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It’s May, But Kara Lawson’s Rebuild Is Looking Solid

The transfer portal is speeding things up for Lawson’s overhaul at Duke

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 26 Stephen F Austin at Duke
Kara Lawson is pumping Duke women’s basketball up

It’s been almost 10 months since Kara Lawson replaced Joanne P. McCallie as the head coach of Duke’s women’s basketball team and there’s still a lot we don’t know about her.

Oh, Lawson’s playing career is well known, an All-American at Tennessee, a sterling 12-year career in the WNBA and a 2008 Olympic gold medal. Add a stint as an ESPN analyst and a pioneering role as an assistant coach for the Boston Celtics and we’re looking at a person with a pretty robust name-recognition profile.

But can she coach women’s college basketball?

Lawson answered questions last year about her coaching style with a blend of pragmatism, matched with more pragmatism. She told the media that her strategy would “change on a game-by-game-basis.”

She inherited a roster depleted by the graduation losses of Haley Gorecki and Leonna Odom and years of sub-par recruiting. Lawson coached Duke to three one-sided wins over outmatched low-major programs and a one-sided loss to a potent Louisville team in her ACC opener. Then Duke decided to shut down the season due to Covid-19.

Lawson arrived too late to get involved with the prep class of 2021. She signed Lee Volker, a guard from Virginia. Volker is considered a solid prospect but not the kind of player who’s going to make an immediate impact on a title team.

Which left the transfer market.

Lawson told her holdovers that she would be going after impact players and not all of the returnees would be guaranteed playing time.

Six took the hint and entered the transfer portal. All found landing spots but all at programs below Duke in the basketball pecking order. It sounds Darwinian but it also confirms Lawson’s assessment of much of her 2020-’21 roster.

For the record, the transfer losses and their new schools are Mikalya Boykin (Charlotte), Jaida Patrick (Columbia), Jennifer Ezeh (Missouri State), Jayda Adams (Cal-Irvine), Sara Anastasieska (Illinois) and Jada Claude (Gulf Coast State College).

Uchenna Nwoke will remain in school but not play basketball.

Lawson won’t have to start from scratch, of course. Jade Williams, Miela Goodchild, Onome Akinbode-James and Vanessa DeJesus will all return this fall and all four project to play, perhaps play a lot.

But they’ll have to beat out significantly upgraded talent to see the floor. Lawson brought in a whopping seven transfers, all of whom come from power conferences, four of whom were McDonald’s All-Americans, all top-40 recruits, proven players looking to win and win right now.

Here’s what Lawson said of the group as a collective.

“We wanted to be aggressive in going after players that fit how we want to play. There are a couple things that we value highly. One is versatility. The other is two-way players — players that can make an impact on both ends. All of these players can do that. When you’re building a team, you want to have as few weaknesses as possible. That’s the goal, to have the versatility and to have players that will compete on both ends adds a lot to our team next season. All of these players are motivated to win. We have a group that not only wants to win but wants to have success with other players. That type of team mentality was important when we talked to each of these players. To have that buy-in is critical. We are excited to get them on campus this summer.”

Nyah Green was the first transfer. She left Louisville at the semester break. The other six were spring recruits.

Green is a former McDonald’s All-American, a 6-1 wing. That’s about the same size as Imani Lewis (Wisconsin), Elizabeth Balogun (Louisville) and Lexie Gordon (Texas Tech). Celeste Taylor (Texas) is a bit shorter. Jordyn Oliver is a 5-10 point guard from Baylor, Amaya Finklea-Guity a 6-4 center from Syracuse.

Balogun, Oliver and Taylor are the other three McDonald’s All-Americans.

Space limitations preclude a deep dive into seven newcomers.

But there are some intriguing subplots.

Let’s look at Balogun. She was the 2019 ACC Freshman of the Year, averaging 14.6 points and 5.1 rebounds per game.

But that was at Georgia Tech. She transferred to Louisville and saw her playing time plummet. Balogun averaged a modest 5.8 points per game last season. And she’s never been a great shooter. She barely hit 40 percent from the field in 2019.

But she can defend, shut-down, in-your-face- defense, physical, even intimidating at times. Can she channel her 2019 dominance?

There’s always room for a defender.

Then there’s Lewis. She’s got wing size but a post presence. Lewis averaged 8.8 rebounds last season, to go along with 15 points per game. She was second-team All-Big 10. Not second-team All-Sunbelt or second-team All-Conference USA. Second-team All-Big 10.

And about those 8.8 rebounds per game. Since Gail Goestenkors took over in 1992 Duke has had exactly two players average more over a complete season; Elizabeth Williams averaged 9.0 in 2015, Azura Stevens 9.6 the following season.

Both were first-round WNBA draft picks.

All-American centers like Iciss Tillis and Alison Bales never averaged that many rebounds.

If Lewis can do that in the Big 10, she should be able to do that in the ACC.

Still, if we assume Volker’s time might come down the road and walk-on Jiselle Havas sits, we still have 11 players competing for 200 player minutes. It’s hard to believe Lawson is going to play 11 players 18 minutes per game and have that be the most rational allocation of resources.

Which suggests somebody is going to break out. Even the most balanced teams need stars. Remember Nolan Richardson and Arkansas’ “40 minutes of hell,” teams, fresh sub after fresh sub? Those teams still had stars like Todd Day or Corlis Williamson.

Does this team have a Corlis Williamson?

Well, it could be Jade Williams, who was playing the best basketball of her life when last season shut down. Whatever buttons she needed to have pushed, Lawson pushed them. Williams will be back as a grad student and there’s no reason the 6-5 Texan can’t seize the center spot. And Goodchild was averaging 15.3 points per game through the same stretch. She can shoot and there’s always room for a shooter.

But I’m really excited about Gordon’s game. She began her career at Connecticut before moving to Texas Tech. She averaged just under 16 points per game last season and shot 80 percent from the foul line, while hitting 47 3-pointers. And this was in a very good conference. She’ll be a grad student and she’s coming off a 10-15 season, experienced and motivated to win.

Or maybe Gordon will lose playing time to Green or Goodchild or Taylor. Practices promise to be competitive and that’s an understatement.

What can we infer about Lawson’s coaching style from all this?

Versatility, up-tempo offense and pressure defense should all be on the menu. When Green announced for Duke she cited Lawson’s “free-flowing” offense as an attraction and it’s safe to say that’s been a message with the newer transfers.

The ACC is going to be good next season; it usually is. NC State should be a top-5 team, Louisville a top-10 team. It’s not going to be easy for Lawson to find the right combinations, the right chemistry, to install her system and build on it with a roster of players getting to know her and each other.

But the trend lines for Duke women’s basketball are looking up, which is something we haven’t been able to say much recently.