He is booed when he is introduced and booed when he checks into the game and booed when he catches the ball on the wing, so by now he is used to it. And in a way, that’s not the tough part for Grayson Allen. He has become the one college basketball player who even people who don’t pay attention to college basketball might know. Not Frank Mason III of Kansas. Not Lonzo Ball of UCLA. Not Justin Jackson of North Carolina. Not Josh Hart of Villanova.
No. Grayson Allen of Duke.
That will be the case when the NCAA tournament begins in earnest Thursday, and as it carries through the weekend. Find a college basketball aficionado with an indifferent take on Allen.
Waiting. Still waiting.
So there are the jeers and the taunts and the parlor games about where he fits among the most hated Duke players ever. But get away from the cheap shots and the trips and was-that-an-intentional-kick incidents. What you find is a player in transition, just like the rest of his team. And what that makes him is not just March’s most polarizing player, but perhaps its most pivotal, too.
To understand that, you must understand Allen’s current position. Nearing the end of his junior season, he is no longer a starter. He has not really been able to practice for Duke. Last week in New York, as the Blue Devils ripped off four straight wins to take the ACC tournament, Allen twice sat on the bench as freshman Frank Jackson and senior Matt Jones took the crucial minutes that he was once assured.
“It’s different,” Allen said, “because last year, I would’ve been in the game.”
Let’s get this part out of the way, because it colors Allen’s entire journey to get to this point: At least three times, Allen has been caught kicking or tripping an opposing player. None of these plays — last season against Florida State and Louisville, this season against a guard from Elon named Steven Santa Ana — are what normal basketball players would call normal basketball plays. They make anyone watching wonder: What’s he thinking?
Each of these plays has drawn scorn from the outside. The last drew what was deemed at the time to be an “indefinite” suspension from Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, a punishment that was later clarified as “one game.”
So that’s the backdrop for the boos. It’s permanently part of Allen’s search engine results.
“Some of this stuff, he brought on himself,” former Duke player Shelden Williams said.
Last Wednesday, when Duke opened the ACC event at Barclays Center by beating Clemson, Allen was called for a foul, slammed the ball to the ground in frustration — like a hard, two-handed dribble — then couldn’t catch it when it bounced back up. Technical foul? Technical foul.
“I missed the ball,” Allen said. “I mean, it went off into the media table, so it was probably, I guess, delay of game or something. I don’t know.”
He is the perfect character for a world full of GIFs and HD replays. What did he just do? What was his intent? Let’s break it down.
“Self-inflicted wounds,” said former Duke player and current analyst Mike Gminski on the broadcast. “And he has to understand that he’s going to be scrutinized, and he cannot react like this.”
Allen was asked afterward if he felt he was being targeted. The answer: A quick, “No.”
Put another way: Does he believe he has a small margin for error?
“Does it seem that way?” he asked. “I think you’d be right to say that, yeah.”
Allen played a season-low 12 minutes, missed all four of his shots and was something of an afterthought. The next day, he was fouled by Louisville’s David Levitch. He fell to the floor and lifted his right leg at Levitch, an apparent kick.
So however long Duke lasts in this tournament, expect the frame-by-frame breakdown of Allen.
But then there’s the basketball part. Allen began the season with a toe injury. He recovered, then suffered a left ankle injury, one that caused him to miss a game against Miami. That issue left him unable to practice at full speed. Even last week, as he professed that the ankle was improving, he joked, “I’ll be able to dunk here soon.”
When Allen scored 25 points against North Carolina on Feb. 9, he was averaging 16.2 points per game and shooting 41.3 percent from the field. For the next seven games, concluding with Clemson last week, he was unable to elevate, shot 24 percent and averaged 6.9 points.
“He’s lost his timing, his rhythm,” Krzyzewski said after the Clemson game. “When you don’t practice at the speed and with the reps that you normally do, it affects your performance. And it has with him.”
Yet in the ACC tournament, Allen twice scored 18 points. Against North Carolina, he made 5 of 6 three-point attempts. “My confidence is the same,” he said. But his game appeared different.
Allen’s play — not whether he draws a technical or not, his play — is what might have a profound effect on the next two (or even three) weeks.
UCLA has Ball to distribute to five other players also averaging in double figures. North Carolina could argue Jackson, the ACC player of the year, joins Joel Berry II, Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks as players who, at times, can score at will. Villanova, the defending champ, has Hart, Kris Jenkins and Jalen Brunson, with capable Mikal Bridges as well.
But if you add a fully healthy, emotionally stable Allen to Luke Kennard, who averages 20 points per game, and Jayson Tatum, who two weeks from now might seem to be the obvious best player in the country, as well as lunch-pail veteran Amile Jefferson and the developing Jackson, what team has more high-end offensive threats than Duke?
Take Allen away, and Duke isn’t complete, probably not a title contender.
So watch Allen, every little thing he does and doesn’t do. But watch his basketball, too, because that could have a lasting impact on what pops up when we Google “Grayson Allen” in the future.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.