Amile Jefferson arrived in Durham just two seasons after Mike Krzyzewski won his fourth NCAA Championship. By the end of his third season at Duke, Jefferson played an integral role in bringing the program it’s fifth championship. Now, as he prepares for his final season as a Blue Devil, Duke appears on the verge of yet another title run. Jefferson will be flocked by handful of talented newcomers that were freshmen in high school while he was playing alongside Mason Plumlee, who is already in discussions with the Portland Trail Blazers for his second NBA contract. Such is life when you stick around for five years at one of the nation’s most powerful college basketball programs.
It’s kind of amazing to think about the players Jefferson has suited up with while at Duke. The graduate student from Philadelphia has played with nine players that have already played at least one NBA game — and that doesn’t include Brandon Ingram, who will suit up opening night for the Los Angeles Lakers. Seven of Jefferson’s teammates at Duke have gone on to be first round picks. That number could easily hit double figures in eight months.
But now, it’s Jefferson that’s one of the stars; on Thursday morning, Duke’s most experienced player was named as one of the 20 candidates for the Karl Malone Power Forward of the Year Award. If he can build off of how he started the 2015-16 season — before a right foot injury cost him all but nine games — Duke could easily be cutting down nets in April.
Led by the two-headed monster of Ingram and Grayson Allen last season, the Blue Devils pick-and-rolled their way to the No. 4 ranking in offensive efficiency last season: 120.8 points per 100 possessions, according to Ken Pomeroy. As good as those two were, and they were quite prolific, Duke couldn’t unlock their full potential sans Jefferson, who was playing the best basketball of his career before the injury: 11.4 points, 10.3 rebounds and 68.3 percent shooting from the field. He posted an offensive rebounding rate of 17.7 percent, which would’ve been the best in the ACC. According to Pomeroy’s data, Jefferson was the team leader in offensive rating — 128.4 points per 100 possessions. This number can at least demonstrate some of Jefferson’s overall offensive value — one that goes beyond the box score stats.
Duke possesses multiple future lottery picks on their roster this season, and there’s only one basketball to go around. This has raised the all too obvious concerns over chemistry. There may be merit to that, but Coach K certainly won’t have to worry about Jefferson, though. Throughout his career, Jefferson has been as flexible as he’s been reliable. He’s played in 115 games during his three-plus seasons with Duke, and he’s started 68 of those contests (59.1 percent). Despite coming in and out of the starting lineup, he’s always given effort, defended his position well and given the same level of expected production on offense — shoot a high percentage (62.4 percent for his career), clean the glass (277 career offensive rebounds) and set timely screens.
The Blue Devils famously hit another level during their run to the 2015 NCAA Championship when they downsized, inserted Justise Winslow into the starting lineup, and brought Jefferson off the bench. Jefferson played in all 39 games that season, making 26 starts. However, he didn’t start any of the final 12 games that year, beginning with a win at Virginia Tech. Here’s how that season shook out for Jefferson:
- First 27 games: 22.7 minutes, 7.7 points, 4.8 field goal attempts, 6.4 rebounds and 63.1 FG%
- Final 12 games: 18.3 minutes, 2.5 points, 1.6 field goal attempts, 4.5 rebounds and 63.2 FG%
Over those final 12 games, he played more than 20 minutes just three times. Remember: this is former five-star recruit, a high school All-American, not some guy that’s just happy to be donning the Duke uniform. Despite having his minutes and touches slashed, Jefferson didn’t say a word while the team kicked it into high gear. As a sports society, we love to overvalue the intangibles. We heap praise up athletes who exude toughness, communication skills, grit — whatever. We can’t help but focus too much time and attention to things that can’t be measured. However, in the game of basketball, chemistry is so important. Successful teams not only have awesome players who can score a lot of points; they also have guys that talk, set screen and sacrifice their own production for the betterment of the group.
It says a lot about Jefferson that he embraced this demotion, and continued to play hard. For the record, Duke lost just one game during that final dozen.
It remains to be seen what Jefferson’s role will be on this year’s Duke team, especially while superstar freshman Harry Giles recovers from knee surgery earlier this month. It’s likely he’ll once against average a double-double, like he did in a small sample size last season. However, as the elder statesman of this roster, it’s clear that Jefferson will have a tremendous impact — in both tangible and unmeasurable ways. It’s October so recognition by the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame is neat and an honor, but doesn’t mean all that much just yet. Ultimately, this team will be judged by whether or not they win a championship, which isn’t entirely fair, but welcome to sports in 2016. No matter what happens with the 2016-17 Blue Devils, though, Jefferson will be remembered as one of the best chemistry players to ever play for Duke. And who knows, maybe he’ll meet back with some of these former teammates in the NBA next season.
Let’s start the season yesterday, please.