This isn’t the way Grayson Allen’s spring was supposed to go.
The preseason national Player of the Year for 2016-17, Allen was supposed to be in the early stages of rolling in that professional money he’d somewhat surprisingly passed on 12 months earlier. The other option was that Allen would be shocking the world and returning to Duke for a fourth season to put a cap on one of the most successful college basketball careers in recent memory.
Instead, Allen is basking in neither of those enviable hypotheticals. His Tuesday announcement that he would be returning to Durham for one more season of amateur ball was not met with unparalleled surprise or excitement. Instead, it was met with tired jokes related to Allen’s strange propensity for tripping opponents and feature pieces centered around the 21-year-old’s need to finally straighten up and fly right.
None of this is to say that Allen’s return to college basketball isn’t a big deal. It’s not difficult to make the case that Allen is the most recognizable rising senior that the sport has seen since North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough made a similar decision nine years ago. He might be even more well-known.
Still, there is a marked difference between Allen and Hansbrough, J.J. Redick, Tim Duncan, and the other highest-profile college basketball players of the past 25 years. When those guys said “see you in a year” to the league, they had already accomplished remarkable things at the college level and were coming back to become legends.
When focus is limited only to his play on the court, what we have with Allen is a solid three-year playing career. Nothing more, nothing less.
Allen’s defining moment up to this point — again, if we’re speaking strictly about basketball — came in his least remarkable season to date. Allen averaged just 4.4 points and fewer than 10 minutes per game as a freshman in 2014-15, but was forced into extended action in the 2015 national title game because of foul trouble. He responded by scoring 16 points, the most of any Blue Devil not named Tyus Jones, as Duke took down Wisconsin to claim its fifth national championship.
There were murmurs that despite his limited numbers, the momentum of Allen’s title game performance would carry him to the NBA Draft. He elected to return to school, and proved that he was anything but a one-hit wonder, pouring in 21.6 points per game as a sophomore on a thin Duke team that needed each and every point he could give them. That wasn’t the only splash he made in 2015-16. Twice, Allen was caught explicitly tripping opponents. On a handful of other occasions, his fiery play drew extreme ire from opposing fans and casual spectators tuning in from home alike.
That national ire reached a height previously unfathomable during his junior season. After yet another tripping incident, a bizarre bench temper tantrum, and an indefinite suspension that wound up lasting for just one game, the eyes of the basketball world were suddenly on Allen’s every move. The tape from every Duke game became broken down and examined like some grainy ‘90s home movie footage on a bad monster mystery show. Meanwhile, Allen’s on-court production dropped noticeably in every single category outside of turnovers.
Allen’s 2016-17 season would up paralleling his team’s: Originally bursting with promise, then extraordinarily bipolar, and ultimately destined to be remembered for its bizarre nature more than anything else. The Blue Devils, a near-unanimous preseason No. 1 that some believed would be college basketball’s latest “super team,” won just one game in the NCAA tournament. Allen, everyone’s preseason pick for national player of the year, wound up not even earning an honorable mention nod in the ACC’s postseason awards.
Despite that last part, Allen will enter 2017-18 as the face of college basketball. He won’t pile up any preseason awards this fall, and there’s no guarantee that he’ll even be the top performer on his own team. What he will be is the player most-known by the faction of the American sports public that doesn’t tune into the sport until March Madness rolls around.
That’s the thing — in so many ways, Allen is exactly what college basketball needs. He is a recognizable name and face in a sport whose top talent moves on to the NBA right around the same time the general public learns who they are and what they look like. Across this country, there are thousands of football-focused Americans who can’t tell you how many seconds are on the shot clock in college basketball, but who know the name Grayson Allen and who could spot the Dukie if he was behind them in line at Subway.
That’s a great thing for the sport. It’s not a great thing for Allen. But it could be.
Becoming famous for all the wrong reasons has landed Allen in what could be an enviable spot. With all eyes on him next winter, Allen has the potential to write the ultimate redemption story. He could become the kid who fought through unprecedented national scrutiny to put forth one of the most successful senior seasons ever. The senior who took Duke from the dark and disappointing depths of a disastrous 2016-17 to the top of the same mountain he’d stood on as a freshman role player.
Or things could keep going in their current direction. Allen could not mature, not correct his troubling habit of dealing cheap shots to opponents, not fix the offensive issues that plagued his game as a junior, and leave college basketball as one of the sport’s all-time enigmatic figures.
The only thing we know right now is that we’re all going to remember Allen once he’s gone. He has a year to shape that memory.