By Andrew Kahn
Think it, say it, do it. That might sound like the motto of a self-help guru, but it applies to Duke sophomore forward Amile Jefferson. For a stretch earlier this season, Jefferson was not playing up to his potential. “I was at a point where I really couldn’t do any worse,” he said after last Thursday’s win over UCLA. “So I talked to myself and said, ‘Just play.’ I [had been] overthinking it when I was out there. I was too conservative. Now I’m giving it all I’ve got and I feel like I’ve been playing a lot better.”
On a team with Jabari Parker, Rodney Parker, and Quinn Cook, Jefferson can be forgotten. He doesn’t light up the box score (he averages six points and five rebounds this season) and, in a culture that drools over one-and-done talent, he looks more like a four-year college player.
You have to look more closely to appreciate Jefferson’s contributions, which come mostly on the defensive end but also as a rebounder and passer. “For us to be our best we need Amile to be a key player,” Duke associate head coach Steve Wojciechowki said. “Tonight was a prime example [Jefferson scored 11 points on six shots and grabbed seven rebounds in 23 minutes off the bench]: When he plays well, he adds a new dimension to our team.”
Jefferson arrived at Duke from Philadelphia as a consensus top-40 recruit and a McDonald’s All-American. He has added nearly 20 pounds to his lean 6’8” frame since he arrived on campus, pushing his weight to 210 pounds. He started seven games as a freshman and averaged 4.1 offensive rebounds per 40 minutes.
His favorite thing to do on the court is crash the offensive glass and kick the ball out to a shooter for an open three, something the Duke coaching staff stresses. “Those can be backbreakers,” Jefferson said. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Jefferson’s ability to operate in the middle of UCLA’s zone defense and find outside shooters was a key in the 80-63 win at Madison Square Garden.
Jefferson spent time guarding current NBA player Ryan Kelly in practice last season. This year he takes on Parker, Hood, or 7-footer Marshall Plumlee. Those match-ups will only make him—and his teammates—better.
Parker credits Jefferson for his own development this season, on and off the court: “He’s a guy who likes to drive and has a lot of moves. He’s not your typical big man,” Parker said in reference to the challenges of guarding Jefferson.
With all the talent on this roster, but no true center, Jefferson will be critical to No. 9 Duke’s success in March. He realizes several of his teammates will be the focus of opposing defenses, providing him opportunities to find open space and be a facilitator.
A chance to be a key part of a Final Four team? Now that’s something to talk about.
Andrew Kahn is a contributor to CBS Local Sports who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about college basketball and other sports at AndrewJKahn.com. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn
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