Take of the week: Oluchi Okananwa's energy, production can help Duke women's basketball exceed expectations

Oluchi Okananwa leads Duke with 11.3 points per game.
Oluchi Okananwa leads Duke with 11.3 points per game.

Duke women’s basketball opened its regular season Nov. 6 against Richmond. Unsurprisingly, the Blue Devils cruised to a comfortable victory against the Spiders on the back of an outstanding performance by junior guard Reigan Richardson. As a surprise for the unassuming fan, however, one newcomer shined brightest with 22 points and a team-high 12 rebounds, all without fouling or even starting the contest.

That player, freshman guard Oluchi Okananwa, has continuously been a breath of fresh air for the Blue Devils in a season otherwise marked by growing pains and up-and-down performances. Duke is set to face the brunt of its ACC schedule during the coming weeks, headlined by top 25 teams like N.C. State and Florida State; however, Okananwa seems to be peaking just in time for the team’s toughest games.

The Boston native currently averages 11.3 points and 6.4 rebounds across 16 contests. Most impressively, this production has all come off the bench — Okananwa has not started a single game for Duke thus far. The freshman ranks first for the Blue Devils in points, rebounds, steals and 3-point percentage, all while playing just the fifth-highest amount of minutes for the team. 

Her per-minute production has led to strong advanced statistics; she ranks fourth in the ACC in Player Efficiency Rating (PER), a metric that combines positive and negative box score stats alike for a single-number statistic adjusting for minutes played. With high efficiency, it is abundantly clear that Okananwa impacts the game in a multitude of ways, especially with her scoring, rebounding and defensive abilities.

Okananwa’s relatively modest scoring average undersells several strong performances. Against Florida Gulf Coast Dec. 10, the freshman scored ten points in the second period alone to give Duke momentum heading into halftime and a comfortable win thereafter. Her 16-point performance was critical in the Dec. 31 contest against Boston College, an offense-heavy matchup that the Blue Devils only won by five. Most recently, Okananwa led Duke with 21 points in a blowout win against Georgia Tech Jan. 14, making all three of her attempts from behind the arc.

Okananwa’s aggressiveness in driving to the basket has granted her an outstanding free-throw rate relative to her size and minutes share; for example, she shot from the charity stripe an impressive 12 times against Coppin State Dec. 28. Her solid shooting percentages from the line and outside have made her arguably the Blue Devils’ most efficient scorer.

Despite her 5-foot-10 stature, which ranks around the middle of Duke’s roster, Okananwa has also garnered several strong rebounding efforts. The Boston native has nabbed at least nine boards in five contests, most recently against Georgia Tech. Her strong vertical combined with her energy off of the bench have led to the freshman leading Duke in rebounds with 103, 24 more than second-placed Kennedy Brown.

Okananwa’s drive and grit on offense has translated over to defense, where she has tremendously aided the unit. Her steal count of 31, good for tied-seventh in the conference, is indicative of the athleticism and tenacity that made her so touted for the Blue Devils in the first place. On a unit already noted for its defensive prowess, the freshman stands out as a fierce shot-contester and steal generator. 

All in all, Okananwa’s impact for the Blue Devils has earned a warm reception, especially from head coach Kara Lawson. Following the freshman’s 18-point, five-steal performance against Florida Gulf Coast, Lawson said “I’m so pleased with how [Okananwa’s] playing and what she’s contributing. You see the activity - rebounding, offensive rebounding… her pressure was disruptive on the ball.”

With how strong her play has been, will Okananwa get a chance to start for the Blue Devils? Her statistical profile implies she has played better than any other Blue Devil thus far, which includes fellow first-year Jadyn Donovan. Then again, basketball teams often look for certain players to provide a spark off the bench. It is also not as though Okananwa’s minutes have suffered, as she’s registered more playing time than Donovan who is a starter. Perhaps Lawson will look for increased time out of her star guard as opposed to a start — 21 points in 20 minutes versus Georgia Tech would certainly illicit the conversation.

Whether Okananwa remains the sixth woman for the Blue Devils or whether she assumes a starting role, one thing is clear: Her energy and production have provided Duke with ambition in a rebuilding season. With room to improve for the dynamic young player, do not be surprised if Duke women’s basketball makes noise in the ACC tournament come March.


Share and discuss “Take of the week: Oluchi Okananwa's energy, production can help Duke women's basketball exceed expectations” on social media.