Duke Basketball: Why Amile Jefferson Needs to Play More Minutes

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Duke Basketball: Why Amile Jefferson Needs to Play More Minutes
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

Far be it from me to question a four-time National Champion and two-time Gold medalist, but I think it would be highly beneficial if Amile Jefferson got more playing time. For both the current season as well as next year and beyond, Jefferson’s development as a player will be instrumental.

So far this year, Amile Jefferson is averaging 3.5 points per game, 1.9 rebounds per game and has four blocks and four steals on the season. Those numbers are pretty good for a freshman playing in the post, especially when considering that Jefferson is averaging just 9.7 minutes per game (via ESPN).

When he has been given substantial minutes, Jefferson has been able to effectively insert himself into the game. In his college debut against Georgia State and in Duke’s third game of the season against Florida Gulf Coast, Jefferson played 13 minutes in each contest. Against Georgia State he had five points, and against Florida Gulf Coast he had four. In both of those games, Jefferson pulled down two rebounds.

Unfortunately, the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament and ACC/Big Ten Challenge retarded his progress somewhat. Against Kentucky, Minnesota, VCU, Louisville and Ohio State, Jefferson played sparingly, scoring only two points over the course of those five games.

But in the month of December, Jefferson has been back on form, showing signs of his excellent potential.

In the blowout versus Delaware, Jefferson played 21 minutes and came up with a season high in rebounds, six and in points (12). Riding that momentum, Jefferson contributed to the Temple victory. In only nine minutes, Jefferson scored seven points on 3-of-5 shooting and added two rebounds.

The Cornell game offered much of the same, but the Elon game on the following night exposed some problems in Jefferson’s growth as a player. Against Cornell, Jefferson scored eight points and had three rebounds. Against Elon, Jefferson also had three rebounds but failed to score a single point.

Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

More troubling is that over those two games Jefferson committed five turnovers. He’d committed only two in the previous nine games. (gamelog via ESPN)

At this point in his career, Jefferson is limited when it comes to creating his own offense, as demonstrated by the increase in turnovers. His role, then, is meant to be a rebounder who will most likely find points on offensive boards and put backs.

While that sounds good in theory, Amile Jefferson hasn’t prove himself to be a force on the glass. To be fair, as a team, Duke hasn’t rebounded well this season. But given Jefferson’s role in the rotation, his inadequacy is especially troubling.

The obvious answer to Jefferson’s lack of rebounding prowess is that at 6’8” he’s only 195 pounds. Not only is that an easy explanation, it offers an easy fix: An off-season or two in the weight room.

However, I think there is a better solution to the problem and that is to let Amile Jefferson play more. With more playing time Jefferson would be able to get his feet under him. More time on the court would allow him to grow into his particular type of playing style.

Jefferson may never bulk up to the 200 plus pounds of a low-post banger, but I think his slight frame suits his game. When he has been effective, Jefferson knifes around the big bodies planted in the lane. He’s highly mobile in the blocks, and when he is attacking from the baseline, it’s hard for flatfooted big men to stay in front of Jefferson.

In some ways, Jefferson’s skills are similar to John Henson. Obviously, Henson was three inches taller (give or take), but just as Henson darted around in the lane, so does Jefferson.

Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, at the college level such a skill set is not easily refined. It will take a lot of trial and error to get a feel for where the spaces in the paint open up for a player agile enough to fill them. That depth of knowledge requires on-court experience in the form of playing time.

Jefferson clearly wants to set up in the post and slice around defenders for rebounds and easy baskets. And this is something Duke desperately needs, so why not allow Jefferson to grow into a role that addresses this team's weakness?

It’s imperative that Jefferson develop his low-block abilities, because as conference season approaches, Duke will essentially play three games every week. That grueling schedule can lead to injuries and fatigue.

Moreover, Marshall Plumlee is going to take some time to come up to speed having missed so much time due to injury. And although Mason Plumlee has managed to avoid foul trouble so far this season, the physical teams in the ACC will attempt to draw fouls from Duke’s lone center.

The injured Marshall Plumlee and undersized Josh Hairston do not offer as much as Amile Jefferson could in terms of a true post player. Perhaps Marshall Plumlee will develop into a quality center, but Jefferson presents better scoring potential from the low post. As for Hairston, Jefferson already averages more points than him despite playing fewer minutes (via ESPN).

In all, Duke needs Jefferson to develop into a reliable off-the-bench player who can spell Ryan Kelly or Mason Plumlee and contribute to improving Duke’s team rebounding. The only way Jefferson can develop into this kind of contributor, however, is if he’s given time on the court to fine tune his slashing style of post play.

If he can grow that kind of John Henson-game of agility and darting post moves, Jefferson can certainly solidify Duke’s depth and make the tough slog of conference play a little more palatable.

Additionally, looking ahead to next season, Jefferson will be an integral part of the 2013-14 team. Even with Jabari Parker, Duke’s only center would be Marshall Plumlee, whose development and health are huge question marks as of right now. Jefferson, therefore, may be pressed into center duties or at the very least will be expected to come off the bench for Parker.

So it stands to reason that Jefferson needs to play more. His development as a player is crucial to Duke’s success this year as well as in future seasons, and the only way for him to really come into his own is to see meaningful minutes. Amile Jefferson is already a good player, but given the chance, he could turn into a great one.

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