The independent news organization of Duke University

Jefferson continues evolving as player, leader in fifth year with Duke men's basketball

<p>Amile Jefferson missed most of last season with a foot injury after helping the Blue Devils capture their fifth national championship as a defensive stopper.</p>

Amile Jefferson missed most of last season with a foot injury after helping the Blue Devils capture their fifth national championship as a defensive stopper.

When it was announced that Amile Jefferson would be out indefinitely with a right foot injury last December, Blue Devil fans began anxiously awaiting the 6-foot-9 forward’s return. Jefferson was in the midst of his best season since arriving in Durham—he set career highs in points, rebounds, assists and blocks while averaging a double-double during Duke’s first nine games last year.

But suddenly, the then-senior was sidelined. Weeks passed and calendar pages flipped, first to January and then February. Jefferson remained on the bench for all of the Blue Devils’ final 27 games, but even as Duke progressed into the meat of its ACC schedule, he could not shed his walking boot.

And just hours before the Blue Devils’ regular-season finale against North Carolina, the inevitable outcome was made official—Jefferson’s season would not be salvaged.

“It was just about not rushing it,” Jefferson said at ACC media day last week. “Not coming back and being a shell of myself for six, seven games and taking advantage of the opportunity to get my body to 100 percent…. Taking my time was the best thing I could have done and it really worked out perfectly.”

Thanks to a medical redshirt, the Philadelphia native is back for a fifth season at Duke, and for a third consecutive year, Jefferson will be one of the Blue Devils’ co-captains—the first three-time captain in program history. With a roster that features 10 underclassmen, Duke will need the experience of its vocal leader more than ever.

“Me, Grayson [Allen] and Matt [Jones,] we’ve been around. We’ve seen the ups and downs, we know what it takes to win,” Jefferson said at the team’s media day in early October. “We get what the coaches expect. We get what it means to have preseason to work hard to be a Duke basketball player. What we’re doing now is trying to instill that in our younger guys.”

For much of his first four seasons with the Blue Devils, Jefferson worked as a grinder—making his mark as a rebounding and defensive specialist. He often used his 224-pound frame to impact the game down low, averaging 5.7 rebounds in 115 career games and blocking a trio of shots during the 2015 NCAA title game.

But with nearly 10 months away from live game action, the graduate student had a unique opportunity.

Rather than simply building on past successes, Jefferson focused on expanding his game. During the summer, the Blue Devil forward stayed in Durham, continuing to rehab his right foot while also improving his dribbling, passing and shooting—three areas which had never been Jefferson’s strengths.

“He’s just evolving. He’s a really good basketball player, and he doesn’t have a position,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said at the team’s media day. “If he gets a rebound, he can bring it up the court and he’d be our so-called point guard. He can make really good decisions and he can defend multiple positions, and he’s a great guy to lead our full-court pressure.”

In the Blue Devils’ first exhibition contest against Virginia State Friday, Jefferson showed that his coach’s comments were not just preseason rhetoric. On a number of his 10 rebounds, Jefferson grabbed the ball off the glass and dribbled up past midcourt to initiate the Duke offense. Although Jefferson finished the game just 1-of-4 from the field, he tallied four assists and showed confidence playing on the wing.

Along with freshmen Jayson Tatum, Marques Bolden and Harry Giles—as well as sophomore Chase Jeter—Jefferson is part of an athletic and versatile frontcourt unlike any Krzyzewski has ever had.

If four years were not enough for the forward to develop into one of the Blue Devils’ most important pieces—both on and off the court—Jefferson now has yet another season. And many within the Duke program expect him to return from injury better than ever.

“Amile has been working on his shot, so that’s definitely better,” Jones said at the team’s media day. “Other than that, Amile is going to always be Amile—the hard worker, the tenacious rebounder and a great teammate.”

With the Blue Devils’ high aspirations of earning the sixth national title in program history, there may be no player more important than Jefferson. Despite coming to Durham as a soft-spoken and sometimes tentative player just four years ago, Jefferson has grown into Duke’s “point guard on the court.”

His head coach has even compared him to Blue Devil legend Shane Batter—an NCAA champion and National Player of the Year in 2001 when Duke captured its third national title—and Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green.

“He just cares about winning,” Tatum said at the team’s media day. “He’ll do anything to help his teammates out or do what the coaches say, just to win. That’s what we’re worried about this year—coming together as a team to win, and he’s showed us how to do that.”

Amrith Ramkumar, Brian Pollack and Hank Tucker contributed reporting.

Mitchell Gladstone | Sports Managing Editor

Twitter: @mpgladstone13

A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak." 


Share and discuss “Jefferson continues evolving as player, leader in fifth year with Duke men's basketball” on social media.