Now that the Blue Devils’ three-game skid is a thing of the past and their toughest stretch of the year is squarely in front of them, the season’s most pressing question remains in the forefront: When is Amile Jefferson going to come back?
Jefferson has missed the Blue Devils’ past 15 games with a fractured right foot. Now into week seven of rest, recovery and rehab, Duke’s senior captain has transitioned from hard cast to walking boot to shoes—and most recently, back into the walking boot—and there remains no official timetable for his return to the floor.
If there’s anyone who can relate to what Jefferson is going through, it’s Ryan Kelly.
Kelly missed 13 ACC games as a senior during the 2012-13 season after breaking the fifth metatarsal in his right foot for the second time against Clemson Jan. 8, 2013. The Raleigh native had been playing his best basketball of the season in the five games prior to his injury, and suddenly saw the rest of his Blue Devil career put in jeopardy.
“Your senior year, you want to leave a mark, an imprint on the program,” said Kelly, now a Los Angeles Laker. “And all of a sudden, it unravels just like that.”
Kelly scored 12 points in the first 19 minutes against the Tigers—as a team, Clemson managed just 10—but did not return to the floor in the second half. Once the 6-foot-11 forward received his diagnosis, he, like Jefferson now, was confined to crutches and a boot for the next several weeks.
During the time the Raleigh native was out, Jefferson—then a freshman averaging 8.8 minutes per game—was thrust into a platoon with junior Josh Hairston to fill Kelly’s power forward role. The Philadelphia native more than doubled his usage to 19.6 minutes per game during Kelly’s absence and reached double-figures five times after doing so just once before the injury.
“I just told them, ‘There’s always opportunity there. You never want your teammate to be hurt, but grow into that opportunity. Take advantage of it,’” Kelly said. “I always tried to be there for them, because there was going to be a learning curve for them. They were being thrust into a new role, but they stepped up and did what was necessary.”
Unable to contribute on the court, Kelly was left to serve as a source of encouragement for the younger players. Now that things have come full circle and Jefferson is the one on the sidelines, he’s traveled on each of Duke’s road trips to mentor rookies Chase Jeter and Brandon Ingram.
Kelly’s words helped, though not enough—Duke suffered its first loss of the season at N.C. State in its first game without him and lost its foothold on the No. 1 spot in the AP poll. As the foot began to heal, Kelly had to decide whether or not he even wanted to attempt a comeback. He’d require surgery at some point, and going under the knife sooner rather than later would have meant rehab and preparation for the NBA draft, rather than one more shot at March Madness.
But Kelly felt he could not let his career end on an injury, and kept working in the weight room to keep his muscles strong.
“We spent a lot of time in the pool, first swimming, and then when I could put a little bit of pressure on my foot, the treadmill. Just trying anything to be in the best position possible so that when I did think I was able to come back, it wasn’t going to be a complete disaster,” he said.
Eventually, Kelly got back on the practice court for about 10 minutes of five-on-five on March 2, 2013—the day before No. 3 Duke hosted No. 5 Miami—when head coach Mike Krzyzewski came over to him.
“He said, ‘Hey, you look pretty good—you want to play tomorrow?’ I was a little bit taken aback by it, but at that point there weren’t many games left in my senior year and I said ‘Heck, why not?’” Kelly said. “I called my parents and said ‘I’m playing tomorrow.’ They said ‘That’s great—hopefully you can get a minute or two...if you can give an emotional lift, that’d be great for your teammates.’ That was kind of all they were really expecting.”
Krzyzewski had something different in mind, though, and the next night, he drew up the first offensive play for Kelly, who received a roaring ovation when introduced as starter.
“Only Coach K would know what button to push perfectly,” Kelly said. “I’m sure that said not only to my teammates but to me that Ryan was going to be a big part of this game. I missed that first shot, but I didn’t miss many after that.”
The result: 32 minutes, 36 points on 10-of-14 shooting—including seven 3-pointers—and a much-needed Duke win.
Not every game went so smoothly after that. Folding Kelly back into the lineup took some time, just as it did in 2011 when Kyrie Irving returned from his toe injury. When Jefferson—another power forward who was averaging a double-double at the time of his injury—does come back, there will likely be another feeling-out period. Ingram may move back to the perimeter as Jefferson rejoins Marshall Plumlee down low.
“I think it’s safe to say there are parallels whenever someone who has such a big impact on the team goes down,” Plumlee said after Duke’s 88-80 win against N.C. State Saturday. “Ryan Kelly came back and made a huge impact, and I’m expecting the same from Amile. We love him, we miss him, but right now we have to focus on what we do have and the task at hand.”
Kelly said he has not reached out to Jefferson because he does not want to be a distraction, but offered simple guidance for the senior as his odyssey back toward the court continues.
“It’s never fun to be hurt—you feel disconnected, no matter what, you feel less part of the team because you can’t help,” Kelly said. “But my message certainly would be that as long as you’re doing everything possible to get yourself back, then you’re doing what’s best for you and what’s best for your team.”
Brian Pollack contributed reporting.
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