countdown to Craziness was any indication, Donovan has the potential to be special in Duke blue. In the scrimmage, she was a stout defender with great vision and handle on the offensive end. Early in the season, I’d expect Lawson to experiment with multiple lineups in crunch time; however, look for this combination to start. -Spooner


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