LAS VEGAS — Amile Jefferson remembers the early practices during his fifth year at Duke in 2016-17, when a scrawny but precocious freshman quickly made it clear he was ready for anything.
“He was super physical, and you don’t really find freshmen that seek out the contact,” Jefferson said. “Like, he would go into people’s bodies. He’d pull you in, he wanted to get hit, and he knew how to do all those things. He was advanced.”
Jayson Tatum’s path to NBA superstardom was in its infancy then, but Jefferson could see hints of what was to come. Now, Tatum is a two-time first-team All-NBA forward for the Celtics, who are currently favored to win next season’s championship. And this summer Tatum has been reunited with Jefferson, his close friend and former college teammate who was recently named a Celtics assistant coach.
Jefferson, a 6-foot-9-inch forward whose two-year NBA playing career included a stop at Celtics training camp in 2020, spent last season as an assistant at Duke.
“It all kind of just fell into line perfectly,” Jefferson said Tuesday, sitting on a bench after the Celtics’ summer league practice at UNLV. “Duke was a special place and I loved being there, but the chance to work for an organization like this and to learn and get better and compete at the highest level was something that I felt like was the next step in my journey. I can’t wait to get to work.”
Jefferson and Tatum have remained close friends, but Jefferson said that won’t affect the integrity of their new professional relationship. When he was a fifth-year senior at Duke and Tatum was a freshman, he took on a mentoring role for the forward who was later selected by the Celtics with the third pick of the 2017 draft.
“I think nothing really changes, especially for me,” he said. “I always tell him how I feel, whether good, bad, or indifferent.”
Tatum is one of the game’s more mild-mannered superstars. But Jefferson stressed that his countenance should not be mistaken for indifference. At Duke, Jefferson said, Tatum would seethe after defeats, and not just basketball games against ACC rivals.
“It was anything,” Jefferson said, chuckling. “Practice reps, shooting competitions, one-on-ones, a race. He was ultra-competitive and wanted to win anything. I think that’s an early sign, but a really good sign of a player who you know is going to bring it every day. I always admire guys who hate losing more than they love winning.”
Jefferson said it was clear Tatum would develop into a standout NBA player, but that aside from Tatum’s mother, Brandy, few envisioned an ascension this rapid. And Jefferson insists that Tatum is still improving.
“He can do more,” he said. “I know that’s easy to say because he’s done so much, but he still has so much more to do. He’s only 25. He’s not even in his prime yet. He’s going to get so much better, which is crazy considering how good he is. But I’m excited to see him grow.”
And he’s eager to play a hands-on role in the process. But Jefferson was not hired by Boston to be Tatum’s personal coach. In fact, in his player enhancement position, he will likely spend the majority of his time helping develop the team’s younger players.
His Duke career was followed by stints in the G League, the NBA, and overseas, and he then spent a year as a coach with the Blue Devils. He’s just 30 years old and ready to pass along what he’s learned from his collection of basketball experiences.
“Being a guy that’s seen it all,” he said, “especially for the younger guys, just helping them and telling my story and working with them and pushing them.”
Of course, it’ll also be nice to also have one of his best friends there along the way.