December 23, 2021 

European adventure powers pair of Yale standouts

Camilla Emsbo and Klara Astrom honed their games with European clubs last season

PHILADELPHIA — For most of the 2020-21 school year, Yale women’s basketball players Klara Astrom and Camilla Emsbo found themselves in unusual living situations for a pandemic. Astrom was in a dorm an ocean away from New Haven and her home in California, getting “the whole Swedish college experience,” she told The Next. Meanwhile, Emsbo weathered COVID-19 lockdowns with a host family in Denmark.

“They were so welcoming … I think they kind of made the most of getting shut down and having somebody just living in their house, which was very nice,” Emsbo said.

With the pandemic throwing both the academic experience and the 2020-21 basketball season at Yale into question, Astrom and Emsbo began exploring their options for the upcoming school year in summer 2020. Astrom was born in Sweden, has extended family there, and played for Swedish youth national teams and club teams growing up, so playing there again quickly crossed her mind. When she mentioned it to Emsbo, who is a Danish citizen, the wheels started turning for Emsbo, too.

“We’re both pre-med and studying biology, and it didn’t feel right to not be able to give 100% of ourselves to school and basketball” because of the pandemic, Emsbo explained. “And that’s pretty much the reason that we chose an Ivy League [school] is so we could really do it all.”

Both players withdrew from Yale for the year, preserving their Ivy League eligibility, and headed to Europe in August 2020. Astrom took classes at the University of Lund — her parents’ alma mater — and joined IK Eos Lund, a team in the Swedish Basketball League, while Emsbo joined the Hørsholm 79ers in Denmark’s Dameligaen.

Emsbo found the 79ers through social media and a connection from a player she had competed against growing up in Colorado. When she sent head coach Jesper Krone film of her play, he welcomed her to join the team — and soon invited her to play for the Danish national team, which he also coaches.

Yale head coach Allison Guth told The Next that she was “110% behind” whatever decision each player made for 2020-21, but she was thrilled that Emsbo and Astrom chose to play abroad. “It just seemed, first of all, so exciting for me that they were so invested in our program and invested in their experience here at Yale that they wanted their year back,” she said. “… I was very excited that I was going to have another full year, in a typical fashion, with them.”

Astrom and Emsbo did not get the game experience they had hoped for in Europe, though, because the NCAA denied Yale’s request to waive a rule prohibiting outside competition during the season (even though the Ivy League canceled its season in November 2020). But they both stayed and practiced with their club teams for about eight months, and Emsbo was allowed to play four games with the Danish national team in November 2020 and February 2021.

A map showing how close geographically Yale’s Camilla Emsbo (Hørsholm, Denmark) and Klara Astrom (Lund, Sweden) were while playing in Europe in 2020-21. (Map created on ZeeMaps.com and edited in Canva)

Though Emsbo and Astrom were separated only by a 17-mile-wide strait or a 90-minute drive, the pandemic shaped their time in Europe in different ways. Denmark implemented lockdowns early in the pandemic, and those lockdowns combined with mass testing and high vaccination rates later in the pandemic led The Washington Post to write a September 2021 article called, “Denmark appears to have beaten covid-19 — for now. Here’s how it did it.”

Meanwhile, Sweden was the only European country not to lock down in 2020, and it did not place mandatory caps on crowd sizes and had only limited testing available. By February 2021, which was about when Astrom and Emsbo returned to the United States, Sweden’s death rate from COVID-19 was nearly five times higher than that of Denmark, Norway and Finland.

Those divergent policies led to a game between Astrom and Emsbo’s teams being canceled, and shutdowns also halted Emsbo’s work off the court, as a substitute teacher at an international school and in a microbiology lab at the University of Copenhagen. “When everything got shut down, it was essentially just basketball that was left,” she said, as Hørsholm was still allowed to practice three times per week.

Lund, meanwhile, continued to practice daily. Astrom said that her whole team got COVID-19 “for Christmas,” which she narrowly avoided because her green card required her to temporarily return to the United States just before the outbreak.

Even though their experiences didn’t turn out exactly as planned, both players clearly benefited from going overseas. Off the court, Emsbo reunited with some of her cousins for the first time in years. Astrom also visited extended family, formed some lasting friendships, and even got to show her parents in California what their former dorms at the University of Lund look like now.

“I haven’t had many similar experiences to my parents since I moved [to the United States] so early,” said Astrom, who is the first person in her family to attend an American university. “… [So] that was cool.”

And on the court, they got to develop their skills by playing organized, five-on-five basketball—something few other Ivy League players could say last season.

“[Klara is] a great player, really physical, and she brought a lot of energy,” Julia Nyström, Astrom’s teammate with Lund and a current freshman at Saint Joseph’s, told The Next. “And of course, she’s a good shooter. It was just a really great experience to play with her.”

Guth said just before the 2021-22 season that Astrom, now a sophomore, has always been a lethal set shooter—in fact, she’s the only player the staff allows to use either foot as the pivot foot for her shot. But Guth and her staff hoped Astrom would improve her consistency off the dribble, her decision-making in Yale’s offensive system and her ability to defend aggressively without fouling.

Check, check and check: Astrom has progressed from a reserve averaging just 2.8 points in 11.7 minutes per game in 2019-20 to a starter who is playing over 30 minutes per game this season. A 5’9 guard, she is currently averaging 9.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 2.0 steals per game. She ranks in the top six in the Ivy League in steals per game, minutes per game, 3-pointers made per game (2.0) and 3-point shooting percentage (34.5%, minimum two makes per game).

(Off the assist from Emsbo!)

Those improved numbers are not solely due to more playing time, either. Per 40 minutes, Astrom has been more productive in nearly every statistical category than she was as a freshman, and her defensive rating has improved by more than 10 points per 100 possessions, placing her in the top 10% of players nationally this season.

According to Emsbo, a 6’5 forward, Astrom’s growth is evident beyond the stat sheet. “She’s more comfortable with the ball in her hands, I think, just generally,” Emsbo said. “But also, I think her confidence shooting—I think she in Sweden went through a couple periods where she had to work through kind of a shooting drought, and I think that that made her … more comfortable [and] confident.”

Just as Astrom weathered that shooting drought, Emsbo faced adversity overseas that made her a better player, most notably while playing for the Danish national team in the FIBA EuroBasket Qualifiers. “Stepping on the court playing the Czech Republic I think was kind of a wake-up call for me,” she said, “just in terms of, ‘Oh, these are grown women that I was playing against.’ It’s completely different. … It’s a physical, physical game.”

“I don’t think you can tell,” she added, jokingly referencing her lanky frame, “but I think I’ve definitely focused a lot on strength and how to use my body in a way that works to my advantage … [That] was something that I definitely prioritized coming off of that game.”

Emsbo played a total of 51 minutes and contributed six points, 12 rebounds, three assists and three blocks in the four games. Guth was able to watch the livestreams, and despite Emsbo’s modest stats, she liked what she saw.

“The thing I saw that I liked the most was she was being challenged and it was hard for her. [Emsbo] is used to being one of the best players in the gym, and I thought it was really, really good competition,” Guth said. “… She struggled in moments, and I liked that she was struggling because that’s the discomfort and the uncomfortability that we all grow in.”

That growth was immediately obvious when Emsbo returned to Yale, and Guth said at the Ivy League’s preseason media day that Emsbo had improved “exponentially.” That’s hard to do when you were already an All-Ivy second team performer as a sophomore, but Emsbo has incrementally improved in the categories she excelled in in 2019-20—scoring, rebounding and blocks—and taken bigger strides in other categories such as assists and steals. She leads the Ivy League in rebounds per game (10.2), field goal percentage (53.0%) and blocks per game (2.4) and ranks third in scoring (16.0), making her an early favorite for Player of the Year.

Yale forward Camilla Emsbo (2) battles in the post against Dartmouth. (Photo credit: Sam Rubin/Yale Athletics)

“You have to double her, and if you miss out on the double team, it’s going to be a basket,” Boston University head coach Melissa Graves told The Next. (Graves helped recruit Emsbo as an assistant coach at Yale, and Emsbo thanked her by recording 17 points and 10 rebounds in a win over BU this November.) “So she’s playing really, really well, I think, on both sides of the basketball. She can block shots, she can score it, she rebounds … And when you do double down, they have their shooters, so she’s also doing a better job of kicking the ball out … I think that kid is really, really exceptional.”

Saint Joseph’s head coach Cindy Griffin, whose team gave up 11 points and nine rebounds to Emsbo on Dec. 4, echoed Graves’ assessment. “[Emsbo’s teammates] look for her on every possession,” Griffin said. “… If the ball got through, we knew that we needed to help on her because she’s just that good.”

Emsbo reeled off seven straight double-doubles to start the season, a streak that she claimed ended because her twin sister Kira, who plays for Princeton, “jinxed it.” But beyond her statistics, she is also an important leader as Yale’s only returning starter, and like Astrom, her strong individual defense has been key for a Yale team that has had close games all season.

Defensively, Emsbo is known as a great shot blocker, but Guth said at media day that she is also “one of our best perimeter defenders” despite being the tallest player on the roster. Weeks later, Guth added, “She sets the tone in a really, really great way with our programmatic coverage of how we hedge and how we work along the perimeter. She’s just fantastic.”

Emsbo honed that perimeter game with the Danish national team, which often plays a five-out system. “I loved that she was getting that work done,” Guth said. “… She got really competitive in the way that she could defend the perimeter and be aggressive, even scoring with some distance … We utilize her so much near the rim, but she’s got beautiful guard skill as well.”

Yale currently has a 6-5 record, and it’s hard to imagine where the Bulldogs would be without Emsbo and Astrom’s contributions and continued growth. Their stints in Europe challenged them both on and off the court, and the result is that Yale is poised to contend for an Ivy League tournament berth with a top-four finish.

“I think they did absolutely everything they could do to put themselves in a position to grow in their craft as basketball players,” Guth said. “… They did that by taking the leave of absence, traveling overseas, committing to staying there even when they found out they couldn’t play, and practicing with those teams. …

“They’re so committed to be their best so we can be our best.”

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. (She also writes the "Family Rivalries" series for The Next.) Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.

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