By Jim Sumner, GoDuke The Magazine
DURHAM, N.C.– Onome Akinbode-James is from Abeokuta, Nigeria, That’s about 5,500 miles from Durham, North Carolina.
Miela Goodchild is from Brisbane, Australia. That’s about 9,700 miles from Durham, coming the other way.
And yet, here they are, teammates, roommates and building blocks for Joanne P. McCallie’s Duke women’s basketball program.
They ended up at Duke for very similar reasons.
“It’s a great combination of athletics and academics,” Akinbode-James says, echoing generations of Duke student-athletes. She cites McCallie’s undergraduate degree from Northwestern and graduate degree from Auburn. “People here have similar goals. You can associate with that. Coach P understands what it takes to be elite in both worlds.”
“It was the best fit for both academics and athletics; one of the best schools in the world.”
That’s about where the similarities end. Akinbode is an athletic 6-3 forward, with what basketball folks call a high ceiling. But she’s only been playing the sport for five years and she’s still learning the nuances.
Goodchild is more polished. She’s a skilled, cerebral, 5-10 guard and she’s been playing basketball about as long as she can remember.
Although Goodchild has a head start on the court, Akinbode-James has a head start on coming to America. She didn’t start playing basketball until she was around 14. She says she was nudged towards the sport because of her height and at first basketball was “pretty casual. Something to do.”
That didn’t last long. Players with her size, athleticism, intelligence and work ethic don’t come along often. She advanced so quickly that she was named to the Nigerian U-16 team for the 2015 Afrobasket Championship.
She also came under the tutelage of Mobolaji Akiode, a Nigerian-American who played collegiality at Fordham and for the Nigerian Olympic team
Akiode organizes the Hope$ Girls Basketball Camp, held in Lagos, which seeks to develop and mentor girls in the knowledge of basketball.
“She’s the epitome of where you can get to,” Akinbode-James says of Akiode.
Akioide was born in New Jersey before moving to her parents’ home country and she used her New Jersey contacts to help Akinbode-James obtain a scholarship to the Blair Academy in Blairstown, New Jersey.
“In general, basketball is a path to success in Nigeria.” Akinbode-James says “Getting a U.S. scholarship is a motivator. Education is an opportunity for success. I’m still grounded in that mindset.”
It took some time to get her mother, Tina Oghuvwu, on board. Oghuvwu is a teacher. But 5,000 miles is a long way.
“She was ambivalent. It took some convincing.”
Having Akiode in her corner was a big help.
Akinbode-James spent two years at Blair Academy and played AAU ball for the New Jersey Demons. She even gave track and field a try but gave it up to concentrate on academics and basketball.
Duke started recruiting her before senior year, She picked Duke over Penn, Harvard, Virginia and California.
Goodchild began playing basketball when she was six. She comes from an athletic family. Father David played tennis and soccer, mother Michelle was a runner, although they emphasize not at an elite level.
She played other sports but begin concentrating on basketball when her abilities became evident.
David Goodchild says Miela was about nine when a coach told him “she’s got a bit of talent, here. If she focuses, she can get into an American college.”
Miela says her goals firmed up around that time; represent Australia internationally, play college basketball in America, and play in the WNBA.
She’s certainly had success “showing the colors,” as she calls it. Goodchild has represented her country in age-group competition in Spain, Guam and India. She averaged 23.0 points per game in the 2017 U17 Oceania Championships, helping Australia to the gold medal.
“Being able to travel the world is very exciting. I want to keep doing it.”
Duke contacted her last January.
“I knew a fair amount about Duke. I definitely knew who Duke was. I was excited.”
It was a whirlwind courtship. She visited Duke, fell in love and joined the program.
David Goodchild says the family had a list of criteria “a mile long, Duke hit all the marks.”
“It’s hard to let her go,” Michelle Goodchild acknowledges. “But we knew the day would come when she wanted to follow her dream.”
The entire team has helped Goodchild adapt to the USA and Goodchild notes that she’s heard all the jokes about pet kangaroos and bringing crocodiles to school.
Both freshmen have been in and out of the starting lineup but both are on an upward trajectory.
Akinbode-James describes her game.
“I’m a pretty good rebounder. I crash the boards really hard. I can play inside and outside. I strive to be a better basketball player, to be better rounded. I need to improve my ball-handling, so I can play all over the court. Just trying to be perfect and stay focused. Stay confident and be comfortable.”
Like many young post players, she has struggled with consistency. Her best game was back in November, 14 points and 14 rebounds in a win at Wisconsin. She struggled at mid-season but is getting her second wind.
Recently McCallie has started Akinbode-James alongside 6-5 sophomore Jade Williams.
The move is paying dividends. Akinbode-James had seven rebounds against Boston College, six points, five rebounds and two blocks against Pittsburgh.
Williams likes the twin towers approach.
“We’re learning to play together better, especially on defense. We have to talk on that back line in our zone. I think on offense she’s really good, like our high-post high-low actions are pretty good. So, I think it’s coming together and I think we’re going to be pretty strong continuing the season.”
Goodchild came to Duke with the reputation as an elite shooter. Through 21 games, she’s hitting 86 percent from the foul line and 49-for-104 (47.1 percent) on threes, one of the best marks in the nation. She was five for-six from long range against Boston College, six-for-nine against Pittsburgh,
It didn’t just happen.
“Definitely hard work,” Goodchild says, “I’ve put in a few hours in the gym. You have to do the little things.”
Teammate Haley Gorecki knows something about shooting and she’s impressed.
“Just keep on talking to her if she’s having a frustrating game. Even if she’s having a good game, just kind of keep on telling her to shoot it. She’s a good shooter, so that’s what she should do.”
Goodchild came to Duke with the expectation that she would be off the ball. But season-ending knee injuries to Kyra Lambert and Mikayla Boykin have greatly increased her ball-handling responsibilities.
“I love facilitating for my teammates. I need to improve my ball-handling and communication, improve my mid-range and getting to the rim.”
McCallie says both will be keys to the late-season run Duke will need to advance to the post-season.
“I’m going to go with the team improving, and Miela improving and getting comfortable. There’s a lot to learn in this league. There’s a lot of very good teams and defenses. She and her teammates are beginning to understand how they can control things more, get their spots and play off each other. I think it’s exciting to see. I think for Onome, when she settles down and has quicker decision-making, her game’s going to flourish. She’s just a little bit too much of a thinker. She’s got a little too much of that mechanical engineer in her. We need to remove that when she’s playing and let her play by flow a little bit.”
Akinbode-James and Goodchild. Get used to the names. They figure to be impact players at Duke for years to come.