There are more than 20 former Duke players on WNBA rosters and several dozen more playing internationally.
In 2006 and 2011, the school had three draft selections. Senior Oderah Chidom became the latest Blue Devils pick when the Atlanta Dream drafted her in the third round in April.
Duke’s presence in the league is solid, and we caught up with a few of those players as the new season unfolds.
Guard-forward, Los Angeles Sparks
5-11, 160 pounds
Draft: 2004 1st round (2nd overall by Washington Mystics)
At Duke: 2000-04
Alana Beard couldn’t describe how much the ending of the Sparks’ championship last season meant to her.
Beard has spent 11 seasons in the WNBA, and the guard has suffered several injuries that could have ended her career.
So the first thing she did after L.A. beat the Minnesota Lynx in Game 5 last October was scan the crowd for her mother. Just as Beard experienced setbacks, so did her family.
“(My mom) came down out of the stands, and I’m getting chills talking about it because the way that she released,” Beard said, “the sound that she made was of relief.”
Beard was sidelined two straight seasons with the Washington Mystics, the team that drafted her out of Duke in 2004, due to respective ankle and foot injuries. She missed part of the season with the L.A. Sparks to a heel injury in 2015, the year before the Sparks won the championship.
A three-time ACC player during her run at Duke in the early 2000s, Beard averaged 7.1 points and 3.3 rebounds for the Sparks last season.
She hit the game-winner in Game 1 of her first Finals appearance, when the Sparks went on to win the title for the first time since 2002.
Beard, who was coming off an injury when she signed with the Sparks in 2012, said no one watched her work out before the offer to come to L.A.
“That says a lot about my character and my reputation around the league that they trusted me enough to know that I could be a legitimate player still,” said Beard, a four-time All-Star. “I have a work ethic that is unmatched. I will never be outworked.”
Once there was a time when life revolved around basketball for Beard, but she’s realized the sport is only a small fraction of her life.
The self-proclaimed foodie enjoys the beaches and restaurants in L.A. She recently became a co-owner of a Mellow Mushroom in Roanoke, Va.
“The second thing I’m passionate outside of basketball is franchising,” said Beard, who turned 35 on May 14, a day after this year’s season-opener. “That’s my plan when I’m done with basketball, to develop a franchise portfolio.”
Forward, San Antonio Stars
6-0, 173 pounds
Draft: 2006 1st round (third overall by Charlotte Sting)
At Duke: 2001-06
Monique Currie understands the value of her position in the WNBA – and that’s beyond being an 11-year veteran forward who’s now with the San Antonio Stars.
She knows she could easily not be in the league at all.
Currie, who wrapped up her playing career at Duke in 2006 before becoming the third overall pick in that year’s WNBA draft, has always been passionate about the league and its longevity.
During her eight years with the Mystics in Washington, D.C., her hometown, she was a player representative for the WNBA’s player association.
This year, she is the vice president of the association’s executive committee.
“I’ve learned a job in the WNBA is not guaranteed; I’ve seen so many people come and go,” said the Blue Devils former All-American. “I know it takes hard work and dedication. I’m very committed to the success and growth of our league, so I’m just trying to get young people to realize that this league wasn’t always around.”
Currie, who posted 11 double-figure games during her Duke career, said the biggest learning curve for young women entering the WNBA is self-responsibility. In college, players are held to a schedule. Once a player becomes a professional, some of the simplest things become their own responsibility.
“When you’re in college and you travel on the road, they provide the meals and tell you what time to eat,” Currie said. “When you’re on the road here, you’re on your own and you gotta go find you something to eat, you gotta make sure you’re eating the right thing.
“You have to understand that the WNBA is a business, and it’s your job to make sure you’re doing everything you can to be in a position to help your team succeed.”
Currie did a lot of that with the Mystics, with whom she appeared in four playoffs. She averaged 11.1 points and 4.3 boards during her stint in D.C. In her first year with the Stars last season, Currie averaged 10.7 and 4.4 in 34 starts.
And she knew her chance in Washington was rare.
“So many people don’t get to spend any time in their home cities,” Currie said. “I spent eight years at home. I was actually looking forward to a chance and a new place and new scenery. It was a fun experience to be in another place.”
Point guard, Connecticut Sun
5-9, 145 pounds
Draft: 2011, 1st round (12th overall by Seattle Storm)
At Duke: 2007-11
Going into her seventh season in the WNBA, Jasmine Thomas hopes she’s finally found her place.
Two years ago upon joining the Connecticut Sun, the 5-9 point guard started in all games in a season for the first time in her career.
Entering this season with the Sun, Thomas, 27, felt right where she belonged after a pair of respective two-year stints with the Atlanta Dream and the Washington Mystics, the team that drafted her 12th overall out of Duke in 2011.
“Now, that’s my primary role; I am a point guard,” she said.
Her secret weapon: confidence.
“Knowing that I’m good and not trying to be like anyone else,” Thomas said. “I feel like that is the most important thing for me, having coaches that actually gave me the opportunity to play through mistakes and didn’t try to change me. That’s what’s worked for me.”
Her improved ball control is something she prides herself in. She dished 133 assists (77 turnovers) her first season in Connecticut in 2015 and beat it last season with 172 (86 turnovers).
Thomas also has a range of experiences preparing for her seventh season in the WNBA – from being in the playoffs and Finals to being on losing teams.
The seasoned guard, who ended her Duke career starting in 96 straight games, said the adjustments from college to professional basketball include being responsible for her own meals on the road and flying commercial.
“There are a lot of things that change from the college game to the pro game,” said Thomas, who averaged 11.7 points and 5.1 assists last season. “It’s definitely a transition, … but playing all over the world, playing year-round, it’s been a good experience, but it also has its tough times. I’ve played on three different teams, for three different coaches, so (I have been learning) my roles over the years.”
Center-forward, Atlanta Dream
6-3, 192 pounds
Draft: 2015 1st round (4th overall by Connecticut Sun)
At Duke: 2011-15
All the way in Turkey, Elizabeth Williams didn’t know exactly what to think after she was traded following her rookie season.
Her agent suggested she view it as her being valuable.
It wasn’t a bad move, as Williams became the starting center for the Atlanta Dream last season.
“I’m kind of an undersized center,” the 6-3 Williams said with a chuckle, “so when I play against people like (Phoenix Mercury center Brittney) Griner and them, I have to use my speed a little more. It’s not always easy being undersized. I always try to work on my strength and core.”
Williams said Dream coach Michael Cooper targeted her as a good fit for his system, which emphasizes defense. She was named the 2015 WBCA National Defensive Player of the Year, the second Duke player to claim the honor. She recorded a block in each of her first 91 games with the Blue Devils.
She averaged 11.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in her first season with the Dream last year, when she played 34.7 minutes a game.
“I just embraced my role,” said Williams, the league’s most improved player last year.
Williams said Griner’s size (she’s a 6-8 center) creates difficulty.
“It’s just hard with her size,” Williams recalls. “Even when you have a hand in her face, she’s still shooting over you. You try to get her as far away from the basket as possible and make her make tough shots. I think as the season went on, I think I got better at it.”
Williams will be reunited with former Duke teammate Oderah Chidom, the Dream’s third-round pick in this year’s WNBA Draft.
Outside of basketball, Williams has spent time at local hospitals to gather knowledge for life after the league – whenever that may come for her.
“This summer, I’m actually going to be shadowing a couple of doctors in Atlanta to get some more experience in medicine,” she said. “That’s something I want to do after I finish playing.”
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan