February 13, 2023
From Rookie of the Year to efficient reserve, Columbia senior Sienna Durr shows the heart of a Lion
‘She's a large part of what we've built and where we're going’
Sienna Durr’s volume on the Columbia bench is seemingly always turned up. Either she’s clapping enthusiastically, almost violently, as if the game depends on it, or she’s shouting instructions and encouragement to her teammates on the court. It’s an unrelenting energy, just like how she plays.
“Run!” she yells as her teammates start a fast break.
“Switch everything!” she implores them on defense, her eyes all but boring holes in the court as she watches the action.
And, after a sneaky behind-the-back handoff sets up junior guard Abbey Hsu for a 3-pointer on Feb. 3, Durr celebrates: “Oh my god! Let’s go!”
Plenty of stories exist about players being good teammates as they bide their time on the bench. But Durr isn’t a player who knows her time will come. Her Senior Day ceremony is just 19 days away, and she is a former Ivy League Rookie of the Year and all-league performer whose on-court role has decreased in her final two seasons.
In those two seasons, Durr has become a different kind of leader than most would’ve expected after her standout freshman season. But because of how she has adapted and committed to her new role, she is as important to — and engaged with — what Columbia is building as she has ever been.
Growing up in Grinnell, Iowa, as the daughter of two college athletes, Durr tried nearly every sport. She was athletic but uncoordinated, having grown to 5’11 in fifth grade. “Imagine an 11-year-old trying to figure out that body,” she told The Next. “… Limbs are all over the place.”
Durr eventually learned to get her body moving in one direction, developing into a Division I basketball prospect and a state champion in the long jump as a high school junior in 2017. Columbia head coach Megan Griffith started recruiting Durr hard during her junior year — Griffith’s first at Columbia — because of her competitiveness and work ethic on the court.
“I went to watch her,” Griffith told The Next, “and I’m like, ‘There’s something special about this kid. She just competes her ass off … This is what we need.’”
Griffith connected with Durr and her family during an eight-hour home visit, the longest visit Griffith has ever done. Durr gave Griffith a tour of her small town, from a stop at an open gym session to visiting the restaurant Durr’s family owns, before Durr’s extended family gathered for a multi-course meal cooked by Durr’s father Paul.
“Coach G really fit right in,” Durr said. And Durr felt like she fit right in, too, with what Griffith was building at Columbia.
When Durr was being recruited, Columbia hadn’t had a sustained run of success since it was a Division III program in the mid-1980s. But Durr believed Griffith when Griffith told her that the program was going to be successful and that she could help it get there, and she loved the idea of going to college in New York City. Durr committed as part of a six-player freshman class that ended up being pivotal for the program.
“I just came into this program that was in need of growth and in need of new energy,” Durr said, “and coming in with my class … it was like, we have nothing to lose here. We are all so excited. We are so eager to play.”
Griffith knew that the freshmen would have to contribute right away, and she set the tone by giving them kitchen sponges in the first team meeting of the 2018-19 season. She told them to be sponges and absorb as much information as they could to speed up their learning curve. That’s what Durr did: She wasn’t the star right away in the preseason, Griffith said, but after classmate Hannah Pratt suffered a season-ending knee injury in the fall, Durr stepped up and became a starter by the season opener.
“Little by little, she just impressed us more and more in her approach,” Griffith said. “… I mean, she’s a gazelle on the floor. She’s one of the fastest kids I’ve ever seen on a basketball court. … She literally just scored points beating you down the floor.”
Durr added, “I know I can play hard, I know I can compete, and that’s what I did.”
Along with that work ethic, the 6′ guard/forward brought physicality to the Lions. Before Pratt’s injury, Griffith had nicknamed Durr and Pratt “The Bash Bros” and even gotten them T-shirts bearing the moniker. “The two of us really would just go at it,” Pratt told The Next.
Durr started all 27 games as a freshman and led Columbia with 14.5 points per game on 48.7% shooting from the field. Her scoring ranked second in the nation among freshmen, and she added 6.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 29.0 minutes per game. She scored at least 10 points in 20 games, topped 20 points six times, and had four double-doubles.
That productivity came as a shock even to Durr. She remembers calling her parents after practices and saying, “Mom, Dad, I’m doing really well. I wasn’t expecting to do this well, but I’m doing really well and I’m really proud of myself.”
She was a bright spot in an otherwise tough season for Columbia, which endured a nine-game losing streak and finished the season 8-19 overall and seventh in the Ivy League at 4-10. Durr was named Ivy League Rookie of the Year as well as the All-Met Rookie of the Year, which honors one player from 21 Division I schools in the New York metropolitan area.
As a freshman, Durr relied on her instincts and competitiveness — “she’ll rip your head off,” Griffith told reporters in November 2021 – but as a sophomore, Durr began to understand the strategy of the game more. She got more comfortable with Columbia’s offense and learned to read the defense better. And whereas she felt “very lost” on defense as a freshman, that also started to click in her sophomore season.
Durr’s statistics as a sophomore were very similar to her freshman season, with 12.8 points and 6.1 rebounds per game on 44.2% shooting, but she did it differently. She took slightly fewer shots with a strong freshman class around her, and she increased the share of mid-range shots and 3-pointers she attempted from 24.2% to 47.7%. Against Buffalo on Nov. 15, 2019, Durr scored a career-high 31 points on 11-for-21 shooting, including 5-for-10 from 3-point range, and added 13 rebounds.
As a team, meanwhile, Columbia seemed to have turned a corner, winning 17 games and qualifying for the four-team Ivy League Tournament in 2020. But Durr broke her foot toward the end of that season, and then the COVID-19 pandemic halted everything and suddenly sent players home.
For Durr, the transition from being independent and busy in New York City to having lots of unstructured time at her parents’ home in an Iowa cornfield was difficult. She had to rehab her foot over Zoom, and she struggled to understand and replicate the exercises her trainer was showing her, let alone position her laptop so her trainer could see how she was doing. She also decided to take the 2020-21 academic year off from school, which preserved her Ivy League eligibility but left her with even more time to fill.
A sense of normalcy and structure finally came in spring 2021, when Durr moved to New Jersey to live and train with Pratt and their teammates Kaitlyn Davis and Mikayla Markham. They played a lot of one-on-one and two-on-two, and Durr and Pratt both said that the extra time in the gym really improved Durr’s 3-point shot, which had been good but not elite (32.5%) in her first two seasons.
But when Durr returned to Columbia for her junior season in 2021-22, things didn’t just snap back into place. She was still adjusting to all the changes that she’d faced in the past 18 months, and she struggled with her mental health.
“I had gotten to a place that I had never experienced before,” she said. “… There [were] times where I really felt like myself on the court, but there were also times where I didn’t really feel like I was there.”
She was inconsistent to start the season, scoring 19 points in a win at Clemson on Nov. 14 but just 10 points on 3-for-13 shooting in her next two games combined. Durr and Griffith brainstormed ways to help her settle in, but in mid-February, Griffith decided to have her come off the bench.
“Coach, whatever you need,” Griffith remembers Durr saying in response. “I’m surprised you haven’t done it already.”
Durr adjusted to her new role as she worked on her mental health, taking time off when she needed to but consistently showing up for her teammates when she was there. Her minutes fell from over 20 per game in her final five games as a starter to rarely above 15 the rest of the season, but her attitude and approach didn’t waver. During conference play, one of Columbia’s men’s basketball coaches asked Griffith, referencing Durr, “She’s on the bench and cheering the loudest for her team right now. How do you get your best player to be your best teammate?”
Toward the end of last season, Durr had another setback when she injured her back while lifting weights. She didn’t think it was serious at first, but it became chronic, to the point that she was “basically immobile” for six months. She couldn’t sit in a chair, let alone train. About the only thing she could do while on campus last summer was build up her arm strength in the weight room — and maintain the culture of the program, which was important to her as a rising senior.
This season, Durr missed a few games early in the season and played only sparingly in her homecoming game at Iowa State on Nov. 20 as she got back to full strength. She is now feeling much better, physically and mentally, but she is averaging just 8.2 minutes per game on a Lions team that returned everyone but Markham from a history-making WNIT run last season.
“There’s definitely been some ups and downs,” Durr said. “Mentally, it’s really hard to … see where you started. I was playing like 40 minutes a game and then making my way to here and then I’m coming off the bench, but it’s just adapting to your roles and how can you make your teammates the best that they can be every day.”
Though Durr hasn’t started a game this season, she has quietly been as important as ever to Columbia’s success. She is always in the gym working to improve, Griffith said, even more than when she was a freshman. She tries to squeeze impact out of every minute, whether she is practicing on the scout team and preparing the starters for games or calling out opponents’ plays from the bench.
“She’s, like, the best teammate,” Griffith said. “… She just gets it. It’s probably something I don’t even celebrate enough with her … just telling her how proud I am of her because she’s a large part of what we’ve built and where we’re going.”
“She’s always lifting us up, always has positive energy no matter what she’s going through. And I think that type of selflessness is something we all aspire to,” junior guard Abbey Hsu told The Next. “… She’s just … I don’t know the word to use, but the framework of what Columbia embodies, teammate-wise.”
When Griffith needs her on the court, too, she has been efficient. She scored nine points in 8:41 against Yale on Dec. 31 and a season-high 10 in 7:23 against Brown on Jan. 21, and she ranks in the top 10% of players nationally in rebounding rate and win shares per 40 minutes.
“It was all the stuff that was part of the game plan,” Griffith told reporters about Durr’s performance against Brown. “… And that’s just a really good sign that somebody can come in to impact the game immediately like that.”
“She just works so hard every single game,” Pratt said. “She runs the floor hard. She rebounds hard. Everything she does is hard.”
Within the Columbia program, there is a sense that more is coming for Durr this season. “I don’t know when, but she’s going to show up in some big, big moments for us this year. And I’m counting on that,” Griffith told The Next. “Not in a way of pressure, but … I know the competitor that she is, and I know how much this program means to her.”
The hope is that Durr, currently at 964 career points, will reach 1,000 before her career ends. It would be a fitting milestone for a player who has been instrumental in Columbia’s turnaround, from a losing team four years ago to one that is in position to win its first Ivy League title and play in its first NCAA Tournament this season.
“[The 2018-19 freshman class has] been with me through all of it — really ugly times, dark times, the good times,” Griffith said. “And I just think I owe them a lot for trusting me and sticking with it, and I think [Sienna has] been a big driver of that …
“Sienna’s always been bought in and believed in what we were doing. So, for me, that’s just — regardless of what the records book says, she just did it the right way.”
After she graduates, Durr plans to travel to Europe and Southeast Asia before applying to graduate school to become a therapist. She wants to help people who are going through mental health challenges. It’s just another way she is always lifting people up, seeing their potential, and cheering them on.
Durr still has the purple kitchen sponge that Griffith gave her in her first Columbia team meeting, before her collegiate accolades rolled in and the program made the leap from the bottom to the top of the Ivy League. Often hanging in her room, the sponge is a visible reminder of the mentality Griffith asked for. Durr has consistently had that mentality, whether she is the team’s leading scorer, a player rehabbing from injury or a healthy scratch, and that has become a big part of her legacy with the Lions.
Durr’s path hasn’t been typical for a former Rookie of the Year, but she has embraced every step. And should Columbia achieve that historic Ivy title and NCAA Tournament appearance this season, she’ll be a huge reason why.
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. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.