All the attention that college basketball’s most polarizing player has received for tripping opposing players, throwing tantrums or embellishing contact can sometimes obscure something important.
Grayson Allen is still an awfully good player.
The Duke senior served up a timely reminder on Tuesday night during the top-ranked Blue Devils’ 88-81 victory over second-ranked Michigan State. On a night when heralded Marvin Bagley sat out most of the game after being poked in the eye and the rest of Duke’s vaunted freshman class combined to make less than one third of its shot attempts, Allen came to the Blue Devils’ rescue with a narrative-shifting 37-point scoring barrage.
You could sense it coming in the first half when Allen drew fouls on a pair of early 3-point attempts and then extended his team’s lead to four with a 30 footer at the halftime buzzer. There were more rumblings seven minutes into the second half when Allen drilled another 3-pointer to break a 56-56 tie and halt an 8-0 Michigan State surge.
Allen occasionally forced a couple of long-distance shots in traffic once it became clear he had the hot hand, but he came through again for Duke when it mattered most.
When Michigan State’s Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson miscommunicated and left Allen free in the corner with just under three minutes to go, he made them pay with a big 3-pointer to extend Duke’s lead to six. Allen did it again two possessions later, curling around a top-of-the-key ball screen and drilling a game-clinching 3-pointer after Nick Ward gave him too much space and Matt McQuaid failed to recover in time.
Allen finished the night 11-for-20 from the field, 7-for-11 from behind the arc and 8-for-8 from the foul line, by far the biggest reason Mike Krzyzewski improved to 11-1 against fellow hall of famer Tom Izzo. The Blue Devils also benefited from 25 offensive rebounds against Michigan State’s typically formidable frontcourt and a 10-assist night from dynamic freshman point guard Trevon Duval.
That Duke was able to defeat Michigan State despite Bagley logging only 10 minutes is scary for the rest of college basketball. The Blue Devils cemented themselves as the No. 1 team in the nation now even though they still have plenty of room for improvement.
One big reason for optimism for Duke is that Allen appears ready to return to the All-American form of his sophomore season while also taking on the leadership role that he couldn’t handle a year ago.
Even before Allen’s third tripping incident led to him being suspended and stripped of his captaincy, his junior season was not going as planned. Nagging injuries robbed him of his former explosiveness and Duke’s lack of a true point guard forced him to at times play out of position.
Now fully healthy at last, Allen appears to have regained the lift he lacked a year ago, a big reason he has shot 17 of 26 from behind the arc in Duke’s first three games this season. With Duval in the fold, Allen can focus only on scoring and has a point guard capable of getting him the ball in spots where he wants it on the floor.
There’s no way of knowing whether Allen will be able to avoid the tripping incidents that plagued him the past two years, but he’s smart enough to know that every collision he has with an opposing player will be scrutinized like the Zapruder film. That much was clear during the second half Tuesday night when Allen careened into Cassius Winston trying to steal a pass and then instantly approached the Michigan State guard with a hand extended to help him up.
Before Allen became known as college basketball’s villain for his penchant for tripping opposing players, the Duke senior was the unexpected hero of the 2015 national title game and the breakout star of the following season.
Allen can’t erase his mistakes but he can finish his Duke career on a high note.
On a night when Duke needed a savior, Allen shifted the focus from his behavior to his performance and got his potentially redemptive senior season off to a dream start.
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