Duke's Amile Jefferson did not come to Durham to play center.
But when head coach Mike Krzyzewski can roll out freshman prodigy Jabari Parker and multi-talented Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood in his starting five, playing post is the only available option this season in the Blue Devils' frontcourt.
Following an uneven first year in the program, Jefferson "put on nearly 20 pounds of muscle," according to Dukechronicle.com's Daniel Carp, in order to land this season's starting center position.
Jefferson did start down low for the first six games of this season. But, after unexceptional outings against UNC Asheville, East Carolina and Vermont, he found himself playing a reserve role in the last five games, splitting time with senior handyman Josh Hairston.
Over his years at Duke, Hairston has proven himself to be a solid interior defender, but he is an average rebounder at best and a liability on offense.
In 102 collegiate games, Hairston has never grabbed as many as 10 rebounds in a single contest, and he has only scored in double figures four times.
This year, the 6'8" power forward is averaging a meager 2.5 points and 1.9 rebounds per game.
Because of Hairston's limitations, the Blue Devils will still be counting on Jefferson as they close out their nonconference slate with upcoming games against Eastern Michigan (Dec. 28) and Elon (Dec. 31), and open their ACC schedule with a road contest at Notre Dame (Jan. 4).
Where the sophomore from Philly is strong, Duke has room for improvement. Here are three areas in which Jefferson can make the biggest impact:
Crashing the Glass
Duke is not a good rebounding team.
They are average on the defensive glass and seriously lacking on the offensive boards.
The Blue Devils are averaging only 33.7 rebounds per game (No. 260 in the nation). They pull down a mere 8.2 offensive rebounds per game (No. 264) and they are No. 215 in offensive rebounding percentage (27.9 percent).
Amile Jefferson is Duke's best rebounder. He leads the team in defensive rebounding percentage (23.5) and total rebounding percentage (19.1). His stats are even more impressive when you consider that he plays roughly half of the minutes that either Jabari Parker or Rodney Hood gets:
|Jefferson's Rebounding Rule|
|Minutes Per Game||Rebounds Per Game||Offensive Rebounds (Total)||Offensive Rebounding Percentage|
|ESPN.com and Teamrankings.com|
Jefferson uses his length and leaping ability to play bigger than he measures out. He has great anticipation of how the ball is coming off the rim and he gets to that spot to battle for missed shots and loose balls.
As the Blue Devils head into ACC play, they will face no less than four conference teams that are currently ranked in the Top 25 in the nation in total rebounding: Wake Forest (No. 9), Virginia Tech (No. 13), North Carolina (No. 17) and Georgia Tech (No. 19).
Keeping Jefferson on the floor for as long as possible will help Duke be competitive on the boards on both ends of the court.
Converting Boards and Passes in the Paint into Points
Duke is one of the best shooting teams in the country.They are No. 2 in the nation in effective field-goal percentage (58.9 percent).
The Blue Devils have no shortage of players who can put the ball in the hole.
However, they make a relatively low percentage of their points (63 percent) from two-point shots. That puts them at No. 275 in the nation. To compare, North Carolina is the No. 1 team in the nation in two-point rate with 83.4 percent (h/t Teamrankings.com).
Amile Jefferson rarely takes shots outside the lane and gets most of his buckets off of putbacks. He shoots a gaudy 70.7 percent from the floor (all from inside the arc), best among Coach K's rotation players.
Maintaining a healthy inside-outside balance is critical, especially in the latter part of the season and into the postseason. Having a player like Jefferson who makes over 70 percent of his shots down low is a great way to maintain that type of points parity.
Improving the Blue Devils' Inside-the-Arc Defense
The Blue Devils need to do a better job of challenging their opponents' interior shooting. In their first 11 games, Duke's opponents are connecting on 51 percent (No. 240 in the nation) of their inside-the-arc attempts. This percentage is too high for a team that should be challenging for the conference championship and making a deep run in March Madness. No. 1-ranked Arizona is limiting its opponents to 40.6 percent (No. 8).
Amile Jefferson has all of the tools to be an elite-level defender. His athleticism, length and increased muscle have already helped him hold his own in the post.
Dukechronicle.com's Daniel Carp suggests that Jefferson's height should not be a major matter in ACC play when he is trying to defend in the paint:
Although Jefferson is slightly undersized to play the center position, his 7-foot-1 wingspan helps alleviate a height disadvantage on both ends of the floor.
Luckily for Duke, this may be the perfect year to be undersized in the post in the ACC. Thanks to the departure of Maryland’s Alex Len, Miami’s Kenny Kadji and Reggie Johnson and N.C. State’s Richard Howell and CJ Leslie for the NBA, North Carolina’s James Michael McAdoo is one of the only returning post threats in the conference—he measures at just 6'9"
Coach K will gladly give Amile Jefferson quality and quantity minutes through the rest of 2014 if he can be a beast on the boards, score points in the paint and hold his own on defense.
While Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood and Quinn Cook will be counted on to carry most of the Blue Devils' load, Jefferson very well could be the X-factor in Duke getting to the Final Four in North Texas this coming April.