DURHAM, N.C. — One man’s misfortune is often another man’s opportunity.
That goes for Duke freshman forward Amile Jefferson, who is suddenly a vital component of what No. 3 Duke is trying to achieve. And he’s responding pretty well.
Losing senior and third-leading scorer Ryan Kelly last week for perhaps the rest of the regular season has forced the Blue Devils to change.
Kelly is a true stretch-four: a long forward capable of playing comfortably on the perimeter and also able to take his man off the dribble. He can defend anywhere, and is crucial defending in the open court.
Jefferson doesn’t have those same strengths. So instead of running four players on the perimeter, to open space for 6-foot-11 center Mason Plumlee down low and keep sharpshooting senior Seth Curry and his bum right leg in manageable situations, Duke had to run a lot more set plays in Thursday’s 73-57 win over Georgia Tech at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“It’s tough,” Curry said. “We’ve had to change directions in the middle of the season and run different plays, have different driving angles, have different places to kick (the ball) to. We’re still getting a feel for it. It’s a work in progress.”
The Devils (16-1, 3-1 ACC) stumbled and bumbled through the first half and trailed by one at halftime. But a basket by Jefferson just before the half concluded lit a spark in the team, and showed that the 6-foot-8 Jefferson can excel at this level right now.
“I’m confident in what I do, so whenever I get a chance or I see some daylight I can take advantage of it, especially with guys that don’t think that I can put the ball on the floor and can finish,” said Jefferson, who had grabbed 10 rebounds (six offensive) and scored six points.
Jefferson’s offensive instincts are ahead of his defensive ones, though he was much better Thursday than last Saturday at N.C. State. He fouled out in 12 minutes against the Wolfpack, but was whistled for four fouls in 28 minutes against the Jackets.
Kelly was a shooter and driver and around the rim he was more of a ball-tapper. Jefferson uses a super-quick second leap to get rebounds over people. He just has a knack for getting the ball.
“He’s got great length, so you can’t be inside him to rebound, you’ve got to take him out, in a good way, and put a body on him and get him out of there,” Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said.
Curry calls Jefferson “crafty” on the boards, and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said the Philadelphia native gives the team energy.
Duke’s staff looked at Jefferson playing on the perimeter earlier in the season, but he just doesn’t have the skills to play too far from the lane. And other than in a few games against patsies, he didn’t get much playing time until Kelly went down.
Krzyzewski said Jefferson has practiced well all season and was gaining confidence. Now that he’s played 40 minutes in the past two games and has contributed (16 points, 14 rebounds), Jefferson’s psyche is soaring.
“It’s definitely been crucial for me,” he said about playing important minutes. “The more I’ve been out there the more comfortable I’ve become. At first, I was shown where I need to be — guys were talking to me — but the more I’m out there the more I know what to do and they don’t have to always tell me.”
While his confidence grows and the Blue Devils assimilate their new approach, expect Jefferson to continue grabbing rebounds, turning the Devils from a so-so team on the glass into a very good one, especially on the offensive end.
In fact, here are Duke’s offensive rebound totals against the Devils’ toughest opponents to date: Kentucky, 9; Minnesota, 7; Louisville, 7; and Ohio State, 7. However, the Devils snared 12 at N.C. State and had 15 on Thursday against the Jackets. Twenty-one of Jefferson’s 41 rebounds have been offensive.
He is a rebounding machine, an energy machine and brings a refreshing spark to the floor. And while Duke would love for Kelly to get his 32 to 35 minutes a night and would be better off for it, Jefferson does improve the Devils in some areas and gives their legendary coach something to work with.
Krzyzewski was right when he said Jefferson “started the second half and looked like a kid who has started for a while.”