Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Nine games into his first season at Duke, Amile Jefferson is starting to get comfortable.
Playing at the Atlantic Coast Conference powerhouse, under legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski, brings with it a lot of responsibility. Add in a rigorous academic schedule at a top-notch educational institute, and it’s no easy task for any student-athlete, much less a freshman in his first semester of collegiate life.
“I actually really just finished (the semester) up this weekend, got everything turned in. Still working on one last project but I’m finishing strong,” Jefferson told CoBL after Duke’s 90-67 win over Temple on Saturday. “I’m happy, because when you’re at a rough academic school like Duke, to get one semester under your belt and just feel like ‘phew,’ having that confidence like I can do this on the court and in the classroom is really good. So that first semester for me is really great in helping me get my confidence.”
The Friends’ Central product was one of the most coveted prospects in the nation until he chose to go to the North Carolina basketball powerhouse back in May. A lanky, 6-foot-8 forward who could play out on the wing or with his back to the basket, Jefferson was ranked the 25th-best prospect in the Class of 2012 by ESPN and 13th overall by FOX/Scout.com.
While fellow McDonald’s All-American Rasheed Sulaimon has started the first nine games of the season for Duke, averaging 12.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game to start his career, Jefferson is still working his way into the Blue Devils’ rotation. He’s played double-digit minutes in three of Duke’s first nine games, averaging 3.3 ppg and 1.7 rebounds; he did play his best game last Saturday in a 38-point win over Delaware, scoring 12 points in 21 minutes for his only double-digit scoring effort.
“You know, it’s been a lot of work,” Jefferson admitted. “You have to get adjusted and you have to really learn how to put in all the work you can on the court, and then after that put in all the work you can off the court–whether that be in the classroom or just working on your game. It’s really been tough but I think I’ve adjusted well to it, so really just happy about it.”
One of the major reasons he chose Duke over N.C. State, Villanova, Kentucky and Ohio State was the chance to work with Krzyzewski (pronounced “shuh-SHEF-ski”), the winningest coach in NCAA Division I history with an all-time win-loss record of 935-291 (.763).
“Being able to learn from arguably the greatest coach in the game of basketball was amazing for me,” he said. “Being able to come here and learn from Coach, develop as a player, and have him help me, then him bringing that energy that he brings every day and then me trying to bring it back, I just want to learn all I can from him.”
Jefferson played well again on Saturday, scoring seven points and pulling in two rebounds in a nine-minute stretch of playing time as Krzyzewski played his starters for 163 out of a possible 200 minutes. Though Duke had already played against (and beaten) the then-No. 2 (Louisville), No. 3 (Kentucky), and No. 4 (Ohio State) teams in the country, he admitted that this game was a little different.
“It definitely was special, just getting to be close to home, where a lot of my family was here–I think about 14 people came out from my family and that was great, getting to see them in the crowd,” he said. “My mom had on blue hair, I’ve never seen her like that, so that was really enjoyable for me.”
Though he might not get to be back home very often, Jefferson said his Friend’s Central “family” would be coming down to visit next week. One member of that family who won’t be able to attend is his high school coach, Jason Polykoff, now an assistant at Penn; the fact that both have moved on from the Main Line private school doesn’t mean they’ve forgotten about each other, however.
“Me and Coach (Polykoff) built a great relationship,” Jefferson said said. “I’m so happy for him that he’s at Penn right now and I just wish him the best. He always checks in on me from time to time, letting me know he’s still watching and he’s still working himself. We’re both students right now–he’s learning, I’m learning–so it’s really great, it’s really special.”
While he waits his turn to shine in the famous blue and white Duke uniforms, Jefferson continues to work on his already-impressive offensive arsenal.
“I’m really working on my shot,” he said. “I think it’s improved tremendously and the more I work on it, I think the better player I’m gonna be. Handling, getting stronger–I’m getting stronger every day. I’ve put on a lot of weight since I’ve been here, trying to put on some more.”
Though his career might not have gotten off to the explosive start that some of his classmates have, it’s clear that Jefferson’s trajectory is heading skyward.
Now that he’s gotten that first semester out of the way, anything’s possible.