Kennard, Jefferson enjoy surprise lead roles as Duke gets healthy

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Duke tops Florida to improve to 9-1 (2:05)

Amile Jefferson, Luke Kennard and Jayson Tatum combine to score 75 of Duke's 84 points in a victory over Florida. (2:05)

NEW YORK -- Fans crushed as close as they could to the court in the minutes before tipoff, phones at the ready to catch any of the future NBA stars wearing Duke uniforms.

Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, Marques Bolden, Grayson Allen, Frank Jackson ...

Luke Kennard?

Amile Jefferson?

Anyone?

Yeah, probably not.

No, the folks who packed Madison Square Garden on Tuesday in anticipation of a two-man show figured it would be Tatum and Bolden, both just returning from injury, in the starring roles. Instead, two guys considered role players at best and afterthoughts at worst in the Duke grand plan stole the spotlight.

Kennard scored 29, and Jefferson had 24 to go with 15 rebounds, leading Duke to an 84-74 victory against Florida in the Jimmy V Classic while handing their coach a delightful pickle of a problem.

As the Blue Devils continue to get healthy -- Giles is practicing more and more and could be ready before the month is out -- how does Mike Krzyzewski find enough minutes to maximize all of his talent? (Elsewhere, 350 Division I coaches beg for such a quandary.)

"It will be a Rubik’s Cube," Krzyzewski said with a laugh. "It’s a good thing to have. But they’ll fit in. They’ll all respond because they’re good kids. They’re all about winning."

Frankly, this whole season has been something of a puzzle for the Blue Devils. Along with the three injured freshmen, Allen has been battling a toe issue and hasn’t practiced in a "couple weeks," Krzyzewski said.

The long list of walking wounded has made it virtually impossible for the Blue Devils to hold anything more than a glorified walk-through recently. Krzyzewski said that, while everyone else in the country is playing in December, for him it feels more like the October preseason, with guys only now coming into the lineup.

And yet here they are, with just one loss in 10 games.

Why? Credit Kennard and Jefferson for a lot of it. If there is a silver lining to all of the upheaval, it’s that the two players who otherwise might have struggled to get on the court instead have emerged as steady and confident performers.

Kennard’s dad, Mark, admitted he wondered where his son might fit at the start of the season.

"I thought he'd definitely play, but I wasn't sure he'd play as many minutes as he did last year," he said.

Even Kennard didn’t envision himself as the team’s leading scorer. Asked what he would have said had he been told back in October that he’d be tops on the team, he laughed.

"I probably wouldn’t believe you," he said.

But Kennard is doing more than just scoring.

A sophomore guard, he is arguably the best player in a Duke uniform right now. He has scored in double figures in every game, wiht Tuesday's 29-point burst coming on the heels of a 35-point barrage against Maine one game ago. He’s not forcing shots but instead making smart decisions, passing up the occasional 3-pointer in exchange for a closer jumper.

Against Florida, he barely made the twine whisper on his five made 3s, the crowd greeting each attempt with a "Luuuuuuke" and looking foolish only twice, when, stunningly, he missed.

"Luke’s playing fantastic," Krzyzewski said. "He’s been really efficient, and he’s come through for us beautifully."

If Kennard’s emergence has been a surprise, Jefferson’s ranks as a jaw-dropper. Sidelined the better part of last season with a foot injury, Jefferson, a fifth-year senior, figured to be a much-needed leader for the Blue Devils. But their best post presence? No. That wasn’t in the cards.

He wasn’t worried about where he’d fit in. He has been around long enough to know that things tend to work themselves out one way or another.

"Me, G and Matt, we're not only confident about who we are, but we’re totally consumed with Duke," Jefferson said of himself, Allen and senior Matt Jones. "We don’t worry about things like that. Makes no sense to."

Still, not worrying where you’ll fit in is one thing. Seamlessly stepping into the void? That’s another altogether. Before this season, Jefferson had never scored in double figures in more than three consecutive games. This year, Jefferson is 9-for-10, pitching in five double-doubles in his past seven games.

Against a Gators defense that loves to block shots and menace teams, he banked baby-hook shots and scored off putbacks. In the waning minutes, as Florida threatened one last time, cutting the lead to seven, KeVaughn Allen pushed the ball into the paint, hoping to score on an easy layup. Instead he lost the handle, and there was Jefferson scooping up the ball and passing it ahead to Kennard (who else?) for the easy layup.

Jefferson did all of this despite missing practice the day before the game so he could bury his grandmother, Rose, in Philadelphia.

She died last month, but the family waited until Jefferson could get home for the funeral. He used the trip to the Northeast to say his goodbyes to the woman who helped raise him.

"For him to come back and play like he did, that’s just outstanding," Krzyzewski said.

But how will this Kumbaya-warm, fuzzy start evolve when Tatum, Bolden and Giles round out into the players everyone expects them to be? There’s only one ball, 40 minutes and five spots on the court.

Krzyzewski, for one, isn’t worried. He even has proof. As Tatum started to heat up -- he’d finish with 22 points in 29 minutes -- Krzyzewski called a play for Jefferson, figuring he’d been scoring on Florida all night.

But Jefferson told him no, pointing instead to Tatum.

"That," Krzyzewski said, "is the kind of guys we have."

And that is a nice problem to have.