The NBA G League is filled with players possessing special talent, looking to get a shot from one of the 30 NBA teams with a contract. For some, this G League season is yet another year of trying to prove themselves at the pro level. For others, it may be the first year since leaving college. Either way, each player in this league has a unique story for why they are here and what has led them to this point.
For Amile Jefferson, this is his first season of professional basketball. Having graduated from Duke University last spring, he has experience playing at the highest level in college, under arguably one the greatest basketball coaches ever, Mike Krzyzewski. In his short professional career, he has gained USA Basketball experience playing under Jeff Van Gundy, so the guidance he has received in his career has been world-class.
Jefferson joined 11 other NBA G Leaguers on USA’s roster for FIBA World Cup Qualifying games over Thanksgiving weekend. Some would think that this would be just another time to showcase the skills that they bring to the court, but on a bigger stage than usual. But for Jefferson, the experience was even more significant.
“You know actually, going into this whole experience it was so much bigger than me, and I understood that. I was just so honored and esteemed to even be a part of USA Basketball,” Jefferson said. “And the only thing I was focused on was representing my country, and myself for the country, in the best way possible. I knew I was going to be leaving everything I had out on the floor. It didn’t matter to me really how much I played, how much I scored. As long as I was doing everything in my power to represent our country in the best way possible, that was literally the main focus for me during my time there.”
It comes as no surprise to hear that from Jefferson, who has always been a team-first guy. Playing four years at Duke instills a sense of selflessness, which Jefferson has in spades. He recalled an instance of seeing how Coach K, already being one of the more decorated coaches of all-time, was able to add more knowledge to his skill set — which is something that fascinated Jefferson. “He would come back from a summer with USA Basketball and he had learned more. He had added to his coaching repertoire, because he is constantly learning himself. And that’s a huge reason why it was so cool to play at Duke.”
Although it was in a small sample size, Jefferson saw the same traits of Coach K in Van Gundy while playing with USAB. “To play for Coach Van Gundy, to learn from him, was incredible for those few days,” Jefferson said. “To hear his language, the way he addressed us, his attention to detail, and preparation for games for me was great. Even though it was for a short amount of time, I truly believe I learned more about the game and I was able to get better. And in that time, there were many similar feelings from my time with Coach K.”
While the USA team was together, Jefferson noticed how Van Gundy made adjustments in how he coached them after learning more about his team. “He was constantly changing, changing to fit our playing style the more he watched us. I think that is one of the many similarities all great coaches have, and it was just an honor to be around that.”
Representing his country was a great experience for Jefferson. However, that hasn’t been the only highlight to his year. So far this season, Jefferson has been one of the most productive players in the G League. He is playing with the Iowa Wolves, the new affiliate team of the Minnesota Timberwolves, and in six games played, he is averaging a double-double with 15.5 points per game and 13.7 rebounds per game. The 22-year-old isn’t fazed by his immediate success in the pros. “It has been great — playing with these guys has been really cool. I feel comfortable playing, getting the pace down. I think the things that I do on the court translate at every level: being able to rebound at a high level, run the floor at a high level, and just being a player and understanding the game.”
His physical measurements won’t jump off the page, being 6-foot-9 and 224 pounds, but they present an intriguing package when combined with his work ethic and heart. He looks up to bigs in the NBA that shared the same physical criticism early in their careers as well. “I love watching Clint Capela, Draymond Green. I found myself watching a lot of the bigs and forwards, seeing what they do, and hopefully finding some similarities. Whether it’s how they run rim-to-rim, screening, how they attack the glass, how they box out or set a screen, and how they prepare to roll out of a screen.”
While Jefferson said he’s felt comfortable so far this season, he did acknowledge some challenges to making the translate from Duke to the next level.
“One of the biggest changes has been the floor spacing. In college there is no defensive three-second rule, and at the pro level I think it puts a lot more pressure on defenses to be locked in, and putting a lot of the onus on you to be able to effectively guard your man. That has been the biggest change, I think: learning when to pull over, when to come over and contest a shot, or when to show help, but not being there for three seconds so you get called for that. I definitely think the defensive schemes and learning to defend at a high level here has been one of the biggest changes I’ve seen.”
Adjusting to life as a professional athlete is known to be challenging for some young men in any sport. Jefferson’s biggest lifestyle adjustment has involved managing the newly acquired free-time available to him.
“I think the biggest realization for me is just how much time I have. I don’t have any homework or quizzes to worry about anymore, so I’m really learning how to fill that time. Here in the G League, I know that I have been filling my time by being in the gym as much as possible, trying to always get better. And when I am away from the game, it still doesn’t stop for me. I am constantly reading about the game, thinking about it, watching a ton of film, watching a lot of NBA games, just seeing how the game plays. I love basketball, and I think right now it is consuming me more than it ever has before.”