NEW YORK — On Nov. 18, the day after Duke lost to Kentucky in the Champions Classic in Chicago, Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski called individual meetings with select players back in Durham. The 74–63 loss had not exactly been humiliating, given Kentucky's abundance of talent, but it had been a reality check for the defending national champs, and Coach K thought certain Blue Devils needed to hear hard truths.
The film clips that Krzyzewski showed during his meeting with 6'4" sophomore shooting guard Grayson Allen, who’d scored 26 and 28 points against inferior opponents in Duke’s first two games, only to be held to six (on 2-of-11 shooting) against the Wildcats, was no fun to review. “I’m disappointed,” the coach said to Allen. “You didn’t make an adjustment.” He said that Allen, who typically excels at attacking the basket off the bounce, was driving into Kentucky’s big men with the goal of merely getting a shot off, rather than scoring. And the bigger issue was Allen’s expression throughout the game: It was not, Krzyzewski thought, a “strong face.”
“He told me it didn’t look like an emotional, into-the-game face,” Allen said. “It didn't look like I was thinking about us as a team, I was only thinking about myself and how I was playing.”
Krzyzewski then said he’d be making an adjustment to Duke's starting lineup for its opening game of the 2K Classic, against VCU on Saturday: Allen wouldn’t be in it. Allen had a wild freshman season in 2014–15, arriving as a McDonald’s All-American, barely cracking the back end of Duke’s rotation, making zero starts, playing sparingly in January ACC games, averaging 4.4 points—only to come off the bench in, of all places, the national title game, and serve as the Blue Devils’ emotional spark and offensive hero with 16 huge points against Wisconsin. His sophomore year figured to be more steady: With Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones gone to the NBA, Allen was projected as a sure-fire starter and Duke’s likely leading scorer. Yet after three games, he had already lost his place in the starting lineup, and he was watching film with his coach, being asked, Is that how you want to look?
It was not. And so Allen went to New York this weekend determined to put on a different face. The one he exhibited was that of a potential first-team All-American: emotional, engaged, talkative and supremely confident as a scorer. On Friday night against VCU, he came off the bench at the 16:25 mark of the first half and proceeded to put up a career-high 30 points in a 79–71 win. On Sunday against Georgetown, he set another career-high with 32 points in an 86–84 victory, becoming the first Duke player to score 30 in back-to-back games since J.J. Redick. After the VCU game, Krzyzewski said the response Allen had following the Kentucky humbling was “spectacular.” After beating the Hoyas, Krzyzewski called Allen's statistics—32 points on just 12 shots, and 9-of-9 from the free-throw line—“sensational.”
“It’s just a crazy, crazy stat line,” Krzyzewski said. “I’d like to see him do that again and again and again. Maybe we should get him more shots. He’d get about 40 [points].”
It’s reasonable to envision even bigger stat lines for Allen. Duke needs to rely on him heavily while the freshman who was expected to be its second-leading scorer, 6'9" wing Brandon Ingram, adjusts to the physicality of the college game; he had just five points in 16 minutes against the Hoyas. Allen has developed a reliable off-the-dribble jumper to complement his basket attacks, allowing him to score even when the lane is clogged, and he’s shown the ability to completely take over a game against a high-level opponent.
Georgetown, which is much better than its 1–3 record suggests, had taken No. 3 Maryland to the wire last week, and led the Blue Devils 47–42 at halftime. This was where Duke had folded against Kentucky, coming out of the break listless and failing to fix the errors that plagued the first half. That didn’t happen against the Hoyas, thanks largely to Allen, whose takeover began with a three at the 18:35 mark, which cut the lead to 49–47. At 18:08, he gathered up a Georgetown turnover, took off in transition, and assisted on a Matt Jones three. At 17:25, the Hoyas’ best perimeter defender, L.J. Peak, sagged off Allen on the right wing, figuring he wouldn’t dare launch a three from a full step behind the NBA line ... which is exactly what Allen did, putting Duke up 53–52. On the Blue Devils’ next offensive trip he took a hand-off from Marshall Plumlee and drew a three-shot foul on Peak, making all three free throws. On the possession after that, Allen drove the lane, collapsed Georgetown’s defense and assisted on another Jones three. Two possessions later, Allen penetrated and fed Marshall Plumlee for a dunk.
Just over three minutes had elapsed, in which Allen also had two defensive rebounds and drew two non-shooting fouls, and the score changed from a five-point Hoyas lead to a 61–54 Duke lead. Allen ran back on defense following the Plumlee dunk, and did the Duke-iest thing possible: He crouched into a deep stance and slapped the floor. It was a strong slap, and the expression he had while doing it was what I imagine Coach K would refer to as a strong face.
When Georgetown made a valiant comeback later in the second half, getting to within 68–67 with 6:15 left, the Hoyas were met by—guess what?—another Allen flurry. He scored seven of Duke’s next nine points, stretching the lead to 77–69, and the Blue Devils were able to hang on to win as an Isaac Copeland three-point attempt was short at the buzzer. With 62 points in two days, and an amazing 1.79 points per possession against Georgetown, Allen was a no-brainer pick for the 2K Classic MVP. More importantly, as teammate Amile Jefferson put it in the press conference, Allen had proved something by responding to his post-Kentucky benching: “One game doesn't judge a man.”
Nor does one game judge a team, and Duke (4–1) showed that it’s still top-10 material, with room to grow. Ingram has co-star potential once he gets comfortable; and as for the other freshmen, point guard Derryck Thornton had two breakout games in New York and looks to be solidifying a spot in the starting lineup, and Luke Kennard and Chase Jeter have shown flashes that suggest they could be valuable members of the rotation this season, rather than waiting ‘til next year. In the meantime, Duke will lean on Allen as much as possible, and he seems capable of handling it.
After Sunday’s win, Krzyzewski was happy to answer any and all Allen-related inquiries, unconcerned about running out of adjectives to describe his sophomore star. Spectacular, sensational, outstanding and terrific had all been used when a reporter led into another question by saying, “Sticking with the Grayson theme”—and Duke's coach interjected before it could be finished.
“It's a good theme,” Krzyzewski said. “I’m listening to it over and over.”