The silence was unsettling for the normally festive Countdown to Craziness Saturday night, but the crowd at Cameron Indoor Stadium had cause for concern late in the intra-squad scrimmage.
Graduate student Amile Jefferson—playing for the first time in more than 10 months after missing most of last season with a fractured foot—was on the ground again after an awkward fall right in front of the Cameron Crazies.
Nobody was more concerned than Grayson Allen, who dove into Jefferson’s left knee while trying to get a hand on an outlet pass near midcourt with less than four minutes remaining. Allen deflected the ball out of bounds, but caused his fellow captain to twist, fall backwards and lose his left shoe in the process.
“It was a hustle play. That’s what we do at Duke,” Jefferson said. “I’m fortunate enough to have a player like that on my team and to go to war with him every game.”
Allen struggled for most of the scrimmage and went scoreless for the first 12 minutes, but had started to find his rhythm after a pull-up 3-pointer seconds before the near-disastrous play.
The game situation was the last thing on Allen’s mind at the moment of impact with Jefferson, though.
The junior guard immediately grabbed Jefferson’s leg and crouched beside his teammate with a pained expression on his face. Allen put his head on Jefferson’s shoulder and his arms around his teammate, hoping that he had not sidelined one of his own with the type of aggressive play that endears him to Duke fans and villainizes him in the eyes of everyone else.
“I saw him laying down and started praying, and he looked at me and said, ‘Don’t worry, I was just scared. I’m not hurt.’ I was like, ‘Oh, thank god,’” Allen said. “Especially with what he went through last year, I kind of stopped breathing for a little bit on that play.”
But after less than a minute on the ground, Jefferson was helped up by Allen, letting the crowd take a collective deep breath.
Jefferson stayed in the game to knock down both of his free throws before going to the bench for the first time to share a laugh with associate head coach Jeff Capel and head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
“I knew he wasn’t hurt. I thought he was scared,” Krzyzewski said. “Grayson was angry because they were losing. They were getting their butts beat really good…. He tried to make a good play.”
The 6-foot-9 power forward soon returned to the floor for the last couple minutes of his team’s 52-37 win and played 19 of the 20 minutes in the scrimmage, scoring seven points and dishing out a team-leading five assists.
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Jefferson’s first points came on a low-post up-and-under move early in the scrimmage, but he soon began to showcase the perimeter skills he worked on for much of the summer. After catching the ball near the left elbow midway through the contest, Jefferson did not hesitate before knocking down a midrange jumper. He also spent much of the night as a facilitator on the wing, creating shots for his teammates.
“I’m doing everything I can to make sure our team is winning,” Jefferson said. “The biggest thing I have to do is talk and lead.”
Duke has several talented newcomers—freshmen scored nearly half of the points in the scrimmage, and freshman Jayson Tatum led the White team with 18. But along with co-captain Matt Jones, Jefferson was an unsung star and a calming presence on the floor for the winning squad, which recorded a combined 12 assists and committed just five turnovers.
Jefferson averaged a double-double in just nine games last year in what he expected to be his final season at Duke, but he will once again be a key piece for the Blue Devils on both ends of the floor after successfully applying for a medical redshirt in the offseason.
Fortunately for the Blue Devils, he dodged a bullet Saturday and appears to be fully healthy heading into the season.
“To be back out there on that court was an unbelievable feeling,” Jefferson said. “For me to be back with this group is truly special. [The injury] was a blessing in disguise, and now I’m just trying to seize the moment.”