By Steve Barnes, GoDuke The Magazine
DURHAM, N.C.-- Some programs recruit highly-rated high school players then wonder why they don't develop. Others have a hard time convincing the cream of the crop to commit to a building program in the first place. A third group can attract top-notch talent then have it depart a year or two down the road because of dissatisfaction over playing time, homesickness or inter-team personality issues.
So far none of the above scenarios has affected the five players who made up the highest rated women's basketball recruiting class in the country three years ago. In fact, the opposite has happened. Duke's Chelsea Gray, Richa Jackson, Tricia Liston, Haley Peters and Chloe Wells have cast the hype aside and melded their considerable individual talents to form the core of what they all hope is a Final Four team this spring, after knocking on the door as regional finalists the past two years.
"We just want to win," said Peters. "The five of us get along really well off the floor and that's helped us during games. We've come to know and trust each other much better on the floor and hopefully that will pay off at the end of the year."
All five brought different skills to Duke when they arrived in the summer of 2010. That probably sped up the comfort process because it was apparent that each could contribute without competing within the group for playing time at the same spot.
All five have also developed other parts of their game during the past two years to make themselves better and help the team to more success.
"It's been very gratifying for us as a coaching staff to see all of them grow as people and develop as players," said Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie. "We knew the ability was there coming in and they've done a great job of understanding what it takes to be a successful team. They are beginning to understand that they have to focus on getting better today (every day) because tomorrow is not promised. Along with Allie (lone senior Vernerey) they've done a much better job of conveying that to the younger players. It's becoming about US as a team, which is what it needs to be every day, game or practice."
Here's a closer look at Duke's version of the Fab Five.
The flashy passer from central California who inspires gasps of delight from the home crowd now was almost as likely to bean an unsuspecting Blue Devil in the noggin with a no-look laser when she first arrived. Three hundred-plus assists later, her teammates have figured it out.
"I try to keep my hands up and ready all the time on offense," said Peters. Chelsea will find me if she thinks I'm open."
Gray began this season fully healthy for the first time at Duke after a variety of nagging leg injuries, ready to put her full game on display.
"She's like Magic Johnson out there now," said McCallie. "She is the best passer in the country, male or female, and she sees the floor better than any guard in America. She uses that vision to create scoring opportunities for herself as well as her teammates. We don't want her to be pass-only. She needs to score as well to open the floor for everyone else."
Gray's numbers have improved in every category since her arrival and her defense has improved as well.
"She's able to go harder longer thanks to her improved health," said McCallie. "All-Americans play hard every possession in games or practice. She's headed in that direction."
The Oklahoma native's 2012 season ended at exactly the wrong time. She had earned a starting spot in early December and responded with 11 double-figure scoring games, including a double-double (11-11) at Wake Forest. She was also giving the Blue Devils strong rebounding and defense, using her rugged style and bulky frame to bang inside, but at the same time, using her deceptive quickness and agility to guard the perimeter.
All that came to a crashing halt eight minutes into the Feb. 15 game at Cameron against Virginia Tech when Jackson tore the ACL in her left knee.
After surgery and rehab that spanned spring, summer and fall, Jackson is fully recovered and ready to go.
"My teammates were huge in helping me stay positive," said Jackson. "I had never been out for so long before, so I had some rough days. All of them encouraged me and told me to keep working hard in rehab, and it made a big difference."
She, her fellow juniors and her coach used the same word to describe her game.
"Richa is a slasher," said Liston. "She's very physical and uses her body to attack aggressively, especially on defense. She's hard for the other team to match up with."
Known primarily for her dead-eye outside shooting while in high school in suburban Chicago, she now turns down the three for a drive to the basket. Because of her size and bulk, that often results in an old-fashioned three-point play - a layup and a free throw. She finished second in the ACC------ while hitting 86.7 percent of her foul shots last season. She also led the league by making 46 percent of her three-pointers. Like the others, being in better shape has led to better defense and more rebounds.
"Her fundamentals were outstanding when she got here," said McCallie. "We knew she had huge potential to use her size to be a better rebounding guard and to defend better. She committed to getting in better shape and it's paid off. Now she can play four of the five positions on the floor."
Her money position is still shooting guard. Her 85 three-pointers entering the season are the most of any Duke player's first two years. Her 80.8 free throw percentage is fourth on Duke's career list. However, her next goal is a simple one.
"I'd just like to see all five of us healthy and out there at the same time," she said. "We've all grown into the leadership role and it's all gone by so quickly. It will be neat to see the results when we're all ready to play."
The Red Bank, N.J., native brought her intensity to North Carolina two summers ago, but it took her until recently to learn to channel it in positive ways to help her team.
"I have always tried to play my hardest and do what's best for the team," she said. "But now I realize that I have to stay composed and fairly calm when things don't go my way on the floor because my team needs me to focus on being productive. I want my team to rely on me and I've always been impatient to lead. I need to keep my energy on the positive side to make that happen."
Peters joined Gray in the starting lineup every game last season and her numbers were up in every category. However, she knows that rebounding will be more important than ever this year. Peters grabbed 18 rebounds in the first exhibition game against Shaw University and followed up with 21 in the second against Queens College.
"That's the area where she can really help us," said McCallie. "Haley is a fierce competitor, but she's always beaten herself up. She accepts imperfection now and responds better to mistakes. She's versatile offensively and has developed her entire game."
The scrappy backcourt player from Southern California was the first freshman under McCallie at Duke to start her first college game. It's been up and down since. Wells earned a spot in the starting lineup for the first 10 games last season before missing the second semester for a violation of university policy. While away from the team she overdid it in workouts, which caused problems with both shins. She returned to action in December.
"I'm proud of her for owning up to her mistake," said McCallie. "I wish she hadn't worked out so hard without us supervising her, but that's what happened. The team has moved on without her, so she will come off the bench initially. She will help us on defense for sure and her scoring will be a bonus."
"She's like a gnat on defense," said Peters. "She's pesky and right in her opponent's jersey. She's also very vocal and demanding on the court. We always know where she's coming from."
Two years have flown past for the deepest recruiting class in program history. All involved think the best is yet to come.
"All of them are exponentially better than when they got here," said McCallie. "They are poised to do special things."