Grayson Allen’s quiet, uncontroversial, anonymous senior year as we knew it came to an end Saturday in a tense late moment in one of the season’s biggest games. Whether he can turn the volume back down to the low rumble where it had been comfortably until now, only he knows, although even what happened Saturday wasn’t particularly dramatic other than the timing of it.
It was still enough. Allen went to the floor after catching an elbow on the chin from Virginia sophomore guard Kyle Guy as Duke trapped Guy in the corner trying to provoke a late turnover in an attempt to reverse its fortunes. Then, as Allen sat on the baseline and Guy reached down to help him up, Allen swatted his hand away.
So there it was: the DVR, frame-grab, Twitterati moment Allen had avoided all season, more or less. Then it fizzled as quickly as it had erupted.
Allen freely acknowledged that he’d basically initiated the contact by diving chin-first into Guy’s elbow, and whatever hard feelings over the rejected offer of assistance might have lingered were dealt with afterward.
“I leaned into it,” Allen said. “It wasn’t intentional or anything like that. I talked to Kyle after the game, so that’s no problem. It’s fine.”
Thus a potential flashpoint evaporated, leaving Duke to hope that Allen can return to the (relatively) anodyne existence he has enjoyed for most of his senior year – in part by happenstance, in part by a conscious effort on his part that, until Saturday’s 65-63 loss to No. 2 Virginia, had all combined in various ways to keep college basketball’s most controversial player quiet.
There has still been enough Allen-on-the-edge to enrage opposing fans – mostly exaggerated contact to draw fouls, like the slap on the arm that sent him to the floor like he’d been clotheslined across the neck in one early season home game – but the real shenanigans, the indefinitely suspendable ones, have ceased. Saturday didn’t change that, even if it gave fresh ammunition to the large community of Allen detractors he cultivated with his actions as a sophomore and junior.
“I’ve never tried to be in the headlines,” Allen said Friday, the day before the Virginia game. “Maybe people aren’t watching every second of games played this year and that’s what it is. Last year, it got to the point where people were looking hard enough and they found something. I think that’s what happens with anything. This year, I’m just continuing to play basketball.
“Obviously, I’ve learned from the bigger incidents from the last two years and haven’t done those, but I’m just continuing to play basketball. I don’t want to be in the headlines. I just want to play ball and have fun.”
Then again, part of the reason Allen has been less of a focal point this season may be that he’s been less of a focal point for Duke, which is 6-3 in the ACC going into Monday’s home game against Notre Dame. As a sophomore and junior, Allen was involved in more than 25 percent of Duke’s possessions, highest on the team as a sophomore, essentially tied with Jayson Tatum as a junior. This season, that’s dropped below 20 percent, fourth on the team.
This is an inside-out team, with an offense that plays through versatile forwards Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr., with Trevon Duval, a freshman point guard who has, for the most part, relieved Allen of having to run the offense – although Duval’s recent midseason struggles have lately required Duke to ask more of Allen on that front.
Unlike last year, when Allen and Tatum and Luke Kennard never did seem to figure out who the alpha dog among them actually was, this is clearly not Allen’s team, even though he was asked, on a team starting four freshman, to provide senior leadership in the model of Quinn Cook during Allen’s freshman season. When it comes to what Duke does on offense, he’s essentially a supplementary part.
Amid all that, Allen had managed to get to this point without incident, but in the heat of the final moments of one of the biggest games of the season, the old Allen resurfaced – perhaps just for that moment, but the end of Saturday’s game was proof it’s still out there, hidden somewhere, lurking, requiring Allen’s constant attention to control. There are still a few months left in his college career, and the pressure only builds from here.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock