Early in an exhibition game in Cameron Indoor Stadium, Winston-Salem State’s Justin Glover got the ball outside the three-point line and was encountered by an obstacle he’s not likely to see in the CIAA.
As the 6’3” guard considered his options on offense, Duke’s 6’8” forward Amile Jefferson stood in front of him, blocking his way.
It should have been a mismatch. A small guard matched up against a forward should be able to make a quick move and penetrate. Guards did it against the Blue Devils on a regular basis last season, as Duke struggled to defend the perimeter.
But one day after Halloween, Jefferson crouched low and spread his arms, looking like a giant spider, ready to capture its prey.
“He’s six foot eight, but his wingspan is more like seven foot two,” said Mason Plumlee, who knows a thing or two about wingspan.
Glover pulled up and chose to pass the ball around the perimeter instead of taking his chances against Jefferson. Later in the first half, the lanky freshman out of Philadelphia was matched up against 6’3” Marquez Jones, 6’3” Torez Young, and 6’2” Marcus Wells.
None of those were brief matchups that came from a defensive switch. Those were the guys Jefferson picked up at half court, all of them at least five inches shorter.
“When I’m playing someone smaller, I try to get big,” Jefferson said. “I get wide. I just try to frustrate them and make them make a tougher shot over these long arms, or try to get by me when I’m fully reached out and stretched.”
Mission accomplished. None of the guards drove the lane successfully against Jefferson, who finished the game with just one foul, which he picked up with five minutes to go in the game, while battling for a rebound.
Late in the first half, 6’7” forward Joseph Thompson got the ball underneath the basket and went up strong for a dunk. He was met at the hoop by Jefferson, who stuffed the shot as he fell out of bounds.
Big or small, Jefferson is an equal-opportunity defender. “I feel comfortable playing wherever coach puts me,” he said. “At the four (power forward), when I have to battle someone bigger than me, I use my length.”
“It’s about being a basketball player,” Jefferson continued. “That’s what I am. I don’t want to have a position. I want to be a guy who can guard multiple players – bigger, smaller, stronger -- anyone on the floor really. Whoever coach wants me to stop, I want to get in there and do that.”
The Cameron crowd, still working itself into midseason Crazy form, came to life, cheering the block. Jefferson spurred them on, waving his arms and screaming. Wide-eyed and animated, he looked like a super-sized Quinn Cook.
“When he comes into the game, the life meter goes up,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He’s more enthusiastic than the crowd. He’s not watching the game, he’s playing the game. And he’s playing the game with gusto.”
“I just wanted to go out there and bring as much energy as possible,” Jefferson said. “I’m feeling really comfortable on the floor right now, bringing energy, being big, and using my length to create distractions.”
Being big seems like a strange item to include on a player’s to-do list, but the goal has occupied much of Jefferson’s time since he arrived on campus in July, looking painfully thin.
“I’m definitely on a weight program,” Jefferson said after his summer league debut, where he was pushed around in the paint by bigger, more experienced players. “I just got here a week ago. I’m working out, getting bigger and better. I don’t think I’m going to add a lot of bulk to my frame. It’s just how I’m built, but I should be able to get some good basketball strength.”
Four months later, Jefferson has already filled out noticeably. “I’ve definitely put on a fair amount of weight,” he said. “I came here at 192, and I’m weighing in every day at about 208. That’s pretty good.”
“I’m still trying to put more on my frame,” he added. “I think I can do that without losing anything. I’m trying to get stronger so when I do battle with those bigger guys, I have strength to go along with length.”
Jefferson’s quest to add pounds probably isn’t going to generate much sympathy from the general public.
“I’m trying to do anything I can,” Jefferson said. “Whether it’s having a late-night snack, getting a milkshake, whatever it takes. I want to get bigger. It’s just that my body right now just burns everything. I can lose four or five pounds in one day. So it’s tough. I’ve just got to remember to eat, and eat more.”
Of course, a bigger Amile Jefferson is the last thing that a small guard wants to see meeting him on the perimeter.
“I just want to be able to guard anybody on the floor,” Jefferson said.