Duke's forgotten freshman, Grayson Allen, became the key in its national championship win over Wisconsin
INDIANAPOLIS—Grayson Allen has two nicknames. The provenance of the first, bestowed upon him by his brethren in Duke’s vaunted freshman class, is easy to guess: his first initial is G, and thus it is only a few quick steps to arrive at G-Money. The second, Deebo, was given to him by senior Quinn Cook this past fall. When Cook first approached Allen after a practice to inform the freshman guard of his new moniker, Allen stopped to contemplate until Cook explained: it’s from the movie Friday, in which Deebo is an abominable, unrelenting tormenter who rules the protagonists’ neighborhood.
“I was like aw, jeez,” Allen said on Sunday. “I’ll take it I guess. I’ll take being a bully on the court ... The aggression and effort that I play with can be annoying.” Allen said this from the seat in front of his locker during a one-on-one conversation, which can be a rarity amid the media throngs that often turn Final Four locker rooms into mosh pits, especially on a team with just eight scholarship players, five of whom were elsewhere. Yet Allen was easy to corner that afternoon, as so many notebooks and cameras were occupied with his more high-wattage teammates.
Thirty-four hours and one national championship game later, when Allen made his way back to that locker room following Duke’s postgame press conference, he could not return to his seat. In his way was a horde of media—nearly two dozen reporters, at least eight video cameras—descending upon an irresistible story: In the Blue Devils’ 68-63 win over Wisconsin, it was Duke’s other, other, other freshman whose eight consecutive points jump-started a second half comeback that carried the team to its fifth national championship. It began with a three-pointer to cut the Blue Devils’ deficit to six with 12:52 to play and included a steal, three free throws without a miss and drive after drive attacking Badgers defenders that towered over him, none more defining than the and-one layup he scored with 12:10 remaining over 6’9” Sam Dekker that Allen punctuated with a pounding of his chest. “We were dead in the water,” said assistant coach Jon Scheyer. “He picked us up.”
“It was never me saying I need to be the man or me trying to take over,” said Allen, who finished with 16 points in 21 minutes off the bench. “When I saw us get down a little bit, I saw that we needed energy out there. That’s what I wanted to be.”
Player after player was asked some variation of whether they were surprised to see this performance from Allen, a generously listed 6’4” rookie whose season stat line included as many DNP-CDs (four) as PPG. All gave their own versions of “no,” none more colorful than freshman forward Justise Winslow’s, which included the fact that coach Mike Krzyzewski often refers to Allen as an “a--hole” in practice. Monday’s title game was not Deebo’s debut so much as his magnum opus. “The things he did tonight, we’ve always seen in practice,” explained sophomore Matt Jones. “I’m just happy he saved that for a game like this.”
Perhaps even to outsiders Allen’s breakout should not have been a total shock. Overshadowed as he may have been by classmates Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Winslow, Allen was no scrappy overachiever that Krzyzewski plucked from a bin destined for D-III. He was a 2014 McDonald’s All-American who won that game’s slam dunk contest by jamming while leaping over first Winslow and Jones together and then just the 6’11” Okafor. He committed to Krzyzewski as a junior because he grew up a Duke fan, not due to a lack of options: Florida, Florida State and Texas were also among his bevy of suitors. Once in Durham he proved instantly popular at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where a sign paid tribute to FIFTY SHADES OF GRAYSON. "It embarrassed the heck out of him,” said Mickie Krzyzewski, Mike’s wife. “His mother didn't like it at all."
What Allen didn’t like, at times, was his role. He spent most of his first few months glued to the bench (including zero minutes in Duke’s first win over Wisconsin, in December), where he would often be disengaged and slip into what he calls “spectator mode.” There were numerous heart-to-hearts with Scheyer and Krzyzewski, who continually hammered a point that seemed far-fetched: Stay ready. Your time is not next year. Your time is now.
His role began changing a month into ACC play, when the Jan. 29 dismissal of guard Rasheed Sulaimon necessitated an all-hands-on-deck approach. His minutes still yo-yoed—from three against Georgia Tech on Feb. 4 to 16 against Notre Dame three days later, from four against North Carolina on Feb. 18 to 18 against Clemson on the 21st—but “you could see his confidence grow,” said Scheyer. There was a 27-point outburst in a March 4 blowout of Wake Forest and a soaring dunk in Saturday’s semifinal win over Michigan State.
Yet even Krzyzewski may not have seen this coming. Asked on Sunday about which player might be the game’s ever-elusive X-factor, the coach said, “I don't know if there's an X-factor. I know that's a common phrase that's used. They all can be. Both offenses are geared to anybody stepping up.”
Thus Grayson Allen became Monday’s anybody. In the first half that ended 31-all he was a jolt, scoring six points in eight minutes, before spending the second half as a surging current of slashing drives. “I saw open lanes,” Allen said. “And I saw that they were hugging up to our shooters in the corner and not leaving ... I was just gonna drive, jump as high as I can, and try to draw a foul or finish at the hoop.” And when he did both, such as on that layup while absorbing contact from Dekker, he added a fiery flourish that served as signal to those that knew him. “That’s when you’re like, O.K., he’s going,” said senior Sean Kelly. “Let him go. Take the leash off.”
In the locker room, as he stared down the cameras and voice recorders with a snippet of net tied to the back of his commemorative hat, Allen said that none of it felt real. He recalled Duke’s last championship win five years earlier, when he watched on TV as the Blue Devils beat Butler in this very same cavernous football stadium. Allen dreamed of joining Krzyzewski’s litany of title winners himself, and in the wake of his doing so there was already talk of Allen’s place in Duke’s less ideal tradition of employing players whom so much of America loves to hate. This prompted a humorous moment when Scheyer, a guard on Duke's 2010 title team and a former member of that club, was asked how Allen “fit the Duke profile” in the ways that he and J.J. Redick had. “Well, um ... that’s a hard question,” said Scheyer with a laugh. “I guess you’re saying Grayson’s a good-looking guy, to be in the same category as me and J.J.”
Allen prefers to leave Deebo on the court, but if he is to be cast in the public eye as a villain, he has no qualms. “I’m gonna go out there and play the same way I played all year and play with the same kind of style and aggression and fire and everything,” he said. “If being hated comes from that, I’ll guess I’ll live with that.”
After what he did on Monday, Deebo will be forever beloved in Durham.