Luke DeCock

Grayson Allen learning to be new face of Duke basketball

Anonymity suited Grayson Allen. Unless he was with one of his instantly recognizable teammates, Allen could move quietly and quickly across Duke’s campus as a freshman, even as a member of the basketball team.

He liked it that way. Despite his status as a high school basketball star and top recruit, he never sought attention. He preferred to move through the world as Grayson Allen, not Basketball Star Grayson Allen.

That comfort zone is gone. It disappeared in April, evaporated instantly the moment he became an unlikely Final Four star.

“I can kind of go under the radar, 6-foot-4, a pretty average-looking guy,” Allen said.

He could go under the radar.

“I could,” Allen acknowledged. “After that game, not so much anymore.”

Grayson Allen hasn’t changed much, but the world around him has. It knows who he is now, and he’s constantly reminded of that fact.

By the kids back home in Jacksonville, Fla., who stopped to point at him as he drove by.

By the golf fans who spotted him walking through the galleries at The Players Championship and whispered his name loud enough for Allen to hear.

By the pair of young girls stopping him for a picture before he can get outside of the shadow of Cameron Indoor Stadium on an otherwise deserted Duke campus in the summer.

By the people who constantly interrupted while he was trying to have lunch with his high school coach.

“His life has definitely changed,” said Jim Martin, the coach at Providence School in Jacksonville. “It was difficult to get through lunch.”

There was Grayson Allen’s life before he helped Duke win a national title and there is Grayson Allen’s life now, and this is one person with two very different lives.

He is a star now, suddenly the face of a very different Duke team that will take the court this fall, and he has still yet to start a game at Duke.

‘An adjustment’

The wallpaper on Allen’s phone is a Bible verse from Romans: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

It was good advice for Allen during his freshman year, when he was the fourth amigo among Duke’s freshmen and didn’t play minutes of consequence for much of the season.

Allen’s teammates and coaches raved about what they saw in practice, the soaring dunks and scrambling hustle, but it never translated to the court, at least not where anyone else could see. For this, Allen takes the blame.

“I think I became a spectator,” Allen said. “At the beginning of the season there were games I would get in, our exhibition games, the first couple games I got in the game really early and it was easy for me to adapt. As the season went on, you kind of wondered, ‘Am I going to get in? Am I not going to get in?’

“You just kind of fall into that, just like someone watching the game, a spectator. You’re not really into it. You’re physically into it, but mentally you’re just kind of clapping and cheering your team on. You’re not ready to go. It’s an adjustment.”

The people around him counseled patience, as did Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who told him over and over again, “Grayson, be ready.”

Krzyzewski gave Allen his first real shot in a blowout home win against Wake Forest in March, and when Allen started banging in 3-pointers, he kept taking them. He went 4-for-5 from long range, 9-for-11 from the floor and finished with 27 points. It was the first public visual evidence of what his coaches and teammates had seen in practice.

He saw more playing time after that, including an 11-point game in a win against N.C. State in the ACC tournament, but no one, not even Allen’s family, expected what happened in Indianapolis.

He played 17 minutes in the national semifinal against Michigan State, more than all but four other games the entire season, retrieving his own 3-point miss and slamming it home as Duke pulled away early in the second half to put the game away.

A rematch with Wisconsin awaited, and the moment Allen’s mother remembers above all others from the national championship came early in the game – when Allen entered.

“That was a big shock, that he even got in the game,” Sherry Allen said. “Oh, my goodness.”

He didn’t just get in the game. As he learned over the second half of the season, Duke didn’t need him to score when he got off the bench. It needed energy. And he delivered.

In the second half, with Duke down nine and looking weak, Allen hit a 3-pointer, then outfought Traveon Jackson for a loose ball in a midcourt scramble, what Krzyzewski would later call the turning point of the game, as important as any of his 16 points.

“Grayson put us on his back,” Krzyzewski said afterward.

When the game ended, as Sam Dekker’s final shot ricocheted away, as his teammates stormed the floor, Allen was still going after Dekker’s rebound, long after the buzzer sounded. The reality of what had just happened had not sunk in. Nor has it yet, really.

Someone who averaged 4.4 points per game, who didn’t play at all in four games and played three or less minutes in nine others, scored 16 points in the title game was named to the Final Four all-tournament team.

“As far as outside people go, they remember the last thing they saw and that was our national championship game where I played really well,” Allen said. “For me, I look at the whole season. I don’t just look at that game. I look at the first time we played Wisconsin and I didn’t get off the bench.”

A new world

Allen has been back on Duke’s campus for two weeks, taking a neuroscience class in summer school, minus the teammates who won the national title with him and have moved on to the NBA. He has an almost entirely new group of teammates now, in the strange position of leader and mentor to new freshmen who are as raw and curious as he was a year ago.

If he can pass on just a little of his experience as a freshman, perhaps their transition will be easier than his.

As for Allen, just what he can contribute remains a mystery. He worked with his high-school coach on his ball handling this summer in the expectation that he’ll be asked to play at least a little bit of point guard, but the tantalizing glimpse of explosiveness Allen showed in Indianapolis raised hopes among Duke fans that even without Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones, that freshman class still has an impact player to offer.

“It’s very different for me, having not that much game experience last year but feeling like the old guy on the team because there’s only four guys returning and I’m just a sophomore,” Allen said. “We’re a young team just like last year again.

“It’s a different kind of feeling to be on this side of it, having a season under your belt, coming in knowing what to expect. It’s kind of flipping the role, taking the freshmen under your wing. As it’s going forward, I’m going to try to tell them as much as I can so they figure it out earlier than I figured it out.”

Allen demonstrated late in the season that he is what he was expected to be coming out of high school: an athletic dunker and excellent shooter who can score in bunches when he gets hot. But there’s a big difference between doing that in spurts and doing it on a nightly basis. That landscape has changed for him.

Just as he has become more recognizable in public, he should have more responsibilities on the court for Duke, but there are no guarantees. Those around him have cautioned him not to assume anything. Just because he’s one of only four returning players – Amile Jefferson, Marshall Plumlee and Matt Jones are the others, along with transfer Sean Obi, who redshirted last season – does not mean he’s guaranteed to start, or even play.

High expectations

Just as Allen earned his playing time in Indianapolis over the course of the season, he faces the same imperative to earn a starting role as a sophomore.

“I didn’t want him to think he had arrived, what he did helping Duke to a national title,” said Martin, his high school coach. “Duke signed some great players. The best players who come to practice every day are going to play. I wanted him to understand he needed to continue what he’s always done.”

Still, after what happened in Indianapolis, expectations will be high – as high as his profile has become.

Allen’s mother knew things had changed when the family drove back to Jacksonville from Durham together, in two cars, after Duke’s basketball banquet in April. They stopped at a Chick-fil-A outside Fayetteville, and while they were in the drive-thru lane, a man jumped up in the picnic area pointing and yelling. When they pulled into the parking lot of a mall with their food to change drivers, it happened again.

“For him now to embrace being recognized, that’s something he’s had to work on and come out of his shell a little bit,” she said. “It’s been good for him, actually, to be able to do that and be a little bit more outgoing.”

So after exiting Cameron this past week, he cheerfully posed for a photo with two high school girls from New York who were on Duke’s campus for a tennis camp. Nicole Vereczkey and Kenlie Cerull spotted him from afar, and with no hesitation, ran up to him and asked for a picture.

How often does that happen to him now?

“All the time,” Allen said.

This is his new reality. In one game, one night, he became a star. Three months later, he’s still learning how to be one.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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