There’s no question Grayson Allen transgressed by tripping opponents in three separate instances, most recently last December against Elon. Mike Krzyzewski benched the junior for one game, a loss at Virginia Tech. He stripped Allen of the team captaincy he shared with Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones, a notable rebuke within a program built on veterans imparting communal values. The coach doubtless also privately emphasized the simple lesson he publicly professed in preseason regarding player behavior: “You’re not just an individual, you’re part of a group.”
Throughout the season, opposing fans booed, razzed and belittled Allen, who played with injuries to a foot, ankle and finger. More measured criticisms were freely offered about his unsafe and unsportsmanlike shenanigans. Allen’s name and visage gained an unsavory connotation, to the point a Florida company sold apparel mocking his propensity for putting his worst foot forward. On the court Allen’s every action was scrutinized for chippy conduct, especially as his competitive fervor edged toward its usual fever pitch. The guard’s playing time, starts, shot production, shooting accuracy and scoring – virtually every stat except his turnovers and fouls – fell from the previous year.
Still, it’s a bit of a stretch to think Allen deserves solitary confinement, the punishment he’s more or less subject to just now.
Allen’s singular isolation is a matter of oddest circumstance. He is the only certain holdover among the top eight scorers from the ’17 Blue Devils squad. It’s difficult to believe that outcome, however temporary, is one he envisioned when he announced he would return for the 2017-18 season.
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Seniors Jones and Jefferson will leave with degrees. All-ACC sophomore Luke Kennard and freshmen Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum are among 10 ACC players who declared their NBA intentions; by absurd NCAA rule, when they sign with agents, as planned, their remaining NCAA eligibility will be forfeited. Sophomore Chase Jeter announced he’s transferring. Freshman Frank Johnson, like nine other ACC players, has gone the agent-less route to assess his pro stock, leaving the door open to return later this spring.
That leaves Allen, who simply by standing still moved to the fore of a group of backups and incoming freshmen. “The last few weeks have provided the opportunity for a lot of reflection and prayer,” the Floridian said in a mid-April statement released as Duke’s roster dominoes began to fall. “I’m a firm believer that when something feels right, you go with it. The chance to play with next year’s team just felt right. I’m completely focused on helping Coach K and our staff lead this team to a special season. I love being a Duke student, and continuing to be part of the university culture is something I don’t take for granted.”
Given the probable surrounding cast and overripe expectations, the weight of a leadership role could be overwhelming, marking a cautionary end to a promising career. Or it could be stabilizing, keeping Allen firmly grounded. What’s clear is that any personal challenge Allen faces will be less about what he does than about how he does it.
Allen’s status has changed quickly before. He was little-seen for much of his freshman year, only to emerge at a crucial moment as Duke subdued Wisconsin in the 2015 NCAA title game. He blossomed as a sophomore, leading the Devils in scoring, 3-pointers, assists and steals en route to All-ACC recognition. That rise so impressed observers, Allen was tabbed the league’s 2017 preseason Player of the Year. Then came his fall.
Now opportunity yawns at Duke, allowing Allen to return to the prominence that earned him Player of the Year consideration in the first place. Certainly he’s capable of elevating his performance to that level again.
There’s no possibility POY recognition will be offered at the start of the upcoming basketball season, even though 14 of the past 19 preseason picks for the ACC’s best player, including one tie, came from Duke or North Carolina. (UNC’s Joel Berry II is likely to make it 15 of 20 come autumn.)
Allen might have a better chance of being chosen Player of the Year if, at season’s start, he’s not projected to be the league’s top performer. Since 2000, just four of 18 preseason selections for ACC Player of the Year went on to win the award: Duke’s Shane Battier in 2001, when he shared final honors with UNC’s Joseph Forte; Duke’s J.J. Redick in 2006; UNC’s Tyler Hansbrough in 2008; and Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon in 2016. Prognosticators had Brogdon tied with Carolina’s Marcus Paige as the leading candidates in preseason.
Depending on how you look at it, this lack of acuity in forecasting demonstrates how uninformed media members are; how readily sports voters go with known quantities; how hard it is to make predictions; or the depth of the ACC’s talent pool. Or all four.
Another reason Allen is unlikely to regain the honors foreseen for him prior to last season: Only one preseason Player of the Year candidate since 2000 won the award a season after he was expected to get it, and failed. Hansbrough was forecast to command the honor in 2007 only to see it go to Boston College’s Jared Dudley. Hansbrough was picked again prior to the 2008 season and did live up to advance billing. Projected a third time to win the award, he was eclipsed in 2009 by teammate Ty Lawson.
Two others, UNC’s Marcus Paige and Duke’s Kyle Singler, were predicted twice each to win ACC POY honors, and struck out both times. Paige fell short in 2015, when Duke’s Jahlil Okafor became the first freshmen to get the award. Paige was surpassed again in 2016 when Brodgon won. Singler was expected to be the Player of the Year in 2010. But the recognition went to Maryland’s flamboyant Greivis Vasquez, and in 2011 went to Nolan Smith, Singler’s teammate.
Since the century turned, only Hansbrough, Singler and Paige were predicted to become ACC Player of the Year multiple times. Combined, they were one for seven at making good on those forecasts.
Paige in 2016 and Allen last year are the only preseason POY picks since 2000 who didn’t even finish the season as All-ACC selections. Three other preseason ACC Player of the Year choices did no better than make third team, the catch-all grouping for those who ought to get some recognition, but not too much – Duke’s Chris Duhon in 2003; UNC’s Raymond Felton in 2004; and the Wolfpack’s C.J. Leslie in 2013.
Allen, like Leslie, went from praised to pariah. He did not, however, quit playing hard or pursuing his degree. Nor did he succumb to the temptation to leave early while others around him “walked,” as Krzyzewski put it. Instead the soft-spoken, three-time All-ACC Academic men’s basketball team member is poised to graduate, fulfilling what he’s described as a multigenerational family value.
Perhaps in truth Allen stayed merely because he was boxed in by his own actions on the court. The result, however, is that he has an opportunity for genuine basketball redemption, standing as the focal point in Durham with a team, a season and a legacy at his feet. So to speak.