Duke's Azurá Stevens becoming a big riddle for opponents

Duke sophomore Azurá Stevens, a 6-foot-6 forward/guard, is averaging 19.3 points, 10 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. Andy Mead/Icon Sportswire

DURHAM, N.C. -- Few basketball players see the court quite like Azurá Stevens, but many younger siblings can identify with her lifelong plight in games of one-on-one against an older sibling. No matter how much she grew or her skills developed, her older sister stayed one step ahead of her with that maddening back-you-down, pump-fake craftiness that seems a birthright of those born first.

"To this day she still can't beat me," said Da'Shena Stevens, a former All-Big East forward and current assistant coach at St. John's who is 6 years older and 5 inches shorter than her half-sister. "But when she started blocking my shot, that's when I said, 'Uh-oh, I might have a problem here.' It probably started when she was like a sophomore in high school and she just got long out of nowhere.

"From a basketball perspective, that was when it started to get interesting. She sprouted up and just became this versatile, long, athletic player."

The day when it's Azurá who can't be solved might be near. And not just against Da'Shena.

In an ACC perhaps more open at the top of the table than in recent seasons, thanks to Notre Dame's personnel losses and Louisville's scoreboard losses, Duke's Stevens has a leading role here and now. As the Blue Devils travel to unbeaten SEC foe Kentucky (SEC Network, 4 p.m. ET Sunday), she is the single biggest reason, figuratively and literally at a listed height of 6 feet, 6 inches, to believe Duke can improve on last season's mixed results and be a factor come March. That much is evident in averages of 19.3 points, 10 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game.

"There are no limits to Azurá ... She can look to others, like an Elena Delle Donne or a Candace Parker, but still I think she's pretty unique in her own right." Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie on Azurá Stevens

Pair her and Rebecca Greenwell with freshman point guard Angela Salvadores at a position that has been its undoing in recent years, and Duke's present once again intrigues.

Just not as much as what the future holds for Stevens. As much as any player in the nation, she stands at a fork in the road, not between success and failure but success and stardom.

A small number of her peers followed the latter path. Most never even reached the fork.

"I know she's got great stats in terms of stats the way people see them on a game-by-game basis, but she's capable of so much more," Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "It's a mind boggle. Whether it's blocks, rebounds, points, assists, she really can play that ultimate game, on both sides of the ball and inside and out. And there's just very few players that can do that."

It is lineage that makes Stevens stand out, although despite her family ties, that is only figurative in this instance. While not the sole descendant among college underclassmen, she appears to come from the same basketball family tree that begat Candace Parker, then Elena Delle Donne and now Breanna Stewart. Someone Stevens' size isn't supposed to move as comfortably as she can with the ball in her hand. She isn't supposed to have a soft shooting touch and the range to torment opponents from the 3-point line.

Much of that came from her dad, who stressed ballhandling and other all-court skills at an early age, as well as the youth coaches who didn't plant her in the post to prioritize short-term results over long-term development. But she also watched Parker and Delle Donne, saw players who looked like her doing things that those body types didn't even a decade or two earlier.

"There are no limits for Azurá," McCallie said. "She's a very unique player. She can look to others, like an Elena Delle Donne or a Candace Parker, but still I think she's pretty unique in her own right. ...

"She's just really getting started."

That means coming to terms with those skills.

Players are loath to differentiate their experiences from those of teammates, to break the code that supposes all are equals. But a roster isn't a collection of equals. Of some, more is asked.

As a freshman at St. John's, Da'Shena started 31 games, led the team in rebounding and finished second in scoring to a senior. She might not have been the sole star the following season, not on a roster that included Shenneika Smith and Nadirah McKenith, but like her sister, she proved she would have a lot to do with the team's success. And she understood what came with that, the different level of responsibility.

"Whether it's blocks, rebounds, points, assists, she really can play that ultimate game, on both sides of the ball and inside and out. And there's just very few players that can do that." Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie on Azurá Stevens

Duke doesn't lack for talent up and down its roster, but especially without former Duke center Elizabeth Williams around, Azurá can no longer be the supporting actor who steals the scene with a few bon mots. She's now the lead.

"It's kind of mirror to my situation because now she's a sophomore, and she knows what she can do," Da'Shena said. "... When she was a freshman, no one knew Azurá, really. But now everybody knows her and knows what she can do and to look out for her. I tell her now she's got to play every game, she's got to bring it every game because the team needs her. I think she knows that. As she continues to grow as a player, I think she's going to be more comfortable with that role."

In its own way, one more turn in a supporting roles might prove useful. Stevens spent part of the summer competing with the team that represented the United States in the FIBA Under-19 World Championship. She started each of the team's seven games en route to a gold medal, ranked third in points and showed off her 3-point touch, but South Carolina's A'ja Wilson was the star who scored 30 points in the final and carried both the pressure and privilege of that role.

"I would say USA was probably the most humbling," Stevens said of what has been an almost unending string of successes on the court. "Although I made the team and stuff, it still was like an everyday type of thing. You had to bring your game every day. It made me think of basketball more as -- not a work approach but just how serious the game was when I was with the team. And I loved every minute of it, just how much I learned from there."

Wilson again claimed the accolades when South Carolina beat Duke this season. She is the rare player with physical skills equal to her counterpart, which meant Stevens couldn't just shoot over the 6-foot-5 frame in front of her. Stevens didn't feel she adjusted well, didn't use her other skills and instead played the game on Wilson's terms. That can't happen to the star of a championship contender. The learning process continues.

She is already better than most. She has the potential to be better than all.

"Just having power to her game," McCallie said of the next step in development. "Being very, very aggressive and having power -- power to handle the ball when people are beating up on her, power to make the pass she needs to, power to put it up. And also the ultimate confidence to just drain those 3s because often she can't be guarded on the perimeter."

The most recent of the one-on-one games between Azurá and Da'Shena took place this past summer. It actually began as a three-person game with another sister, but the two familiar foes quickly dispatched the other sibling and got down to business.

Azurá didn't dispute overall bragging rights, but she didn't quite confirm Da'Shena's claim of total dominance.

"She normally gets the best of me," Azurá said. "But I've gotten her a couple of times."

Anyone who wants to get the best of her might want to hurry up. Such opportunities are waning.