More Sports:

April 10, 2015

Q&A: Philly's Amile Jefferson on guarding Frank Kaminsky, Jahlil Okafor and his roots

Fresh off winning a national title, we talk to the Duke junior and Philadelphia native

As far as I’m concerned, Amile Jefferson is a miracle worker, magician, and wizard all rolled up into one. This past Monday night, he forced me to do something that I can say in good conscience has never happened before. I’m of course talking about wholeheartedly agreeing with Skip Bayless:

Not only did Skip actually make a good point, but it also wasn’t a completely obvious one. Flying under the radar thanks to the ridiculous shot-making of freshman guards Tyus Jones and Grayson Allen, Jefferson made his contribution to the Blue Devils’ title on defense. He specifically frustrated Wisconsin center and Naismith College Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky, not allowing him to get deep post position and then forcing him to miss when he did get the ball. Jefferson’s final line doesn’t do justice to the impact he had on the game, especially because star freshman big man Jahlil Okafor was battling foul trouble throughout.

"Amile is a better defender against Kaminsky than Jah is. Kaminsky is more like [former Duke star Christian] Laettner — they’re not centers, they’re players," Mike Krzyzewski told The Chronicle. "So that’s difficult for a guy like Jah to defend. Amile defended him well."

A couple of days after Jefferson cut down the nets in Indy with his teammates, we caught up with the 6-foot-9 forward from West Philly and Friends’ Central:

Philly Voice: There’s 9:18 left in Monday’s game. Kaminsky had just gotten an and-one while drawing Jahlil’s fourth foul. You guys are down four and Coach K inserts you onto the floor. What is the main thought going through your head as you’re checking in?

Amile Jefferson: Just to be a player and at all times try to make plays. I knew I was going in to guard Kaminsky, so just you know, keep myself between him and the basket and try to limit him from taking over the game anymore.

PV: It seemed like once you came into the game, Kaminsky got away from shooting threes and trying to take Jahlil off the dribble. His plan of attack looked like it was to post you up, and you stopped him a few times. Was there anything specific you did in trying to defend him, anything you keyed on?

AJ: No. I knew that he had a really good hook shot and feel around the hoop, so just keeping myself between him and the basket was the biggest thing. Making it tough for him to catch, not letting him catch low on the block where he could just turn and shoot over me. Making sure he had to take all of those dribbles before he could do anything.

PV: Your high school résumé is really impressive: Four state titles, Gatorade State Player of the Year, McDonald’s All-American, averaging 20 and 10 your senior year, etc. Then you go to Duke and there is way less shots available. You have to do a lot of your damage on the offensive boards and are asked to contribute the little things. Initially, was it difficult to make such a huge transition?

AJ: Not really, because I just had to do things I already did at a higher level like rebounding or playing defense. We all believed in each other, so that was a big thing because we all trust each other and are selfless. All of our guys are selfless on the team, so it really didn’t matter who was doing what. It just all about Duke winning at the end of the game and that really helped me [make the transition].

PV: You don’t have to comment on this, but I’ll assume Jahlil goes pro [note: after the interview, he did]. As you may be aware of, the local basketball team might have a pretty high pick in this year’s draft. You’ve played him more than anyone over the last year, whether it’s against him in practice or on the floor at the same time. From a player’s perspective, can you give a scouting report of what he brings to the table?

AJ: He commands a defense to operate around him, so you have to either double before or when he catches it. He commands so much attention from the defense and helps your offense run a lot smoother because they’re going to focus so much on him that you’re going to be able to do so many different things [as an offense]. Defensively, his ability to control the paint is great, too.

PV: For the average person, what’s the best part of being a Duke basketball player that they might not know? And what’s the hardest?

AJ: The best part about it is being a part of something bigger than yourself everyday, being a part of a brotherhood that is legendary. Each day, being able to come in and compete against the best players in their class, from their area, and from their state. To be able to all come together, guys from Florida, D.C., Chicago, Philadelphia, Texas, and to do something special. That’s been great for me, the bond I’ve built with all of the players that I’ve been in contact with through Duke.

The hardest part is that it doesn’t just happen. You think from the outside that if you come to Duke, you’re automatically going to win. It’s not the case. You have to make your team win and put in the grind, effort, and dedication to do that. It’s tough, not easy at all. It’s a lot of work, and a lot of ups and a lot of downs. You have to be strong enough to make it through, and if you can, you will. If you put in the work, you will do something special here.

PV: To your point, was losing in the first round [to 14th-seeded Mercer] a wake-up call?

AJ: Yeah, it just shows how brutal March can be, and I’ve gotten to see all sides of it. I’ve experienced losing in the first round and now being a national champion. It’s March, and there’s a beauty that comes with it and at times it can be brutal. That’s why you play the game, and our group this year had a purity and great sense of togetherness that helped us win.

PV: What has campus been like since you got back from Indianapolis? Is it a mob scene or are people losing their minds whenever they see you? Or is it like that in general anyway?

AJ: Campus right now is buzzing and it helps because the weather has been beautiful in Durham. It feels like the summer and we just came back from winning a national championship so the entire institution is on a high right now. Everyone is living in this moment and that’s why it’s been great.

PV: Let’s talk about our hometown a little bit. You’re from West Philly and I read somewhere that you grew up playing on the playgrounds and rec centers? Can you describe your basketball upbringing?

AJ: I started playing with Cedric Jones for Philly’s Finest [AAU} and it was a journey. Philadelphia has been great to me. I love that city. Growing up in Philly, you’re playing against really good players, really tough kids everyday whether it’s AAU, rec league, or just outside. Philly guys have a pride to them where no matter what they’re doing, everyone is really tough and they’re going to expect to win. Growing up playing with Ced and Philly’s Finest was big, helping make it grow. I’m really appreciative of all that Philly has done for me.

PV: I also read that like me and every other kid in the city in the early 2000’s you grew up in awe of Allen Iverson. Do you have any memories of when he was playing for the Sixers?

AJ: I’m a huge Allen Iverson fan. I was young, but I remember [when the Sixers made the Finals in 2001]. It was unbelievable watching those [playoff] series and watching him dominate, carrying a team at his size and with his heart. When they played Toronto and it was him and Vince Carter, those are memories I will always have. That was when I started loving the game.

PV: Heading back to the title game, the block you had on Josh Gasser was pretty emphatic. Push that one to the side: What’s the best block or dunk you’ve ever had?

AJ: I haven’t been a really big high-flyer, but I’ve had some really good dunks in my career. I really like the one I had in the Sweet 16 against Utah because it was a big for our team’s momentum and me personally.

PV: Final question. Not many people get the chance to win a championship and then come back to defend it like you will. Is it going to be different next year?

AJ: Nope. It’s hard thinking about next year, but when our guys come back that time will come. When we’re starting up again, we’ll have the same goal with a different group. Guys have to take time off away from the game and then we’ll get hungry again.