Kennedy Brown was Duke's impact transfer last year. This time around, she's its defensive anchor — and leader

Senior Night was emotional at Cameron Indoor Stadium. In senior center Kennedy Brown, Duke honored its steadying presence in the post, an extension of head coach Kara Lawson, a leader who has quickly developed into a favorite of the staff and fans alike in her two years playing for the Blue Devils. 

While she may not have the flashiest stats every night in the box score due to her defensive emphasis, Brown’s presence down low is undeniable. She is an imposing anchor in the post and leads by example for one of the country’s premier defensive units. 

In her last year of eligibility, the center was tasked with taking on a new role: becoming a true leader both on and off the court for a rebuilding team after an eventful offseason. If there were any problems adjusting, one would have never been able to tell from the outside looking in. Brown handled a monumental roster change with grace, and now has her squad primed to make some noise in the NCAA tournament. 

Growing up

Coming up in Derby, Kan., Brown experimented with all sorts of sports. Following in the footsteps of her parents, who both hooped in college, she finally settled on basketball as she headed into high school. With the pair coaching her as she rose up through the high school ranks, Brown developed into a top national prospect in the nation, earning Kansas Gatorade Player of the Year honors and a spot on the McDonald’s All-American roster. She decided that Oregon State would be the best place to continue her career. 

“I credit that to my mom, she always told me defense is going to get you on the court,” Brown told The Chronicle. “I really focused on defense, rebounding and blocking shots, altering shots, whatever I could do just to stay out on the court.”

In Corvallis, Ore., the center was an instant impact player, earning a place as a starter from the opening day of the season and continuing to start every game that she played in. She averaged 6.3 points and 7.6 rebounds per contest in her rookie season while also climbing her way into fourth on the program’s freshman blocks leaderboard. 

However, in February of her rookie season, Brown tore her ACL. She missed the rest of the campaign and eventually all of her sophomore season as well. Back in the game for her third year — as a junior with an extra year of eligibility after receiving a medical redshirt — Brown averaged 7.9 points and 6.3 rebounds in 21 starts, but decided to enter the transfer portal in search of a new destination to finish out her college career. 

After filtering through the options and applying her personal criteria, Brown decided on Durham as her new home.

“[Duke] really respected what I was looking for and was honest with me throughout the whole process,” Brown said. “The vision coach Kara had for me, how she saw me fitting into her system ... was something that I really liked.”

First year

Coming into a new environment, Brown had to start from scratch. Lawson’s system was nowhere near what Brown was used to running with the Beavers, especially on the defensive end. With a team full of excellent defenders headlined by star guard Celeste Taylor, Brown had to get up to speed quickly if she wanted to hold up her end of the bargain. 

“It was kind of just breaking habits that I had learned at Oregon State, things that we would do differently there and reverting back to more of a natural defensive system for me,” Brown said.

Off the court, the center also had to build bonds with a whole new group of teammates. With a veteran-laden group like the one the Blue Devils sported last season, it was also a challenge for her to develop leadership skills right away.

“It was definitely a big adjustment for me. Coming in as a new player in this system last year, I wasn’t as vocal because I hadn’t been here,” Brown said. “It’s my first year, it’s like being a freshman, basically, for this team. And so I had a lot to learn in that way.”

Despite the learning curve, Brown had an excellent first year in the ACC, starting all 33 contests for Lawson’s squad and posting a stat line of 6.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game. The latter figure proved to be the center’s most impactful contribution to a team that had plenty of other scoring options. The Blue Devils ended the season as the clear best defensive unit in the conference, allowing a stingy 51 points per game. 

This performance led Duke to one of its best seasons in recent memory, finishing 26-7 in the regular season and earning a No. 3-seed in the NCAA tournament before ultimately getting upset in the second round by No. 6-seed Colorado. 

The offseason brought a boatload of departures from the program, including a surprise announcement from Taylor when she elected to depart for Ohio State. As a result, Brown and then-sophomore Reigan Richardson became the only healthy returners who had played meaningful minutes, leading to a shift in philosophy for Lawson and Brown alike.

Senior leadership

Rather than a complete overhaul through established players in the transfer portal, Lawson decided to go for a developmental approach to the 2023-24 season. She brought in six underclassmen, leaving Brown as one of the team’s elder statesmen. 

Unlike the year prior, there was simply no way for the senior to be able to sit back and let others take the reins in leadership, as the newbies were now counting on Brown to captain the ship moving forward. 

“This year, being one of the only vets, one of the only people who knew the system, what the standards were, what the expectations were — I definitely had to step up a lot to be more of a vocal leader,” Brown said.

Duke added Yale graduate transfer Camilla Emsbo in the portal over the offseason, who has been a perfect counterpart for Brown. Much like the other half of the duo, Emsbo excels at blocking shots, making the pair a combo punch when one needs to go sit on the bench. 

While the Blue Devils’ overall record may not be eye-catching, Brown’s impact should not be uncelebrated. Duke is a No. 7 seed in the tournament and pulled off multiple ranked upsets in its regular season. And after two years with the program, Brown’s leadership skills have reached full bloom.

The kicker? Should both the Blue Devils and the region’s No. 2 seed win, Brown and company will face off against Taylor.

“I think leadership is probably the biggest thing I’ve grown into this season,” she said. “As a center in our offense, it’s kind of up to me to make a decision and that’s something Kara has kind of trusted me in doing.”

After the inevitable end of the season, Brown will move on to a career in physical therapy, a path that was inspired by her experience rehabbing from her ACL tear. Duke, on the other hand, will be left with a 6-foot-6 hole.

In the meantime, though, the Blue Devils’ foes have to contend with a 6-foot-6 wall.


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