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Jefferson, Duke, & Perceptions

To be honest, based on everything we heard Tuesday (and didn't hear), we thought Amile Jefferson was going to choose State. We heard the news on the radio - on 99.9, Adam Gold asked Joe Ovies what the word was. His answer was very short, almost abrupt, not much more than "it's Duke."

So naturally Duke fans are really happy to get him. From all accounts he's a quality kid, an excellent student and someone who will grow and improve in many ways while he is at Duke.

We were impressed, or perhaps relieved is a better word, when we heard earlier in the afternoon that his announcement would be a very short statement, and it was: it was long over at 4:05. After having sat through the Harrison Barnes Skype idiocy and then hearing that Tony Parker took over an hour to make his announcement, well, even if the kid had picked State, bless him for brevity.

Along with the hour-long commitment announcement, another recent nasty trend is just ripping the holy hell out of 18-year-old kids on Twitter when they pick a school you don't like.  Nothing changed here: State and Kentucky fans indulged themselves and savaged Jefferson for not subordinating his future to their short-term gratification.

Presumably some younger players will have taken note, but that's for State and Kentucky to worry about later. We really hope Duke fans avoid this sort of destructive behavior.

A lot of the negativity focused around some recent misconceptions about Duke basketball, namely that big men at Duke have limited roles and that Jefferson therefore made a stupid decision.

Let's take a closer look.

There are three basic factors at work here: the players Duke's gotten, the way the system has adapted to talent at hand, and ego.

In 1997, Duke signed Elton Brand, Shane Battier and Chris Burgess. Brand became Duke's first underclassman to go pro, along with classmate William Avery and freshman Corey Maggette. This was a sea change for the program.

Since then Duke has had a number of big men including Carlos Boozer, Shelden Williams, Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts and the Plumlees. Among the players they didn't get: Greg Monroe, Martellus Bennett, Marvin Williams, Andre Blatche, Brandan Wright, John Henson, Blake Griffith, Kevin Durant and many others.

We're not saying that Duke was even in the running for all of these guys; our point is that recruiting has changed. A number of the guys Duke did get left early, and a number of guys who they might've gotten chose to go early and skipped any meaningful education requirements.

Some of the big men Duke's had over the last decade have been pretty good; some were average. Times have changed.

That brings us to point #2, which is how the system adapts to the talent. Anyone who thinks Duke is not interested in post play and low post scorers is not being relevant and perhaps not honest.

At Duke the system grows around the players and defense always comes first. So while Brand was a phenomenal force down low, Battier emerged later as an outside shooter. Both were great defenders and both were allowed immense freedom.

Williams and Lance Thomas represent another vein. Both came to Duke as very raw products; both left as much more polished players than when they arrived.

With Williams, Duke built a defense around his shotblocking; Thomas was asked to sacrifice offense to allow Duke to build around three remarkable perimeter players - Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer.

Williams made it to the Final Four; Thomas was absolutely key to Duke's 2010 championship. But pretty clearly, not every big man Duke has gotten since Brand left has been elite.

Which leads up to point #3: at Duke, Coach is fond of saying, the only ego is the team ego. With his better teams, this is a given. Since the push to get to the NBA as soon as possible got cranked up, this has been complicated by talent and ego. Mike Chappell saw brighter opportunity at Michigan State. Burgess thought Utah was the answer. Michael Thompson figured Northwestern would be an improvement. That doesn't even count the players who didn't think Duke could help them fast enough and so never came.

There are no guarantees in anything. But for players who are willing to buy in, to be part of something bigger than themselves, Duke is a brilliant place to be.

So what of Jefferson then?

He has the potential to help a lot. He's said to have a very high basketball IQ and has been compared to Battier and Deng.

He'll help first of all on defense. Just as a thought, Duke could really have used someone like him against Arizona in the NCAA Tournament last time out, and they haven't had a good matchup the last couple of years with guys like Barnes and State's CJ Leslie. Duke will be a very different team with Mason Plumlee, Tyler Thornton, Rasheed Sulaimon and Jefferson available for defense.

Offensively, Duke has a number of options, but none quite like Jefferson. He could end up starting, and his talents are diverse enough to really change Duke's approach. His jump shot is not great at this point, but he's got time to work that out.

The suggestion though that he'll end up doing nothing but setting picks is just stupid. He'll do as much as he is capable of doing and whatever helps his team. Any coach who looks to the future with sterling kids like Jefferson and Sulaimon would naturally be thrilled. They're talented players with tremendous character. As time goes on, they'll likely become the backbone of the team.