This story originally appeared in the Holiday issue of ESPNHS magazine’s Pennsylvania edition.
Amile Jefferson and his teammates were powerless.
Jordan Hamilton was putting on a show, and nothing they were doing could slow him down.
Jefferson remembers being in Las Vegas with his AAU team — Philly’s Finest — and going up against Hamilton’s team during the summer between the eighth and ninth grades. He had been playing with the same team since he picked up the game. For Jefferson, basketball was a way to do something fun with his friends.
They loved to play and they loved to win. They played whenever they could, wherever they could and against the best competition they could find. And they usually won.
But Jefferson vividly recalls how that changed when he took the floor against Hamilton, the future Texas star who was the Dallas Mavericks’ first-round pick in the 2011 NBA draft before being traded to the Denver Nuggets.
“He was amazing,” Jefferson says. “I think we all tried to guard him. It didn’t go too well.”
But as Jefferson chased Hamilton aimlessly around the floor that day, it made him look at the game differently. He found himself in awe of the one-man show.
“That made me say, ‘This is not just a game anymore,’” Jefferson says. “It’s more serious than that. After I watched him play, I wanted to get into the gym and get better.”
A few years later, Jefferson is now the one-man wrecking crew. Countless hours of hard work have turned the Friends’ Central senior into the nation’s No. 24 recruit in the ESPNU 100.
Last year, the 6-foot-9, 200-pound swingman averaged 17.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game to lead Friends’ Central to a third consecutive PAISAA title. The spectacular season culminated with Jefferson winning the Gatorade State Player of the Year award.
As the state’s top-rated player, there’s no doubt Jefferson has hit his stride. But as his high school career began, the memory of Hamilton running roughshod over him and his team was still fresh in his mind. He arrived at Friends’ Central without any guarantees — no starting role, no assured playing time and a coach who didn’t really know who he was.
“That was the year,” Jefferson says. “You’re not the big fish anymore. You’re the little fish in the big pond. I had to establish myself. It became more than just playing the game. It became almost like a business.”
With coach Jason Polykoff scouting his prospective players, Jefferson wanted to make a statement early. It didn’t take long for him to prove he belonged.
“As a freshman, he was playing in a game that featured a lot of guys who are playing D-I ball now,” Polykoff says. “One of the guys went up for a layup, and Amile went sprinting over, picked it off the backboard and yelled, ‘Get that out of here!’”
Jefferson wasn’t trying to show up his opponent. It was an athletic play fueled by passion. And it worked — Polykoff remembered the play and still lists it as one of the most impressive things he’s ever seen Jefferson do.
“The thing that everyone says about him is that he’s a winner,” Polykoff says. “When you look at our practices, our drills, any time there’s a competition involved, he ends up winning. He always finds a way.”
Looking at his career, it’s clear Jefferson isn’t accustomed to losing. Over the past three seasons, Friends’ Central has a record of 75-9. With a third straight Independent Schools title on the line last winter, Jefferson and his team bested Malvern Prep, 65-37. Of the team’s four losses last season, only one came against in-state competition.
Among all the winning, Jefferson knows there’s no room for complacency.
“Every year you want to get better,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about. You’re continuing to progress. You don’t want to be at your best right now because then there’s nowhere else to go but down.”
The fear of trending downward has Jefferson working harder than ever this season. Friends’ Central lost a star in Devin Coleman (now playing at Clemson) to graduation, so Jefferson is the prime target for opposing teams and will be the go-to player for the squad this winter.
“I have to do more this year,” he acknowledges. “It’s just how it goes in high school. Every year, your role changes. I have to be the leader this year, and I have to do whatever it takes to win.”
It’s a new challenge, but it’s one Polykoff thinks Jefferson can handle.
“He’s not flashy, but he’s so efficient,” the coach says. “He gets the job done. He scores, rebounds, passes the ball, you name it. He may not make the highlight film, but at the end of the day he’ll still be playing.”
At this summer’s Boost Mobile Elite 24 in Venice Beach, Calif., Jefferson proved he’s got the game to play with anyone. Against some of the nation’s top players, he started the game, played 20 minutes and scored 23 points. He didn’t have to chase around players out of his league. This time, he fit right in.
“It was very humbling for me,” he says. “Being able to be recognized as one of those top players is great. But I know that once these things are given to you, they can just as easily be taken away. It’s hard to maintain. It definitely puts a bull’s-eye on your back.”
And Jefferson has big goals in mind. College comes first — he’s considering programs such as UConn, Syracuse, Ohio State, Villanova and Georgetown, to name a few. And after that, if things go well, he’s hoping for a shot at the NBA.
After all, Jefferson would love another crack at Jordan Hamilton.
Christopher Parish is an associate editor with ESPNHS magazine. You can reach him on Twitter @CParishESPNHS.