Before Saturday’s game even tipped off, Duke officially announced what many had suspected with growing certainty—Amile Jefferson will not return to the court this season.
The senior forward fractured his right foot in practice Dec. 12, and the team then stated that he would be out indefinitely. Jefferson was initially put on crutches to take all the pressure off his foot, and later progressed to a walking boot that he has been wearing on the sidelines for most of conference play.
As he eschewed crutches in favor of the boot, the Philadelphia native gradually tried to test his mobility on the court, but to no avail. Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said that his lateral movement was satisfactory, but actions that required pushing off the foot—particularly accelerating straight and jumping—were still causing Jefferson pain, and a realistic timetable for his return was never provided.
With the book now closed on a potential postseason return, the team announced it will apply for a medical hardship waiver that would allow Jefferson to play again next season. Krzyzewski was optimistic that it would be granted, given that he has played in only nine of the Blue Devils’ 31 games—well below the 30 percent threshold that a redshirt requires.“We waited as long as we could to see if Amile could come back. We knew like a day or so ago, but we didn’t want to put that out and have that be the story of the game. He just can’t jump,” Krzyzewski said after Saturday’s 76-72 loss. “We’ll put in for a medical hardship waiver. It’s not like you can say he’s going to redshirt [automatically]—you have to put in for it. But he should be kind of a rubber stamp because he hasn’t played in over 30 percent of the games.”
After Jefferson went down initially, Krzyzewski shifted his starting lineup to give it more of a small-ball look, with 6-foot-9 Brandon Ingram playing the stretch four position. That opened up an extra starting spot in the backcourt, which has been split between rookies Luke Kennard and Derryck Thornton. Kennard received the starting nod in Duke’s first game without Jefferson—a 99-65 victory against Georgia Southern Dec. 15—but Krzyzewski has gravitated toward Thornton more as of late, opting to give the offense a more traditional point guard and a dangerous scoring weapon off the bench.
Aside from Kennard, though, the Blue Devil bench has become noticeably thin without Jefferson. Freshman center Chase Jeter has not shown enough to warrant significant action, leaving six players to bear the burden of playing heavy minutes for more than two-thirds of the season and the entirety of Duke’s ACC slate.
Duke’s lack of depth without Jefferson has left it extremely susceptible to any additional injuries or foul trouble. When Matt Jones’ ankle sprain was compounded with a Derryck Thornton shoulder scare and foul trouble for Kennard and Grayson Allen at Louisville Feb. 20, the Blue Devils were forced to turn to walk-on Nick Pagliuca to close out the game—underscoring the razor-thin margin for error the team now operates with.
“We have to get rested. We don’t have any depth,” Krzyzewski said. “We don’t have anybody to replace those guys. We have to figure out a regimen of toughness without physicality…. But again, that’s what we’ve been doing, so I’m not feeling sorry for us.”
Jefferson’s absence has been felt in many forms, but the most tangible hole he left has been on the boards. The 6-foot-9 senior was averaging a career-high 10.3 rebounds per game before his injury and has always been an efficient weapon thanks to his knack for offensive rebounding.
But with him on the sidelines, Duke now plays three guards at all times and has had trouble dealing with interior-oriented teams—a fact North Carolina made painfully clear Saturday, outrebounding Duke 64-29. With Marshall Plumlee as the lone true big man, the Blue Devils have been victimized on the glass in many of their losses and have struggled to defend teams with multiple threats in the post.
The Tar Heel duo of Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson grabbed 35 rebounds as part of North Carolina’s commanding effort on the boards, and the visitors from Chapel Hill turned 27 offensive rebounds into 20 second-chance points and 42 points in the paint.
Protecting the glass has been a constant point of emphasis for the Blue Devils after Jefferson went down, but they will need to shore up that weakness or face an early exit in the postseason.
“We’ve been playing without him for three months and we have the same mentality,” Ingram said. “We’re not going to have any excuses going into this tournament, and we’re going to try to exploit any teams’ weaknesses and try to get better on the offensive and defensive boards.”
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