Duke freshman Grayson Allen, ‘a pain in the butt,’ emerges on biggest stage

Dukes Grayson Allen (3) drives to the basket against Wisconsins Frank Kaminsky (44) during the NCAA championship game in Indianapolis.
Dukes Grayson Allen (3) drives to the basket against Wisconsins Frank Kaminsky (44) during the NCAA championship game in Indianapolis. rwillett@newsobserver.com

What Grayson Allen did on Monday night during Duke's 68-63 victory against Wisconsin is what he's done so often in practices – and done so many times that coach Mike Krzyzewski has taken to calling him a name not suitable for print in a family publication.

Allen has drawn that praise from Krzyzewski, if it can be called praise, for his tenacity – the diving on the court and the strong takes to the basket. He has drawn it for being a nuisance on defense and for being, in short, the kind of player others don't like playing against.

Justise Winslow, who like Allen is a Duke freshman, was telling the story in the locker room as Monday night turned into early Tuesday morning, and telling it while his teammates celebrated Duke's fifth national championship – all under Krzyzewski.

“He's a dog,” Winslow said of Allen, the least heralded of Duke's four-man freshman class and, on Monday night, as valuable as any of them. And then, after Winslow said Allen is “a dog,” he said what Krzyzewski often says about Allen during practices.

Later Winslow came back to his thought.

“He's cool off the court,” he said. “But just when's on the court, he could be, a better word – a pain in the butt to guard and to defend. He's just been a dog the whole year.”

That Duke won its fifth national championship wasn't unexpected. Nor was it a surprise that Tyus Jones, the freshman point guard, won the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player honors after he scored 23 points.

It wasn't out of the ordinary that Winslow finished with nearly a double-double – 11 points and nine rebounds – or that Jahlil Okafor, the most well-known member of Duke's freshman class, saved his best for the final few minutes, when he scored four of the game's most critical points.

But Allen? His success was the most unforeseen part of the Blue Devils' national championship victory. Before Monday night, there had been 15 games in which Allen either played five minutes or fewer, or not at all.

He had played at least 20 minutes in only two games. He played 21 Monday. Before that, Allen had scored in double figures but four times – including lopsided victories against Presbyterian and Wake Forest. He finished with 16 points in the national championship game.

“He's worked his butt off,” said Jon Scheyer, the Duke assistant coach whom Allen credited with keeping his confidence high, or as high as it could be, while he wasn't play much earlier this season. “I mean, he has worked so hard. And coming in here, there are times when you had to kick him out of the gym, just because he's in there so long and you want him to get some rest.

“But literally after every practice he was in the gym working. And that's no exaggeration.”

Allen embodies the Duke Way

There's a story about Allen and how he had to all but beg Duke to recruit him, at least early during his recruiting process at the Providence School in Jacksonville, Fla. He wanted to play for the Blue Devils that badly. And how fitting, given that Allen has the look of the prototypical Duke player.

Scheyer smiled at the thought, that Allen – at least physically – bears a resemblance, in some ways, to himself and J.J. Redick and a long line of other Duke players known for the type of thing Allen is becoming known for: the floor dives, the energy and the release of emotion.

“I guess you're saying Grayson's a good-looking guy,” Scheyer said, smiling, “to be in the same category as me and J.J. So that's the way I take it. But for Grayson, the type of kid he is – he's a competitive dude.

“In practice, he has a little edge to him, where he likes to get physical and he likes to take hits. And that's what I think a Duke basketball player is – physical, tough mindset.”

Allen's moment on Monday came thanks to a combination of factors, perhaps most important of all was foul trouble that kept Okafor and Winslow on the bench for stretches of the second half.

When Wisconsin led by nine in the second half, its largest lead, Allen scored eight consecutive Duke points. Those eight points were more points than Allen scored in 32 games this season.

Allen, who along with Winslow and Jones was named to the All-Final Four team, was one of four players Duke brought into its postgame news conference. Afterward, more cameras awaited him inside the locker room, where he said he couldn't put into perspective that in one night he'd gone from a relatively obscure player – one of the last men in Duke's eight-man rotation – to a recognizable name.

Teammates knew all along

Allen's emergence might have surprised Wisconsin – especially given that Allen didn't play against the Badgers in Madison in December – and it might have surprised the viewing public. It did not, though, surprise his teammates.

They had seen this. They knew about Allen's propensity to make difficult shots, his knack for getting into the lane, his love for getting inside the heads – and under the skin – of the people he guards.

“He's been our best player in practice,” Okafor said in the Duke locker room, wearing a hat with a piece of net attached to it. “He always comes, he makes us work when we have to defend him and when he's defending us. … We rode his back tonight.”

Did Okafor mean it, that Allen was Duke's best practice player?

“More times than not,” Okafor said. “He's fearless.”

Except Allen did possess some fear this season. Fear of irrelevancy and lack of playing time. Fear of becoming lost.

At times earlier this season, he wondered how he fit into a team that didn't lack for talent. He questioned his ability. His confidence “wavered,” Scheyer said, when he wasn't playing as much, but Allen said Krzyzewski told him to be ready – not for the future but for the present.

Krzyzewski told him his time would come this season, if only Allen was prepared for the moment. And then it happened – the 27-point game against Wake Forest in early March.

It was a nice story then, the forgotten man making four 3-pointers and leading Duke in its 94-51 victory on senior night. But as good as that was, it wasn't as good – or as memorable – as what Allen did Monday night, when he kept Duke in the game during its most peril-filled moments.

Allen doesn't lack for talent, necessarily. He was a McDonald's All-American, after all. It's just that his talent rarely had a chance to blossom like it did Monday night.

“I did get down,” he said of those times when he rarely played. “And I think that hurt me. And I really had to turn it around. One of the big things I think that hurt me was just falling into spectator mode on the bench.”

In those times, he said, he wasn't expecting to get into games, or to stay in them for long if he did get in. He made it especially difficult on Krzyzewski to remove him on Monday night.

In one game, Allen transformed from a bit player in a season-long drama to a leading man. He might yet become the next Duke player that people love to hate – joining a large fraternity that includes Redick and Scheyer and Steve Wojciechowski and others.

Embracing his role, persona

The physical comparisons to those players, at least, is obvious enough. But there is something else, too, that Allen has in common with those players – that edge that infuriates opposing teams’ fans, that swagger that people abhor, especially, it seems, when it comes from a certain kind of Duke player.

When did that transition begin for Redick and Wojciechowski? When was the turning point when they crossed the line from regular college player to public enemy – the ones that people so greatly appreciated cheering against?

If Allen becomes that next kind of Duke player, the roots of the transformation will be traced to this Final Four. The Blue Devils' victory against Michigan State on Saturday ended with Allen in the locker room, showing off his floor burn bruise while wearing a satisfied grin. He liked the pain.

And then on Monday night he kept scoring and kept making plays when Duke most needed them. After some of them he pumped his arms and screamed and, generally, emoted in the kind of way that has helped make Duke, to opponents, the evil empire of college basketball – the New York Yankees in royal blue.

Allen smiled at the thought that he'd arrived, in a sense – that in one memorable night he'd gone from the relatively obscure Grayson Allen to Grayson Allen, the next Duke player who will take pride in drawing the ire of others who can't stand to see Duke win.

“If that comes with this, if that comes with winning national championships, I'll take it,” Allen said. “I'm going to go out there and play the same way I've played all year. And play with that kind of style, and aggression and fire, and everything.

“And if being hated comes from that, I guess I'll live with that.”

His teammates had known this for a while. They'd known about what Krzyzewski so often calls Allen, and known what a “pain in the butt” he is, as Winslow put it. And now, after a performance to be remembered in the national championship game, everyone else knew, too.

Carter: 919-829-8944;

Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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