This year’s Duke team features a long list of players who will not be back next year for an assortment of reasons.
Freshmen Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles are set to become the next potential Blue Devil one-and-dones and cash in their NBA paychecks. Junior Grayson Allen spurned the professional ranks last year and decided to return for one more season, making it possible that he, too, will not be around next fall. Sophomore Luke Kennard has enjoyed a breakout year and, after seeing Allen’s draft stock plummet this season after a similar sophomore campaign, may also be tempted to leave Durham for good.
Each of those players has the choice to return to Duke but, should they go, the quartet will leave behind a sizable hole to fill on the court.
But none of them represents the heart and soul of the Blue Devils the way that Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones—the two players who cannot come back next year—do.
In an era featuring few seniors at top programs, Duke is fortunate enough to have a pair of experienced co-captains in Jefferson and Jones. Together, the duo has taken the floor more than 280 times for the Blue Devils, embracing a hard-nosed, throwback mentality on the hardwood and bridging the gap with their younger, flashier teammates.
“Our program is about the veterans, because as good as the kids are who come here, and they don’t stay the whole time, they’re great kids, but they have to learn the culture from somebody,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the team’s win against Florida State Feb. 28. “It’s the older guys that you learn the culture from.”
The privilege of having Jones for four seasons and Jefferson for five has certainly not been lost on Krzyzewski, who often goes out of his way to highlight their contributions in ways that a traditional box score cannot measure.
After the Blue Devils knocked off the Seminoles on Senior Night to send their two veterans off with a final win in Cameron, the 70-year-old head coach took a moment to share a personal memory. Each year, Krzyzewski and his family have a tradition of taking all seniors, managers included, out to dinner the night before their final home game as a way to thank them for their contributions to the program.
As usual, this year’s dinner was light-hearted, Krzyzewski said, and his daughters peppered the players with questions about their favorite experiences or games. But the five-time-national champion who has coached dozens of grizzled veterans said he could not help but realize how special the two sitting across from him are.
“It was like a family being together, and looking across, and I didn’t say it, but I’m looking at especially Matt and Amile saying, ‘How lucky am I to have these kids for four and five years?’” Krzyzewski said. “They’ve won 100-something games. Whatever their record is is pretty good. They didn’t slump very much during their career. They won a national championship.”
Jones and Jefferson were undoubtedly critical pieces on the 2015 national championship team, even as the freshman trio of Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow grabbed the headlines. Ultimately, the swap of Jones for Jefferson in the starting lineup—which allowed Winslow to slide to the four—was what allowed that Blue Devil team to reach its full potential, a switch made possible only by the ego-free and team-first attitudes that Jones and Jefferson embody.
The heart and soul of that team, of course, was its lone senior, Quinn Cook. Cook’s growth throughout his four years from a volatile freshman to a calm captain was tremendous, and the image of him and Krzyzewski tearfully embracing after claiming the national title is the lasting image of that iconic run.
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And although this year’s team has a long way to go to cut down the nets in Phoenix, Jones got to have his own moment with Krzyzewski as he and Jefferson headed to the bench for one final time in front of the Cameron Crazies.
“Four years here ain’t for the fainthearted,” Jones said after the game. “To have that moment with Coach K—honestly, I’ve had a couple moments like that over my four years, but to be an old man basically to these kids and to have that moment with Coach, it was one that I’ll cherish and remember.”
If four years at Duke is not for the faint of heart, then the five seasons Jefferson has suited up for should serve as proof of his fortitude. As the only three-time captain in program history, the Philadelphia native has emerged as a natural leader with his forceful voice on the court and an enthusiasm for defense.
Jefferson was poised to lead the Blue Devils last season, averaging a double-double in nine games before a fractured foot in mid-December sidelined him for the rest of the year. He was not officially ruled out for the year until the regular-season finale against North Carolina, though, as the 6-foot-9 forward tried to will and work his body back to game shape.
The lanky forward was granted a fifth-year medical redshirt, ensuring that he would have one more go-round to make his mark as a Blue Devil.
“It’s unbelievable for me to be back here. My freshman year I could have wrote down where I thought I would be today, and I wouldn’t be at Duke,” Jefferson said after the Florida State game. “It’s been an amazing journey, and I’ve loved every minute of it.”
Even in their swan songs, the going has been tough for Jones and Jefferson as they try to lead a team facing lofty preseason expectations. With Jefferson hampered by another foot injury and Jones struggling mightily with his outside shot, the duo has found it difficult to lead by example and carry the team on the court at times.
Instead, Jefferson and Jones have tried to do what they do best—mentor the younger players, showing them what it takes to compete at a championship level. If Allen leaves for the NBA, next year’s team will almost certainly have no seniors in the rotation—but the junior knows how much he owes his success to the seniors Duke has now.
“The three years that I’ve been here, they’ve been incredible. Amile has been a leader since the time I stepped on campus, and Matt has just been huge with his dedication,” Allen said after the Senior Night win. “Both of them are just the ultimate team guys—they buy in completely to what Coach is saying, to what we’re doing and what’s best for the team.”