Grayson Allen is college basketball’s consummate heel.
His petulance makes him stand out just as much as his talent and skill, and all three have contributed to a roller-coaster ride of a season for the junior, whose year was supposed to be more of a fairy tale.
Of course, Allen is not rare in being a talented, white, reviled player for Duke. He can get in line behind Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Steve Wojciechowski, and J.J. Redick in that respect. Regardless of the differences in their actual backgrounds and their very different responses to being cast as March heels, Allen has become emblematic of the special brand of intoxicating smugness most associated with the Blue Devils.
That stereotype isn’t Allen’s doing. Duke’s a private school with an ivory tower rep that the men’s basketball team’s success only enhances. The role of Dook heel will always be there, but Allen hasn’t exactly done anything to shun it. And for those who just heard about the latest Most Hated Blue Devil, you have to understand the history behind how Grayson Allen assumed the title.
This dates back to last season
As a sophomore in 2016, Allen tripped two players. He did so fairly blatantly and, in the second case, with a “who, me?” incredulous shrug in the Feb. 25 incident shown below.
It was a bad look, and as you can see in the first Feb. 8 incident, kind of a dangerous one.
As the team’s leading scorer and prospective captain, Allen knew he’d have all eyes on him and so embarked on an offseason apology tour in earnest last summer:
“I know there's never completely a blank slate,” Grayson said. “That's going to be replayed and not forgotten about. But for me, every opportunity I get to step on the court is an opportunity to play the game again and play the game the right way.”
Allen could have been in the NBA by now. He was projected as a late first-round draft pick last season after averaging an efficient 22 points per game in the toughest conference in America. Still, he opted to return for his junior season to lead a Duke team that appeared to be historically strong.
Duke topped the preseason polls with the nation’s best recruiting class joining a strong group of returning starters. Allen was the most accomplished returning player in the sport, topping our preseason list of the top 100 best players in college basketball.
Allen broke out as a freshman in the 2015 Final Four to help Duke win a national title. With the decision to return to school, the narrative was set: Duke would again capture the national championship, and Allen would find redemption as the leader of the nation’s best team.
As we found out, some things don’t go as planned.
The third trip
In a non-conference game early in December, Allen tripped Elon’s Steven Santa Ana. It quickly became the biggest story in the sport.
He walked away mouthing “bullshit,” and exploded in what can only be described as a temper tantrum on the bench.
After the game, he gave a tearful apology. Coach K made Allen apologize in person to Santa Ana and the fallout was in motion.
Amid a media rally for punishment, Allen was suspended “indefinitely” after the game and had his team captaincy stripped. Guesses as to the suspension’s time frame settled reasonably around three games, which would coincide with a trip to play a hot Florida State team on the road then a roadie at Louisville later that week.
Instead, Allen only sat out one game. And after Allen’s slap on the wrist, he did this in his second game back.
It’s not a blatant trip, but Allen’s legs have certainly not earned the benefit of the doubt. Could you imagine the reaction if the Boston College player fell down?
Krzyzewski remained on the defensive about the punishment he doled out. In the very next game after the matchup with BC, Allen gave an FSU assistant a chicken wing as he dove into the bench diving after a loose ball.
The coach, Dennis Gates, was very strong is his defense of Allen and wanted to leave no doubt about whether or not there were any hard feelings.
After the third trip, Allen’s entire season became a witch hunt. Each game was a referendum on his character and it came with the subtext of a disappointing performance for both himself and his team.
Neither Duke nor Grayson Allen had the dream season they anticipated
This has been a season full of fits for the Blue Devils. The hype train started to derail early. Top recruit Harry Giles, who missed his senior season of high school with a torn ACL, needed another procedure on his knee before the season started. Fellow five-star freshmen Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden also suffered injuries that kept them out the first eight games of the season.
Meanwhile, Allen failed to live up to his lofty preseason expectations, too. His scoring average has dropped from 21.6 to 14.1 points per game. His shooting percentage fell from 46.6 percent to 38.9. His three-point shot, once a dependable part of his game, also dropped five percentage points.
It’s not entirely his fault. Duke lacked a point guard and Allen was asked to take on the role. Last season, as a shooting guard, Allen was at his best attacking the basket. Now he’s asked to set up teammates like Tatum and breakout sophomore Luke Kennard.
That’s another layer to his and Duke’s story this season — he’s not proved himself to be the best player on this team, and he might not even be the second-best. As his antics took the spotlight, concern grew about the distractions being bigger than Allen’s output.
So where are we now with Allen?
Now, with a four-in-four spring to the ACC tourney title and a leap to an NCAA 2-seed it seems like Duke’s performance might finally be outshining Allen’s buzz. Has he “been through a lot?” Sure. But the fact is Allen put himself in this situation with a repeated pattern of behavior. So in good fun, sure, we’re gonna get these jokes off. That’ll be a running thing among fans until the Blue Devils’ season ends.
As far as his teammates are concerned, they aren’t exactly going to bury their guy publicly, and went on record with SB Nation at the ACC tournament supporting Allen. That support isn’t just for show. Allen hadn’t met expectations on a team that had a high ceiling coming into the season. But Duke can still win the national championship if the assembled talent rallies together.
Whether he helps or distracts, Duke will have to embrace all that’s good and bad about Grayson Allen.