After the season’s opening weekend, all the hype surrounding Duke basketball is not about its top-ranked recruiting class, nor its nationally televised showdown with No. 2 Kentucky Tuesday—but rather the magnificent scoring prowess of Grayson Allen.
Allen put on a pair of shows for the Cameron Crazies this weekend, christening the Blue Devils’ title defense with 26 points and a pair of stadium-shattering slams against Siena Friday night. As an encore the next day, he notched a career-high 28, methodically breaking down the Bryant defense and dishing out six dimes to lead the Duke offense to a 113-point explosion.
Allen’s 54 points are the most for any Blue Devil through the season’s first two games in more than 30 years. Only Johnny Dawkins has ever surpassed this mark in a Duke uniform, pouring in 27 and 28 in the first two contests of a 1983-84 season in which he would go on to average nearly 20 points per game.
It’s not like we didn’t see this from Allen at all as a freshman last year—it’s just that these scoring barrages were few and far between. His 16 clutch points in the national championship game sparked offseason talk that he could develop into the focal point of the Blue Devil offense this season. Against Wake Forest, Allen outscored the Demon Deacons by himself in the first half and stole the show on Senior Night with a 27-point outburst.
But at the same time, the 6-foot-5 guard averaged a mere 4.4 points per game on the year and was often ineffective off the bench. His immense physical ability was evident, yet his transition to the college game was far bumpier than for his three classmates now playing in the NBA.
So, putting all this together, what kind of production can Duke expect from Allen this year?
Allen’s greatest strength is his ability to drive and attack the rim with either hand. This helps him get to the free throw line at a very high rate—he averaged 6.6 free throw attempts per 40 minutes last year, just slightly behind Jahlil Okafor’s 6.8 rate and well above Justise Winslow’s 5.5 and Tyus Jones’ 4.9 marks. Considering Allen’s conversion rate from the charity stripe was 84.9 percent last year—compared to Okafor’s dreadful 51 percent—that’s a huge plus, and a handful of points the Blue Devils can count on every night.
Scoring from the free throw line is especially valuable because it tends to fluctuate less than other methods of scoring. Allen is bound to have his games when he goes 1-for-8 from beyond the arc, but having a consistent six to 10 free throw attempts per game in his back pocket will help prevent him from ever being a non-factor offensively.
New NCAA rules this year have expanded the restricted arc from three feet to four, meaning there should be more room for Allen to operate around the rim. The early returns on this are positive—he went a combined 17-of-18 from the line this weekend, good for a remarkable 11.4 free throws per 40 minutes.
Of course, if defenses could focus entirely on preventing Allen from getting into the lane, he would not be a very valuable asset. But Allen’s shooting stroke is plenty dangerous, and it forces defenses to come out and guard him on the perimeter—which both enables him to take opponents off the dribble and frees up opportunities for his teammates.
Last season, Allen shot 42.5 percent from the floor and knocked down 34.6 percent of his 3-point attempts—respectable shooting figures, but not spectacular ones. Against the Saints and the Bulldogs, he connected on 16 of 31 field goal attempts (51.6 percent), including 5-of-12 from deep (41.7 percent)—numbers that garnered him ACC Player of the Week honors Monday.
Those gaudy figures are unlikely to keep up against Kentucky’s length and athleticism or some of the ACC’s stingier defenses, but even if Allen’s shooting numbers settle in the middle between last year’s and last weekend’s marks, opposing defenses are in for a rough go.
The biggest difference from last year to this year may simply be the role Allen is expected to play as he becomes part of the starting lineup. He earned his first career start Friday and logged more than 30 minutes both nights after never playing more than 24 in a game as a freshman.
With more minutes come more shots, and the best way to determine how Allen functions in the flow of the offense is by his usage rate—the percentage of the team’s shots he takes. As a rookie, his usage rate was just 4.8 percent, but that spiked to 19.7 percent Friday and 24.7 percent Saturday as Allen had the ball in his hands more than any other Blue Devil.
Although that may seem like a tremendous jump, usage rates in the range of 20-25 percent are normal for a team’s primary offensive weapon—which is what many have forecasted Allen to be for this year’s squad.
On last year’s team—one noted for its offensive balance and wide array of scorers—Quinn Cook led the way by taking 20 percent of the team’s shots, followed by Okafor at 19.2 percent and Winslow at 16.2 percent. In 2013-14—when Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood were far and away the two best scoring options—Parker amassed 24.8 percent of Duke’s totals shots, with Hood accounting for another 20.4 percent. In Dawkins’ 1983-84 campaign, his usage rate was a very high 27.3 percent—even with two other scorers averaging more than 13 points per game.
A team can score in a variety of different ways—relying on one player or several makes no difference as long as the points end up on the scoreboard. In all likelihood, Allen’s shot volume this year will be primarily a function of the development of talented but unproven freshmen Brandon Ingram, Luke Kennard and Derryck Thornton. If that trio matures in a fashion parallel to last year’s unit of Jones, Okafor and Winslow, then Allen’s usage rate will probably sit around 15 percent. Should they struggle or not adapt right away, Allen’s usage rate could very well climb in the 20-25 percent range.
Either way, suffice it to say Blue Devil fans should get used to Allen regularly having the ball in his hands this season. Whether or not that continues to produce highlight-reel dunks and team-shouldering performances—only time will tell.
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