By Jim Sumner, GoDuke.com
DURHAM, N.C.-- Joanne P. McCallie’s 12th Duke team will be one of her youngest. With Kyra Lambert out for the season following knee surgery, she has 13 players. Nine are under-classmen, five freshmen and four sophomores. Only her 2012 team—nine underclassmen on a 12-player roster—had a higher percentage of underclassmen.
No Duke player was named to either the coaches or media pre-season All-ACC squad and no current player has scored more points in a season than the 318 points junior forward Leaonna Odom scored last season.
So, it’s easy to see this as a rebuilding season.
But Duke doesn’t rebuild. It reloads. The Blue Devils are ranked 21st in the preseason AP poll, voted fifth in the ACC by the Blue Ribbon media panel.
Are these rankings a reward for decades of consistent excellence? Or an accurate reflection of Duke’s potential?
Duke does have some experienced talent, Odom and redshirt junior guard Haley Gorecki each capable of being elite players.
But no one expects them to lead a successful season without a talent infusion from the younger classes.
McCallie says she and her staff are spending lots of time teaching and patience is in high demand.
“Every day, you just push the team further and further, in terms of effort and consistency. This game is all about predictability, what you can do consistently. You need to play hard and give what you can give to the team.”
McCallie acknowledges that the coaches can’t do it all and she’s depending on some veteran leadership.
Enter Faith Suggs, a senior forward. Suggs has been a complementary player in her three years at Duke but she’s played 92 games in a Duke uniform, more than anyone else on the roster, and she’s an acknowledged leader.
“My freshman year I kind of stepped into a leadership role, because we had five freshmen and kind of had to figure it out ourselves,” said Suggs. “It was something that came natural to me but also was given to me through great role models. I’m happy to fill the shoes. I can be the glue on the court, keeping people together, picking people up.”
What is her message to the younger players?
“To play hard all the time and do the intangible things,” added Suggs. “We really love rebounding and defense. Kids come in and think they have to score, score, score and they don’t realize the way to get on the floor is to do the little things. Play hard all the time.”
McCallie adds that Duke needs consistent leadership from Suggs, grad-student Sofia Romo, even Lambert, still a vocal member of the team.
Jade Williams is one of the players receptive to learning. A 6-5 sophomore, Williams was a McDonald’s All-American and is a key component of this year’s team.
Williams showed promise last season, a 16-point, eight-rebound effort against Georgia Tech the most vivid example.
But she also had three scoreless games over the last four games of the season.
Williams says she’s learned her lessons.
“I didn’t know what I was doing most of the time,” commented Williams. “Coming in to college you have a lot of expectations, a lot of questions, it’s a lot of noise and you have to know how to focus on what you’re good at. If you’re good at A, B, and C, then make sure you do A, B and C every game. It’s really that simple. Just figure out what your A, B and C are.”
The early returns are promising. Duke defeated traditional D-2 power University of Alaska at Anchorage 75-54 in an exhibition. Williams had 17 points, six rebounds and two blocks.
Duke also played UAA last season and their coach, Ryan McCarthy, said her improvement was noticeable.
“I was most impressed with Jade Williams. I think she’s probably made the biggest improvement from when we saw her last year to this year. She really surprised me. I told the ladies if we were going to get beat, we were going to get beat by Jade Williams, it’s not going to be the All-American guards this time, and she beat us.”
But Williams is a sophomore, building on lessons learned last season. Can any of the current freshmen speed up the learning curve?
A couple of newcomers have a head start.
Miela Goodchild is a 5-10 combo guard from Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. Goodchild missed the UAA game and a closed scrimmage against Tennessee because she was in India, helping her native country win the bronze medal in the FIBA U18 Asian Championship.
Goodchild wasn’t just a role player. In fact, she led all scorers with 21 points in the third-place win over Korea.
This wasn’t her first international experience. She also represented Australia internationally in 2016 and 2017.
“I think my experience playing international has helped me,” said Goodchild. “But it’s definitely an adjustment. The whole team is welcoming. If you miss something, they’ll help you pick it up, the little details. It’s definitely a faster pace here; the speed of the game, especially getting back on defense.”
“She can play. She’s very heady, very intense. Her international experience shows in that she plays hard all the time. She’s more like a sophomore.”
McCallie says the same thing about mobile 6-3 freshman forward Onome Akinbode-James. A native of Abeokuta, Nigeria, she represented Nigeria in the 2015 U16 Afrobasket championship. She also left her native country to attend high school in New Jersey.
“I’ve been away from home a long time,” added Akinbode-James. “I try my best to give it my hardest, whenever I can. Ideally, I’m just a player. But I need to brush up my ball-handling skills, my outside shooting to call myself a one or a two.”
McCallie sees Akinbode-James as an early difference maker.
“She can run and play so hard. Such an offensive rebounder. Aggressive, physical. Usually, you don’t have first-years like that.”
McCarthy was likewise impressed.
“She was a player that hurt us from the high post. She’s got a nice touch from the perimeter. I really like her athleticism. She’s unbelievable. She’s a very good player. She’s an elite athlete with great touch and that’s only going to get better because you can’t teach touch.”
Akinbode-James had 11 points and 11 rebounds, making 4-of-5 from the field.
McCallie says she wants Akinbode-James to shoot more, both an endorsement of her potential and a recognition that she still at the low end of a learning curve involving being in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing.
As is Mikayla Boykin, Duke’s wildcard. Boykin played 10 games last year before suffering a season-ending knee injury. She was granted a medical hardship and suits up as a redshirt freshman.
Boykin will suit up, hopefully as early as December. She is a strong, athletic guard who averaged almost 38 points per game as a high-school senior in Clinton, North Carolina.
But she ‘s still only played 10 games.
McCallie says Duke needs to get Boykin back and Goodchild up to speed before the team can start to realize its potential.
“I see good improvement. I think we are so far from March. I can’t even begin to describe that for you, simply because it is November. Mikayla is coming back. We’ll have to fold her in. We were playing without Miela again. We have two players missing completely, both of which handle the basketball. Until we get them factored into a nice rotation, we won’t know how good we can be. That will build our depth and, more importantly, our point guard depth. I would say we are a long way away. We are just a work in progress.”
There’s that word. Work. Add teaching and learning and growth and you have a road map for 2019 success.