Since the introduction of Two-Way contracts, such pacts have allowed two extra players to serve as extensions of the NBA roster. These two additional players don’t get to spend the most time with the parent club, but they still get a taste of what life is like at the next level and the universal goal (to stay there as long as possible) remains the same. Being on a Two-Way contract helps them soak in the culture and a team’s system, all while hoping to demonstrate enough value to be rewarded later on.
2015 NCAA champion Amile Jefferson is two for two in that category. After starting off the 2017-18 season with the Iowa Wolves, he signed a Two-Way contract midseason and that was converted into a standard pact in time for him to join the Timberwolves for the postseason. Having averaged 17.8 points and 12.9 rebounds for Iowa, Jefferson earned honors across the board: NBA G League All-Rookie Team, All-Defensive Team, and All-Second Team. He made enough noise for the Orlando Magic to take notice, and they signed him to a Two-Way contract the following season. Jefferson stood tall as what was advertised in 2018-19, averaging 18 points and 11.3 rebounds in year two while earning All-NBA G League Third Team honors this time with Lakeland. As he continued to break down the door, Orlando recognized his efforts in the form of a standard contract heading into the 2019-20 campaign.
Entering his third year as a pro gave Jefferson a renewed chance to start off in the most optimal of circumstances: he was in training camp as a full-time NBA player. After shining for two years in the NBA G League, the big man understood early on that this was no time to slow down, but instead, one to keep growing.
“The coaching staff helps guys compete. Training camp is so important because you don’t have that time over the course of a season. They’re hammering those points away. You have to buy in, and when guys start to buy in, they realize that everything is bigger than them individually,” Jefferson said. “Basketball is a game where you grow individually and collectively. You learn to function with amazing talents.”
Even given his recent success, Jefferson never lost sight of the common goal. He appeared in 18 games, playing sparingly this season before getting waived. He may not have seen too much time on the court, but he accomplished two things in the process: he bought in to the Magic culture and proved that a Two-Way Player not only adds value in the meantime, but can also become a seamlessly integrated piece if brought on full-time thereafter. Jefferson already understood what the coaching staff’s mentality was and had become a proponent of it. There was less of a learning curve, and thus, more of a chance for him to hit the ground running.
“When you’re in the G League, you get a chance to be more of a focal point of the offense. You’re looked at as a leader. You can take what you learn to the parent club,” he said. “But when you get up there, you have to be more of a sponge. There are people teaching you. You have to take it all in, but then be able to step in and help the team when they need you.”
A three-time captain and national champion during his time at Duke, it’s safe to say Jefferson came into his time as a pro already understanding that the game is about more than yourself. Regardless of where he goes from here, he’ll always be an NCAA champion. That alone garners respect and should be considered a sign of maturity. It adds to his credibility as a prospect, but even now the 26-year-old still doesn’t forget what went into such an accomplishment.
“We have a bond. They’ll be my brothers forever. You’re a part of something bigger than yourself. It’s about a common goal,” he said. “We had so many guys contribute to something. You always feel that emotion. I carry that with me everywhere. You can be a small part of something huge and still have that make you better.”
As Jefferson attempts to work his way back into the NBA, he knows he can lean on a fellow NBA G League alum turned NBA champion, to aid in the grit and grind of the journey.
“When you go through challenges and you weather a storm with people, you create a natural bond. You grow together. Quinn Cook is one of my closest friends. We’re invested in each other’s lives and careers,” Jefferson shared. “When he goes through something or if he even thinks I may be struggling, he’ll call me. We check-in. When he reaches a milestone — and he’s doing so many amazing things now — I always make it a point of checking in. It’s natural. Jahlil Okafor is a close friend. We talk all the time. We had a care factor at Duke that was so high and it’ll probably be there for the rest of our lives.”
Jefferson’s modesty and understanding that he shined alongside many other talents and everyone had a role is something that will likely help him get back to the NBA quicker than most.
But that doesn’t mean he lacks confidence. Winning speaks for itself, but Jefferson’s individual accomplishments are impressive too. Upon making it back to Lakeland this season before the suspension, he was a man on a mission. Like a tiger let loose, it was clear that matching up against NBA bodies on a daily basis, whether it be in practice or in games, made Jefferson that much tougher. He averaged 25.9 points and 12.6 rebounds, but that’s not all. Shooting 65% from the floor, he demonstrated an increased level of efficiency. Averaging 1.6 blocks, there was an increased level of awareness on defense. It was clear Jefferson had spent the past few months becoming a more complete player. This was just his first chance to really show it.
“This is a journey of will. You have to keep grinding, regardless of wherever you are. Each rung on the ladder is an opportunity to get better, get stronger. You have a sense of pride, but it’s all about continued growth,” he lamented. “I believe in my abilities and everywhere I go, I view it as a chance to showcase them.”
While discussing some of the new prospects (like Jalen Green and Isaiah Todd) set to join the NBA G League next season, Jefferson coincidentally shed light on some of the things that the minor league has helped him with along the way. Things don’t come easy, and though he’s had twists and turns along the way, Jefferson appears to be a better player for it.
“It’s great for those guys to be pros and realize what this looks like. The G League is a tough league. It’s one of the only leagues in the world where the goal is to get out,” Jefferson exclaimed. “When you make it to the NBA, there’s where you want to be. You want to stay. The G League is about upward mobility and prosperity. It teaches you how to be a pro.”