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Kara Lawson Gets Her Duke Program Officially Started

Sounds like she’s pushing hard but intelligently.

NBA Restart 2020 - All-Access
ORLANDO, FL - JULY 11: Assistant Coach Kara Lawson of the Boston Celtics at the hotel as part of the NBA Restart 2020 on July 11, 2020 in Orlando, Florida.
Photo by Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images

Kara Lawson says she’s “patiently impatient.”

Isn’t that the most 2020 thing ever?

But Lawson was trying to make a point. Her first Duke women’s basketball program had its first practice Wednesday and she and her players are still in the getting-to-know-you phase. She still doesn’t know how hard she can push them, how much information that can retain and learn from. They’re figuring it out day by day, practice by practice.

Lawson followed that first practice with a Zoom media meeting that made clear that the transition from Joanne P. McCallie to Kara Lawson is still on-going.

“A solid first session,” she summed up, “a continuation of what we’ve been teaching throughout the preseason. I think our players have done a great job of trying to pick up as quickly as possible what we’re trying to teach them, to just really try and understand those concepts and work hard to make reads and finish the way we want them do.”

Note the use of the word “try.”

Duke only had two players average more than 7.3 points per game last season and both Haley Gorecki and Leaonna Odom graduated and went to the pros. Glue-gal Kyra Lambert elected to use her sixth year back home at Texas, while promising wing Azana Baines transferred to Virginia Tech after her freshman season.

And Duke brought in a single freshman, guard Vanessa DeJesus, a solid recruit but not a program changer.

Duke also added Sara Anastasieska, a grad-student transfer from California. She’s 5-11 and averaged 7.8 points per game last season. But she did score 25 points against UConn.

Still, a rebuilding season in any context but even more so with a new coach, a new staff and the uncertainties of a global pandemic.

How will Duke climb back to national relevance?

The word “teacher” comes up often when discussing Lawson and she sounds like it.

“The first few weeks we’re trying to install as much as much as we can, trying to put in your system, put in your offenses and defenses. Making sure the players have a good understanding for it, a feel for it, they understand the terminology of it and then we can start stacking more of our installations one after another.”

She says she’s looked at film from last season but is relying more on what she’s seeing in person.

“That’s really more indicative of what they can or can’t do because sometimes a system can dictate what they’re allowed to do in it and maybe they’re allowed to do more or maybe they can’t do more until you get them on the court.”

What will the end result look like?

“I’m kind of greedy. I’d like to be solid on both ends. I’d like to be a solid defensive team. I’d like to be a solid offensive team. A lot of this is still being figured out because you have to see what works with your players as you get into practice. That will be an on-going process with us in our first year, as we’re trying to, as best we can, accentuate the strengths of our players.”

“We don’t want to foul. We don’t want to put teams on the free-throw line, give away free points. We want to be able to challenge without fouling. On the offensive end we don’t want to turn it over. We don’t want to give away free points that way. I’m sure we’ll play some man, I’m sure we’ll play some zone, we’ll run different types of sets. We don’t want be locked in. We’ll find out which ones work with our team and go from there.”

Whatever Duke does it’s going to work best if guard Mikalya Boykin is on the court. Boykin checks more boxes than anyone else on the team.

Lawson praised Boykin’s ”high-level skill, high-level basketball IQ. We’re definitely a more settled team when Mikalya is out on the floor because she’s very confident, she has a good understanding of what we’re trying to do and she also has the skill to be able to execute what we’re trying to do.”

Lawson will need more from senior post Jade Williams if Duke is going to compete at a high-level. Williams is 6-5, a McDonald’s All-American who averaged only 7.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game last season in over 28 minutes per game, alternating dominant games with games in which she barely made an impact.

Lawson says it begins in practice.

“It’s one thing to have a great game one night and it’s another thing to follow up with another great game. What we focus on with all of our players is consistency in terms of their efforts and their focus. I feel like if those two things are aligned they are going to have a great chance to be consistent. It’s all a work in progress. She’s had some really good days and she’s had some days when I thought she could have been better. We’re trying to limit the number of days when you haven’t performed as well as you could.”

Lawson hasn’t made any rash promises, hasn’t made any public boasts. She did note that she and her staff were able to “hit the ground running” on recruiting and that’s “working out pretty well . . . getting our message out there.”

That message is teaching, hard work and something else.

“The most important thing with my players is relationships.”