Amile Jefferson stands at midcourt, cradling a basketball. It’s just under an hour before Duke hosts Clemson, and he is right at home.
Only this time, instead of being in a blue warm-up, Jefferson is wearing a jet black polo and slacks. While Mark Williams, Theo John, Keenan Worthington and Spencer Hubbard go through a few passing and lateral movement drills, Jefferson stands to the side, observing. So is life as the Blue Devils’ new director of player development.
Back in July, looking to bolster his staff in the wake of Nate James accepting the Austin Peay gig, head coach Mike Krzyzewski announced that the former Duke forward and three-year captain was returning to the program.
“It is a thrill to have Amile back in our program,” Krzyzewski said in a release announcing the move. “Amile is truly one of the best representatives as a fierce competitor who never took a day off—whether it was in a game, on the practice court, and more importantly in the classroom."
“Never took a day off.”
Those might sound like clichés, but in Jefferson’s case, they ring true. How else could someone go from averaging just 12.7 minutes a night as a freshman, to serving as a crucial cog on a championship roster?
When the program made the announcement, though, it came as quite the surprise, considering that Jefferson had just averaged 11.7 points and 7.1 rebounds a contest over the winter and spring for Galatasaray of the Turkish Super League. At 28, Jefferson still had miles left in the tank for a playing career. Yet his time at Duke—the ups, the downs and everything in between—pointed to this being a possibility.
People just didn’t realize it.
Things were getting dicey in Lucas Oil Stadium.
Duke only trailed by four, yet was dealt a major blow when All-American center Jahlil Okafor picked up a critical fourth foul with 9:18 to go. Okafor had struggled to contain Frank Kaminsky all night long, and now he was parked on the bench as the Blue Devils’ 2015 championship hopes were in limbo.
Krzyzewski needed someone to match up with Kaminsky, who swept the national player of the year awards. With Okafor on the bench, it became clear that the toughest defensive assignment in college basketball now belonged to Jefferson.
Over 5:56 of game time, the then-junior slowed Kaminsky just enough to give Duke the chance to recapture the lead on the other end. Jefferson guarded the Badger star every time down the floor during that particular stretch, holding Kaminsky to 1-of-3 from the field by virtue of some physical and disciplined post defense.
Okafor entered the ballgame again after the under-four timeout, taking control with a pair of buckets late. As the clock hit zeroes, the confetti fell and the Blue Devils prevailed 68-63, much of the praise went to Okafor and fellow freshmen, Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones and Grayson Allen.
But Jefferson, true to form, was steady when Duke needed steady.
“It was just about making positive plays,” Jefferson said during the postgame presser. “We have an amazing group, we have guys that can score, amazing talents, so when I’m out there, I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help our guys. Today it was being strong on the defensive end.”
For the evening, the former McDonald’s All-American ended with seven boards and three huge blocks in 21 minutes. Not known for his scoring production, Jefferson only attempted a single shot—a layup that tied things up late in the first half—during the entire contest. It did not matter.
“Amile Jefferson was a huge, huge factor in this game,” Krzyzewski asserted that night. “His defense, and how he battled everybody, put us in a great position.”
At the age of 21, Jefferson had it all. A wide-eyed grin that fans and teammates gravitated to. A reputation for toughness and energy. A national championship ring. Life was good.
But life is never linear. In the midst of averaging 11.4 points on 68.3% from the floor and 10.3 rebounds through nine games, Jefferson broke his right foot in December of 2015. Duke, which was 8-1 before the injury, suffered seven conference losses without its co-captain and fell in the Sweet Sixteen to Oregon.
Upon his return for a fifth and final season in 2016-17, the Friends Central School alum solidified his status as a reliable veteran in a one-and-done factory. Starting all 35 contests as the consummate glue guy, Jefferson was tied for fourth in points and first in rebounds and blocks. His value was without question.
His senior speech after Duke’s 75-70 win against Florida State Feb. 28 was the cherry on top.
“I love you all. I mean, I love this place, this is the most amazing school in the world. I love you guys,” Jefferson said to the raucous crowd.
Twenty-one days later, the Pennsylvania native’s Duke career ended in the second round. It was off to the pros. But he had an itch.
Jefferson was talented and dedicated enough to earn a spot on two All-NBA G League teams and play 30 games for the Orlando Magic from 2018-2020. But after a four-month stint with Galatasaray, it was time to shake things up.
Around the same time, Duke was going through some staff turnover, with Nolan Smith moving from director of basketball operations to assistant coach and his former deputy R.J. Hunter sliding up a notch to director of operations.
That helped matters. All it took were some conversations with associate head coach Jon Scheyer to get the ball rolling.
“It was a decision that took about a month,” Jefferson said during Duke’s preseason media day in September. “But like I was saying earlier, me and Coach Scheyer are always in close contact, we probably talked once or twice every week, even when I was playing professionally, and he was a big proponent in helping me come back.”
Then, it was time to speak with Krzyzewski about a potential move.
“I had a real great conversation with Coach K about, when is the right time to make the pivot. He just told me, ‘If you're going to be in you have to be all in, you have to jump in, and if you're not sure, then it's probably because you want to keep playing. If you do, that's fine, too,’” Jefferson said.
That talk sealed the deal for the former Gatorade Pennsylvania Player of the Year. After four years away, Jefferson was ready to return to the program.
“For me, I woke up and I was like ‘This is what I want to do, this is a special moment and opportunity.’ And I would love to be around Coach K and Coach Scheyer and this very cool experience and learn from each other. So ended up being a no brainer, I’m super happy I’m back,” Jefferson said back in September.
Director of player development is not some sort of ceremonial role. Far from it, actually. Jefferson is constantly working with the current crop of Blue Devils.
James, who was Duke’s big-man guru throughout his 12 years on staff, played a key role in sophomore center Mark Williams’ growth over the latter stages of last season. The 7-footer ended his debut campaign with a 23-point, 19-rebound tour de force against Louisville in the ACC tournament, and the ceiling was apparently limitless.
That growth needed to continue, despite James no longer being in the fold. So far, it has. Jefferson, along with associate head coach Chris Carrawell, committed to picking up where their colleague left off.
“With Coach Carrawell and Amile, I think biggest thing was finishing and rebounding, protecting the rim,” Williams said during a Jan. 20 presser on what he has been working on with the pair. “And then on the defensive end also, being vocal, allowing those guards to know where screens are coming from, knowing they have help on the back side, that sort of thing.”
That work has paid off considerably in recent weeks, as Williams is averaging 13.3 points on an absurd 75.6% from the floor, 9.0 rebounds and 3.3 blocks in the Blue Devils’ last six games. The Virginia native has emphatically established himself as a rim runner and ferocious shot blocker.
Jefferson has even seen his in-game responsibilities increase, as three members of Duke’s coaching staff have missed games due to injury or illness—Krzyzewski (non-COVID illness), Smith (health and safety protocols) and Carrawell (knee replacement surgery).
That part of the job might have come out of left field, but Jefferson has taken it in stride. Par for the course for the man who played the most games, 150, in program history.
“We’ve been gifted with Amile,” Krzyzewski said after Duke’s Jan. 15 victory against N.C. State. “He’s been able to coach because C-Well was out for three weeks with a knee replacement, and then I’m out…. It’s given him a chance to have an impact on the team.
“Man, he’s been incredible. Incredible…. I've been around a lot of young coaches, I have experience, but for a young coach, he's a natural, and he's helped me out a lot because I'm old and my knees don't work anymore. So to have him on my side, it helps, it helps a lot man and guys really respect him,” Carrawell said during a Jan. 27 availability.
His foray into coaching might have come earlier than expected. Professional basketball is a lucrative and rewarding business, where grinding it out often pays off.
Nevertheless, seven months into his new role, Jefferson is loving life at Duke once again.
“I always envisioned myself in basketball, and I knew that at some point the ball would stop bouncing and that I would have to find my niche and pivot in another way,” Jefferson said at media day. “Coaching right now has been amazing, and teaching these guys and learning from these guys, and vice versa, has been really great.”
Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle and The Daily Tar Heel's annual rivalry edition. Find the rest here.
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Max Rego is a Trinity senior and an associate sports editor for The Chronicle's 118th volume. He was previously sports managing editor for Volume 117.