When Ryan Kelly went down with a foot injury in Duke's win over Clemson on January 8, many wondered who would be able to replace the versatile 6'11" forward.
Ten days and two games later, it appears Amile Jefferson is most likely to fill that role.
Jefferson, a 6'8" freshman from Philadelphia, Pa., was one of the most highly-rated high school basketball players in the country last year, being named to multiple high school All-American teams and voted the Gatorade Boys Basketball Player of the Year in Pennsylvania.
Jefferson arrived at Duke with a tremendous amount of hype, but struggled to earn minutes through the first part of the season. That tends to happen when you are playing behind two great senior forwards.
However, now that Ryan Kelly is out "indefinitely" because of his injury, it has provided Amile Jefferson the opportunity to earn more playing time. Through two games, he's making the most of it.
In Jefferson's past two games, he's played a total of 40 minutes and contributed 16 points, 10 rebounds, two steals and one block. It's too much to ask Jefferson to replace Kelly because they have such different skills, but Jefferson is doing everything he can to help his team win.
What is it that has made Amile Jefferson so effective in the last two games?
It's hard not to notice when Amile enters the game because of the tremendous amount of intensity and energy he brings to the game.
For a team that is led by Seth Curry and Mason Plumlee—two seniors known as quieter guys—Jefferson's boisterous personality and energy are great assets to his team.
Jefferson's energetic style of play also constantly has him in position to make plays. At 6'8", 195-pounds, Amile Jefferson doesn't have the physical strength to muscle people around in the post. Instead, he makes up for his lack of size by being extremely active and he often finds himself in the perfect position to grab a rebound or put back a missed shot.
With a 7' wingspan, Amile Jefferson almost looks awkward in his frame. For a guy who is 6'8" to have such long arms, this gives him a great advantage when going after rebounds and playing defense.
Jefferson's wingspan also helps counter his lack of weight, which will probably change once he's had a full offseason in Duke's strength and conditioning program.
But even without the weight, Jefferson's wingspan gives him to opportunity to snatch rebounds off the rim and make plays around the basket.
His long arms also give him the potential to be an outstanding defender because of his ability to disrupt passing lanes and block shots. Once he learns how to play defense without fouling, he has all the physical tools to be a great defender.
Jefferson receives a great deal of praise for his energy, but he also combines that with a great deal of skill, particularly for a freshman.
His ability to move in the post and constantly be in position to receive a pass out of a double-team is a testament to Amile's footwork. He has also shown a knack for grabbing rebounds it looks like he won't be able to get, which means he has an awareness of when he needs to leave his feet to grab the ball.
Also, Jefferson has shown a surprising ability to make plays with the ball when he receives it in awkward positions. There were a couple instances in the NC State game when Jefferson made some tough running shots in the lane and his drive at the end of the first half against Georgia Tech was a display of excellent footwork and body control.
His polished footwork isn't something you typically see from a freshman.
The questions about how Ryan Kelly's injury affects Duke will continue to be asked as long as Kelly is out. But the question of whether or not Amile Jefferson will be able to contribute have been answered. Jefferson has answered loud and clear with a resounding, "YES."
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