Celeste Taylor did everything she could at Duke. The 2023 ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Taylor was a big reason why Duke reached its first NCAA Tournament since 2018. From the moment she arrived in 2021, she was the player coach Kara Lawson leaned on to help establish the culture she wanted.
Among finding her voice as a leader, helping younger players with film and Xs and Os, there wasn’t much Taylor didn’t have a hand in at Duke. When the Blue Devils faced Colorado in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, her on-court impact was on full display as well. She finished with eight points, 10 rebounds, 10 steals and eight assists, but Duke lost 61-53 in overtime. She wished she shot better than 21 percent in the loss, but it was hard to watch that game and see more that Taylor could do. Still, the loss broke her.
In tears, Taylor found her biggest fans, her parents Alex and Selene Navarro, after the game. That moment took her father back to Taylor’s eighth grade year when her grassroots team lost a game and she cried during the car ride home. It was the same scenario; Taylor did everything on the floor but wanted to do more.
“I’m like, ‘Celeste, what are you crying about?’ She said, ‘We lost the game and I couldn’t score,’” Navarro said. “She was young and I just told her those offensive rebounds you got added six more points, those stops you got turned into points.”
After they got home, Navarro received a call from Taylor’s grassroots coach who said a college coach wanted to talk to him about Taylor. Despite the loss, the coach had loved Taylor’s game for the exact reasons Navarro told his daughter: She impacts the game in every facet.
It’s the same now. Taylor is a do-it-all player for No. 12 Ohio State, where she transferred to from Duke after last season. She’s averaging 7.6 points per game, fourth on the Buckeyes. She also has a career-high and team-best 3.8 assists per game, a team-high five blocks and is second on the Buckeyes with 23 steals. But the player Ohio State fans are getting to know better wouldn’t be who she is without moments like the Colorado loss or everything that happened before.
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It’s in her lowest moments, when the tears are flowing after a tough loss or when injuries held her out of games, that shaped Taylor’s perspective. She’s still the ultra competitive player who was ranked No. 40 as a high school recruit and wants to end her final college season on top. But entering her fifth year, she’s also mature enough to understand she’s more than just a basketball player. “I want to grow a legacy that I can leave behind as far as people seeing the person I am,” Taylor said. “It’s about trying to make the world a better place.”
Whenever the NCAA Tournament ended for Duke, Taylor’s college career was going to be over. That was the plan she and her family had devised. She was ready to head to the WNBA. They even had an agent picked out.
But soon after the Colorado loss last season, Taylor had a conversation with her family. Navarro said he thought Taylor could use another year of college; she could earn a master’s degree after majoring in psychology at Duke and then pursue a professional career afterward. Taylor didn’t agree, but promised she’d give it some thought in the coming days. The next morning Taylor called her parents and said she was in. She was going back to Duke.
The return was short lived, though.
Relationships are of strong importance to Taylor, who has three siblings and talks to her mother multiple times per day. Because the family felt a close bond with Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff, Taylor strongly considered the Buckeyes out of high school. But she ultimately chose Texas because of another strong relationship with Karon Aston.
At Duke, the family loved Lawson, but their closest relationship was with assistant coach Winston Gandy. Over her two years at Duke, Taylor built a close relationship with Gandy. Any time she needed to work out, go over film or talk, Gandy was who she turned to. He even helped Navarro move Taylor into her new apartment going into her second season.
But days after Taylor announced she was staying at Duke, Navarro got a call from Gandy. “I have bad news for you,” Gandy said. Navarro thought maybe Duke lost a recruit or something, but Gandy said he was accepting an assistant coach job at South Carolina under coach Dawn Staley. Navarro was selfishly disappointed, but he understood that job couldn’t be passed up.
Taylor found out soon after Navarro and knew a change had to be made. “Celeste said, ‘OK I gotta go to the portal. I can’t gamble on my last year with who Kara may or may not bring in,” Navarro said. Things moved quickly for Taylor after that.
The experience of transferring from Texas to Duke gave her insight into the transfer process. But this time was different. She had one year left. She couldn’t go somewhere and help break in a new culture again; she wanted it be a program that was already set and she could come in to help elevate it. The family focused on coaches and programs where they already had developed relationships. In came McGuff.
This was the third time he recruited Taylor. This was the right time for Taylor.
Ohio State was fresh off an Elite Eight run and needed a dynamic and experienced guard after the departure of Taylor Mikesell, who was drafted by the Indiana Fever. Taylor wanted to play somewhere she would fit in, improve her game, and work with a coaching staff that would push her. It was a perfect match.
Taylor played high school varsity as a seventh grader and averaged 10 points per game. But Navarro had a message for her: She wasn’t as good as she thought she was.
“These girls are just that bad,” he said. “I told her we have to get you out of here because you’re not going to get better and you’re going to get a false sense of how good you can be.”
She left public school and went to Long Island Lutheran for eighth grade. Navarro constantly communicated to his daughter that by committing to defense her coach would have to put her on the court.One of the best parts of Taylor’s game became her high basketball IQ, but mixed with her relentlessness on the court. It made her a perfect fit for Ohio State and McGuff.
Ohio State’s tournament run last season came on the strength of its elite defense. The Buckeyes held opponents to 68 points per game, which wasn’t near the top of the country, but that’s because Ohio State sped up teams with its press.
So when Taylor entered the portal it was a no-brainer for McGuff to reach out. And it’s worked out so far this season. Ohio State is giving up just 60 points per game, but Taylor is also helping in the half-court defense, a facet of the game Ohio State struggled with last season. Teams are shooting just 38 percent from the field against the Buckeyes, an improvement from 43 percent a year ago.
For Taylor, though, the fit is more than just defense. Ohio State’s plethora of scoring options, such as Jacy Sheldon and Cotie McMahon, has allowed Taylor to show off more of her playmaking skills as well. At Duke, Taylor was forced to do a lot in the offense and averaged more than 10 shot attempts per game. At Ohio State she’s able to play with less attention on her.
Celeste Taylor found her shot a few weeks ago and she hasn’t looked back
Massive bucket late pic.twitter.com/FwuVFUzWvr
— Mark Schindler (@MG_Schindler) December 10, 2023
“Here, how can you focus on one player when everybody is a proven scorer?” Taylor said. “So it’s being able to hit open shots, and I think personally, and this is new for my offensive game, is the assist department. I want to show that I can pass the ball. I worked on this a lot at Duke. I’ve always been ahead on seeing things before it happens.”
Though her shooting percentage is down to 34 percent she’s making an impact on both sides of the ball.
After the loss to Colorado, Taylor struggled to think about anything other than her college career being over. But her parents stressed that she had nothing to be disappointed about. Between her two years at Texas and the impact she made at Duke, she left a strong legacy. Navarro told Taylor: “The culture is forever changed.” That would’ve been hard for Taylor to accept years ago.
“Not to say I wasn’t patient, but when you’re young it’s instant gratification,” Taylor said. “Everybody feels like they deserve this and deserve that.”
That’s not who Taylor is anymore. As she sat in the Ohio State practice gym earlier this season talking about her journey, she said it’s difficult to think about. From the excitement of arriving at Texas to play for Aston to her coach being dismissed, the COVID-19 years, injuries at Duke and even the success. Taylor says she appreciates these experiences and has grown from them.
“My parents always tell me about things when I was younger, and I’m like I don’t want to hear about the past or think about that,” Taylor said. “Did I plan to go to Texas and say, ‘Oh I’m going to transfer two times after that? No. That was never in my head. … It’s crucial to be able to sit back and reflect. If you don’t sit back and reflect, how can you grow as a person? As a college athlete it’s hard because you’re like I need to go and go and go, and by the time you look back you’re a senior. You can only grow as a person if you sit back and have that perspective.”
Navarro has seen a change in Taylor, as well. The smile she had when she left to go Texas as a freshman dimmed over time as she dealt with COVID-19 and being thousands of miles from home. “I would tell my wife she doesn’t look like the same kid that went away to Texas,” Navarro said. “The happiness, the smile, I don’t see that.”
When they visited Ohio State, he saw it again. For the first time in years, he saw his daughter with the same joy she had on the court growing up.
“I think she’s at peace with what she’s done,” Navarro said. “I think she connects with McGuff on a level that’s letting her be herself. She’s so comfortable and let go of trying to impress people or playing to get drafted. I think she’s just playing for herself and that’s what got her where she was at to begin with. She’s living in the moment.”
High expectations for Ohio State this season are motivation for Taylor. “People are expecting this and I’m always going to work my hardest to make it happen,” Taylor said. “That’s what broke me last year after not beating Colorado. It was never about other people saying we had to win that game because we were the higher seed. It was me. I feel like I could’ve done more, but I did almost everything I could’ve done. I gave it my all. That’s all I expect out of myself.”
Taylor has helped lead Ohio State to a 9-1 record heading into Monday’s top-15 matchup against second-ranked UCLA. Win or lose, Taylor is at peace with herself, because she has one goal. “Being happy,” she said. “It’s about being happy in every moment.”
The rest can come later.
(Top photo of Celeste Taylor: Jason Mowry / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)