Back when the local high school hoops schedule was announced, this one looked pretty good: Friends’ Central School, with top-ranked senior Amile Jefferson, squaring off against Neshaminy High School’s flashy Villanova University signee, Ryan Arcidiacono. The game was part of a two-day holiday hoops bacchanalia at Widener University—one with enough talent to satisfy even the most ravenous basketball appetite.
Then came the December bulletin that Arcidiacono needed a procedure to relieve his back pain and would miss the season. The good news: A full recovery was expected. The bad news: The game lost its luster for many of those who packed the gym on that late-December evening.
Friends’ Central took command right away, leading 15-4 after one quarter. At one point in the second, FCS had more three-point baskets than Neshaminy had points. For casual fans, it was a snoozer. But, for those paying careful attention, an entertaining subplot was brewing.
Early in the third quarter, Jefferson became entangled with a Neshaminy guard under the basket. Some words were spoken, a little posturing ensued, and suddenly a perfunctory FCS win became interesting. The next time down, Jefferson swatted away a layup attempt by his antagonist, and as his victim lay on the floor, the six-foot-nine forward glared at him for a moment.
A few minutes later, Jefferson blocked another shot by his rival. And after a Friends’ Central basket, there was Jefferson, out beyond the three-point line, crouched in a defensive stance, clapping his hands as if to say, “Now what are you going to do?”
FCS cruised to a 53-29 victory, and Jefferson led all scorers with 19 points. His set-to with the overmatched opponent never escalated beyond skirmish levels, but it did demonstrate that he can be rattled a bit with some rough play. “He started talking, and I said some things back,” Jefferson says. “I’ve got to stay focused. Sometimes, I lose focus.”
When a player is coveted by every major collegiate basketball program in the country, is touted by ESPN as Pennsylvania’s top recruit, and looks for all like a grown man on the court, it’s easy to forget that he’s still only 18 years old. But Jefferson is clearly still growing, if not physically (though he could use some more armor on that lithe frame), then certainly mentally and emotionally. If anything, his jousting with the Neshaminy player serves to demonstrate the respect his talent and size command every game.
“Sometimes, I think it’s part of the game plan,” says Jefferson. “Guys try to get you out of your game.”
Quetta Jefferson first put her son in a pair of basketball sneakers when he was “7 or 8 years old.” Though he was already playing soccer and baseball, basketball seemed like a natural pursuit for the tall child.
Amile, however, was not happy with the choice. “For a couple months, he complained,” his mother recalls. “Then he started to like it.”
West Philadelphia’s Jubilee School was Jefferson’s pre-K-through-sixth-grade home, and it didn’t field a basketball team. So Jefferson played for the local Police Athletic League squad, and when his team’s coach started an AAU outfit called Team Philly Finest, he began competing against the area’s better performers.
In sixth grade, Jefferson applied to Friends’ Central, the Shipley School and Episcopal Academy. He was rebuffed by all three. Still, Jefferson says then-EA coach Dan Dougherty had reached out to him and his family, no doubt hoping to continue the success the school had enjoyed with Wayne Ellington and Gerald Henderson. “I applied really late, and I didn’t get in,” he says.
He spent the next two years at Penn Alexander School before applying to all three again. This time, he had his choice of destinations, and he selected FCS. “It was basically his decision,” Quetta says. “We wanted him to go the school where he felt most comfortable.”
At FCS, Jefferson joined a burgeoning basketball program squired by math teacher Jason Polykoff that has since become one of the area’s finest. Unlike some of the Phoenix’s top players, who either transfer in from other high schools or are culled from the area’s top AAU programs, Jefferson is more of an organic phenomenon, having tried to attend the school before it became a powerhouse and then finally enrolling in time to help FCS rise to its current status.
Nobody paid attention to Jefferson’s high school decision, but he’s attracted plenty of interest regarding his college choice. Last November, unlike many top prospects nationwide, Jefferson didn’t sign a letter of intent that bound him to a school. Often, that’s an indication of an underlying problem like poor grades or some sort of recruiting shenanigans.
Neither is true in this situation. Jefferson simply ran out of time. Although the added decision-making time has meant more phone calls from coaches and questions from inquisitive reporters, Jefferson and his family don’t seem to mind the process. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to be courted by the likes of Duke University’s Mike Krzyzewski.
“So far, it’s been smooth,” Quetta says. “I want him to make the best decision possible, academically and athletically.”
After playing in various summer tournaments and settling into the beginning of his senior year, Jefferson was left with just over a month to make his official visits and make a decision. As the fall deadline approached, it was clear he didn’t have an answer. “It definitely did creep up on me,” says Jefferson.
So he didn’t commit—and the extra time didn’t hurt at all. Not long after Duke lost in Philadelphia to Temple, the Blue Devils offered Jefferson a scholarship and reportedly soared to the upper reaches of his list. “This decision weighs heavily on basketball,” Jefferson says, contrasting it with his high school choice. “But I’m still focusing on academics.”
Whatever school Jefferson chooses will be getting a rare talent. He’s a patient player with great quickness around the basket, a pterodactyl-like wingspan and a surprisingly easy handle for a big man. And when his jump shot improves, he’ll be extremely difficult to guard—even for the most accomplished collegiate forwards.
“He doesn’t force a lot of unnecessary plays,” says Norm Eavenson, a veteran scouting associate for Bob Gibbons All-Star Sports. “He’s one of those kids who’s one step ahead of the next pass.”
Jefferson’s game has matured considerably during his four years at Friends’ Central, but what Polykoff has asked for most this season is an increased leadership role. After making Jefferson part of a tri-captainship last year, the coach gave Jefferson the sole role for 2011-12. “Everybody looks up to him, and he understands his role,” says Polykoff. “But if he had it his way, he’d just be one of the guys.”
That’s the way it is at home. “He knows at the end of the day, it’s: ‘Amile, do your homework and do your chores,’” Quetta says. “There’s no special treatment.”
That’s impossible on the basketball court. Ohio State has reportedly told Jefferson that sophomore Deshaun Thomas will be leaving for the NBA after this season, opening a front-court spot for him. Everybody wants to know where he’ll go to school—a decision he’ll likely announce this month. “I’ve met a lot of interesting people and heard their stories,” he says.
Jefferson’s tale is still being written—that’s how it is when you’re a high school senior. Even if everybody else wants to jump ahead to the ending, he still has work to do. The challenge for Jefferson is that most of his growth is being done in an exceedingly public forum.
So forgive him his momentary lapses of focus. He’ll get there. In many ways, he’s already arrived.