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Duke women’s basketball works to rebuild "The Sisterhood" after big roster losses in the offseason

The women's basketball team waves to fans at 2023 Countdown to Craziness.
The women's basketball team waves to fans at 2023 Countdown to Craziness.

To put it mildly, this year’s Duke roster is very different compared to last year’s group. Incoming players outnumber returners six to five, and after a season-ending injury to senior point guard Vanessa de Jesus, only two of last year’s starters will be on the team again this year. Inevitably, the team dynamic has shifted dramatically. 

Leaders like guard Celeste Taylor and forward Elizabeth Balogun are gone, and it has forced the returners to step up. There will be limited time to ramp up with a challenging non-conference schedule that includes a scrimmage against the USA national basketball team and a matchup with preseason No. 6 South Carolina. Additionally, it is more than likely that at least one of the incoming freshmen will start, probably two. Forwards Delaney Thomas and Jordan Wood both looked strong in open practices, and combo player Jadyn Donovan has already made her five-star presence known. Oluchi Okananwa, one of the only true point guards on the team, might prove necessary as the only dedicated backup at the position. 

So how did this group get to a point like this? Why is this team so young, so new to college hoops? As it turns out, there was a substantial amount of personnel turnover in the offseason. 

The departed

The end to the 2022-23 season was a tumultuous one. The Blue Devils’ season ended at the NCAA round of 32, when Colorado came to Durham and beat Duke in overtime. The offseason was similarly chaotic.

First, there was the loss of the graduating class. Standout Balogun departed, along with other key pieces like flexible combo guard Taya Corosdale and forward Mia Heide. Balogun in particular was a major loss, given her ability to play some of the best defense in the nation and also make clutch shots in big moments.

Then, as the offseason rolled along, came the transfers. Some were bigger surprises than others. 

The departure of then-sophomore guard Shayeann Day-Wilson was not a huge shock. She had a rough sophomore season after winning ACC Freshman of the Year in her first year of college ball. She struggled down the stretch into the postseason, notably in the Colorado game where she dropped just four points on 1-for-9 shooting from the field. By the end of the season it was relatively clear that she needed a new environment. Day-Wilson will be looking to find that as she begins her third season at Miami. 

Redshirt junior guard Jordyn Oliver also jumped ship, which marked her second transfer in three years. Oliver likely was not getting the minutes she wanted under head coach Kara Lawson. She started just seven games and averaged 17.4 minutes on the floor. She will look to take a larger role on a Vanderbilt squad that went an abysmal 3-13 in the SEC. 

Of course, the biggest surprise of the offseason was the departure of senior guard Celeste Taylor. Originally predicted to enter the WNBA draft after her fourth season, she instead shocked fans and pundits alike by announcing her intent to return to the college game and play another year under Lawson. She had been the brightest star on the team, and arguably one of the best defensive players in college hoops her senior season. 

Just a few weeks later, however, the narrative shifted. After the story was initially broken by The Athletic’s Chantel Jennings, Taylor and a team spokesperson confirmed that due to “unforeseen circumstances,” the star would be using her graduate year at Ohio State instead. Circumstances around the transfer are unknown, although some theories have pointed to a connection with the departure of then-associate head coach Winston Gandy. Gandy worked closely with guards during his time in Durham, and his choice to leave for South Carolina may have been the deciding factor for Taylor. 

Other, less significant players transferred as well. Guard Lee Volker left for Marquette, and freshman forward Shay Bollin is at Illinois. Volker left the team midway through the season under mysterious circumstances, and Bollin had seen very limited action in her first year with the Blue Devils before her departure. 

As a result, there is a need for leadership. The jump to college basketball, and especially to the ACC, can be a grueling one for even the most talented newcomers. Lawson runs a tight ship with high expectations and an apparent willingness to bench just about anyone who underperforms, regardless of their star rating out of high school or stats last year. She laid out her mindset in terms of minutes at ACC Tipoff.

“There's a standard that you have to reach to be able to get in games, it's not just because you're on the team, you get in the game,” Lawson said. “And then when you get in the game, there's a certain standard that you have to play to to stay in the game. So as many players that play to that standard, they'll get minutes. Hopefully it’s more than four.”

With that in mind, let’s take a look at who has been stepping up for the Blue Devils as the season gets underway. 

The returners 

The most likely sources of the sort of vocal leadership that this young team needs will come from the returning starters, junior guard Reigan Richardson and senior center Kennedy Brown.

“Kennedy, Reigan, their voices are more prominent at practice. And that's what you would expect it to be because they understand what we're doing,” Lawson said. “They know the drills, they know the terminology, and just helping the younger players along as they're trying to nail down as much as they can.” 

The duo, who were both important pieces of one of the best defenses in the country last year, are now without anyone above them. It is Brown and Richardson at the top of the pecking order. Playing for a coach like Lawson, who is known for demanding near-perfection from her players, it will be up to the duo to be guiding forces in the locker room. They both know it, too. When asked about how they have stepped up coming into a new season with four incoming freshmen and two transfers, Brown and Richardson gave very similar responses. 

“I'm just expected to step up and be that leader that Coach [Lawson] needs for our team. I feel like I lead by example,” Richardson said. “If I step up and be that vocal leader for the team, I feel like we can impact the game.”

“We've got a lot of young faces, a lot of people who are new to this program. So really working on being a vocal leader and directing traffic when I can, helping people as much as I can, as often as I can,” Brown said. “So that's been a challenge for me, just using my voice more, and stepping up in that way, but definitely feeling more comfortable in that role this year.”

The other returners are combo guard Ashlon Jackson and guard Emma Koabel, each sophomores in their second year with the team. Neither started many games last year and Koabel did not see much action down the stretch, but both understand the importance of helping to introduce new players to the college game, and have expressed as much in preseason media days. Ultimately, with just four players returning, it will be an all-hands-on-deck effort from those who have even just been here a year or two to get the newbies up to speed. 

“Yeah, definitely having a lot of people leave this year, and having a younger team has made some of us have to step up a little bit earlier,” Koabel said. “But the freshmen are great. They listen, they do anything that's needed of them. And we just have to talk, talk, talk people through it, they help us too. It goes both ways.” 

The transfers

With that in mind, it is also true that others have been able to find their own roles as leaders. Graduate forward Camilla Emsbo, who transferred from Yale and is coming off an ACL tear, will provide a much-needed veteran presence for this team. Emsbo says her teammates jokingly call her “mom” and understands her importance to this team not only as an all-Ivy League center but as an experienced college basketball player.

“We have a really talented and young and athletic team. But they're young, and there's a lot they still need to learn. And so I'm really hoping that my experience in the NCAA, my experience as a college basketball player is able to translate over them,” said Emsbo during preseason media availability. “I can kind of ease some of those growing pains for them. Because I think they're all going to be impact players for us and I want to make that transition as easy as I can.”

The other transfer this year, sophomore point guard Taina Mair, has also been coming into her own as a leader. She brings inherent value not just in terms of her remarkable ability to distribute the ball and create shots, but also as someone who has seen the floor in the ACC already. Mair, a former Boston College Eagle, has played everyone on Duke’s in-conference schedule this year. Her experience against top teams like Florida State, Virginia Tech and Louisville will be immensely important. While Mair definitely has a lot to learn as she comes into her second year, she has plenty to give as well. 

“There are a few older girls, Kennedy and Camilla, they've played college basketball for some years,” said Mair at a preseason media availability. “So still learning from them, but also using my past experience to help the freshmen, also the sophomores.”

Looking ahead

This season is probably going to depend largely on the success of the freshmen, as they adapt to a quicker and stronger brand of college hoops. For this group to reach its full potential, the returning presences of Brown and Richardson will be key in guiding what is a very young team to success. Not only have they played in the ACC, but they have played for Lawson. The expectations are there not only in terms of winning, but also in terms of growth. This is a team that might struggle to adjust a little bit early on, but Lawson knows what she wants out of this group.

“We're gonna have to grow throughout the season as every team has to, but especially us with our youth this year,” Lawson said. “So it's trying to get better a little bit each day, and each week, and hopefully by the time the games start, we're able to put together efforts that result in wins.”


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