As turbulent junior season winds down, Duke's Grayson Allen embracing reduced role

1:25 | College Basketball
The Unexpected Perk of Winning March Madness
Saturday March 18th, 2017

GREENVILLE, S.C. — On his way to scoring a game-high 21 points in Duke’s first-round win against Troy on Friday, Grayson Allen provided some help to his opponent.

The Blue Devils, up eight with 4:35 left in the first half, grabbed an offensive rebound and kicked it to the junior guard on the wing. As Allen rose for one of his five three-pointers on the night, the crowd began its usual booing of Allen. Normally, there would be a two-Mississippi count from the moment he touched the ball until the audible jeers, but this one was instant. He made the trey, and as he landed back on the floor and as the Duke crowd cheered to shield the boos, Troy’s Wesley Person had fallen at Allen’s feet near his landing spot. Allen reached down and, with his hands underneath Person's armpits, lifted up Person before retreating to play defense at the other end of the court.

“It doesn’t happen a lot,” Allen said of helping up an opponent. “If he’s right there in front of me and I don’t need to get back on defense, I’ll help him up.”

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Perhaps, but that sort of moment doesn’t square with Allen’s now infamous reputation. Before LaVar Ball helicoptered his way into the national spotlight to make sure the world was aware of his sons (and himself), Allen was, for a time, the biggest story in college basketball. The tale began with Allen surfacing as the White Hope off the bench for Duke in its 2015 national championship run, continued through two tripping controversies in his All-America sophomore year and slowed down this season with another trip, a temper-tantrum and a reduced role.

In the past week or so, Allen has taken it all in stride, and Friday night he appeared to be the consummate teammate and student-athlete. After starting in 31 of his first 32 games this season, he began coming off the bench in a late-season game against Florida State. Coach Mike Krzyzewski rolled with that arrangement through the ACC tournament into the NCAAs. The result? The Blue Devils have won a league tournament title and lost just once in their past seven games.

Friday night, Allen sat between Duke assistant Nolan Smith and freshman Harry Giles to start the game. In the first timeout, he was the first Blue Devil off the bench to welcome the starters back to the sideline, standing behind Krzyzewski as Allen extended his palm to the five starters. When checking into the game for the first time, Allen popped up and reached down to help Giles off the floor as the two entered the game for the first time six minutes into the contest.

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“Well, coming off the bench doesn't really change the player that you are, necessarily,” Allen said of his role, the kind of line he’s repeated for weeks. “It's just when you come in, my job is to give energy. And most of the times when I'm coming in it's kind of right after that first media (timeout). And it's just to give the team that extra boost.”

“And score some points,” Krzyzewski injected.

“And score some points,” allowed Allen.

Maybe it’s all a PR campaign—an attempt at an image rehabilitation leading up to the NBA draft. The tripping videos will never go away, and his hissy fit on the bench after his egregious trip against Elon only exacerbated the issue. An image lift couldn’t hurt.

AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt

A 21-point-per-game scorer last year, Allen has gone from off-ball to more of a point guard role this season. His numbers have taken a dip, and he enters Sunday’s game against seventh-seeded South Carolina at 14.3 points per game. His draft stock has taken a hit, and the 6-foot-5 guard is now a fringe first-rounder at best. If teammate Jayson Tatum is using the tournament to prove why he’s a top-three pick (much like he did Friday night), then Allen can also take advantage of it.

By the time Duke met Troy Friday night, the Tar Heel crowd sharing this subregional had already cleared out of Bon Secours Wellness Arena. South Carolina and Marquette fans were trickling in for their first-round matchup, and there was only one person that got boos. The boos didn’t rain down in the arena—Troy didn’t travel that well—like they will Sunday night in a virtual road game for Duke against the Gamecocks, but Allen was the tangible No. 1 enemy on the court every time he touched the ball.

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“At this point in the year, it kind of just is what it is,” Duke senior guard Matt Jones said. “You know when we come in the gym, if they’re booing it’s either for Coach or for him. And then they thrive off it. They feed off it, and we feed off it as a team.

“G’s a mentally tough kid and he knows we need him in order to be the team we need to be. That’s when you just rally around each other.”

But Allen didn’t play the villain like Christian Laettner or J.J. Redick before him, egging on the crowd by asking for more boos. In January, against Wake Forest, he put his finger to his mouth to shush the Demon Deacons’ crowd after a made three-pointer. Friday, he didn’t acknowledge the crowd whatsoever.

“No, I don’t thrive on it,” Allen said. “Whenever we play there’s going to be noise in the crowd, and we like that. You like playing in a game where you hear the crowd noise and it brings energy to you.”

Allen has lived a life in a fishbowl for more than a year now, thanks in part to his own actions and with a reasonable amount of blame to networks’ split-screen technology and pregame talking-head panels. Before Friday’s game, The Onion published a story titled “Grayson Allen Recalls Struggle Growing Up Without Any Principles.” Sunday he’ll be in the eye of the storm playing in front of Tar Heel fans staying after the first game and in front of Gamecock fans that own the area.

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He’s hyper-aware that everything he does can and will be nitpicked. The most emotion Allen showed Friday was a slight fist pump when he whipped one of his four assists into the paint. His play was loud, but he kept himself on mute.

“I mean, I know it’s happening, but that’s not going to affect my emotions,” Allen said. “I don’t know what was different in this game, but I’m still playing with emotion. I just think it’s the seriousness of the game.

“I don’t care about the cameras on me, I’m still going to play emotional.”

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