Following the Thursday announcement of Grayson Allen’s indefinite suspension, The Chronicle’s men’s basketball beat writers react to head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s decision and explain what impact it could have on the No. 5 Blue Devils moving forward when they start ACC play Dec. 31 at Virginia Tech.
Amrith Ramkumar: I was shocked when I saw the replay of Allen’s trip because in addition to blatantly tripping Elon’s Steven Santa Ana after the two locked arms on a Santa Ana drive, Allen’s emotional outburst on the bench seemed to have a clear impact on Duke’s players and coaches. There are pictures of sophomore forward Chase Jeter and associate head coach Jeff Capel looking completely stunned by Allen’s outburst, and it fueled an 11-2 Phoenix spurt in what was another lackluster performance by the Blue Devils.
I was most surprised that Allen would behave in such a demonstrative way and negatively impact his team in that game and moving forward because of his preseason comments and role as a captain. Coach K’s decision to bench him at the start of the second half seemed like the right move to me, and unlike many people I thought his postgame actions and comments were fine.
He facilitated Allen’s apology in person, defended him publicly and said that further action would be taken after the team had more time to review the incident. I understand criticism of Krzyzewski’s comments as arrogant but I took his comments as saying he did not want to rush into a decision immediately after the game—I think that was the right move in this case.
Hank Tucker: I didn’t get a good look at the trip in live action from my seat on press row at the Greensboro Coliseum, and my view was from a similar angle to what Krzyzewski was looking at. I just saw Santa Ana go to the ground after what appeared to be an innocent foul close to the basket.
I also didn’t see Allen’s outburst on the bench during the ensuing stoppage while the play was being reviewed—I was watching and listening to Krzyzewski have a stern chat with one of the officials close to halfcourt with his back to his team’s bench, so I can confirm that Krzyzewski was telling the truth when he said on the Dan Patrick Show Thursday that he didn’t see Allen’s reaction after the play, either. Krzyzewski’s assistants probably told him about Allen’s emotion, but it would have been hard to understand without seeing the footage firsthand.
I was about 30 feet away from the biggest story of the day in the sports world, but I totally missed it, and so did Krzyzewski.
In that moment—before I saw the replay on Twitter at halftime, when I was shocked at how blatant the trip was—I saw no reason for Krzyzewski to keep Allen on the bench in the second half, and he probably felt the same way. I have no idea when Krzyzewski first saw the full replay of the incident, but assuming he had limited information while the game was going on, I’m willing to give him a pass for putting Allen back in.
I also don’t really understand the criticism of his defensive comments in his postgame press conference. He said he was not going to let the media or public opinion decide how he would implement further discipline, but in the end, after I’m sure he watched and rewatched the film when the team got back to Durham Wednesday night, he came to the right decision on his own Thursday morning.
Brian Pollack: The ESPN2 broadcast captured the play very well on replay and showed it multiple times, so sitting at home it was impossible not to see the trip in full detail. Allen’s actions on the court at that moment were inexcusable, and his immature reaction afterwards—combined with the cameras focusing on him crying on the bench—certainly did not help his cause. The Blue Devils were in a tight game when Allen tripped Santa Ana, and even beyond the play itself, Duke cannot afford to have one of its three captains become such a distraction in the heat of the moment.
Based on that, I was very surprised that Krzyzewski allowed Allen to see the floor at all during the second half. Given his clear state of emotional instability, I thought it was unwise to put him back on the court and potentially risk another blowup—not to mention sitting Allen as punishment for such a horrendous sequence of events. The junior acted like a freshman, not a team captain who has won a national championship, and Krzyzewski typically holds his leaders to higher standards.
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After the game, I thought the direct apology to Santa Ana as well as Allen’s comments to the media were both appropriate and necessary. Allen showed remorse and recognized his wrongdoings, which obviously does not undo his actions, but at least is a sign of accountability. Krzyzewski, on the other hand, seemed to come off a bit strong in his postgame comments, and I felt his air of self-righteousness in defending Duke’s way of doing things was a little uncalled for.
A simple condemnation of Allen’s actions combined with a promise to deal with the consequences internally would have sufficed in diffusing the situation.
Sameer Pandhare: From the first replay of the incident, I was stunned by Allen’s actions and felt genuinely sorry for his teammates. The guard’s spinning trip to Santa Ana was perhaps as blatant as it gets and I was pretty surprised the junior wasn’t ejected considering his history of similar offenses. But perhaps the thing that struck me the most about the play was Allen’s reaction on the court. Instead of acknowledging the mistake he made, the Jacksonville, Fla., native seemed more interested in making his case for an offensive foul on Santa Ana to the officials and jawing back and forth with Elon players.
I’m not really sure what Krzyzewski’s rationale was for putting the junior back in the game. It was clear that Allen wouldn’t be himself the moment he stepped back on the court and I didn’t see the sense in hurting the rest of Duke’s team by playing an individual whose mind was clearly not on the game. If Krzyzewski really thought he needed Allen to defeat a 7-4 Elon team, that would speak volumes to the lack of confidence Coach K must have in the other players on his star-studded roster.
I also wasn’t a fan of Krzyzewski’s insistence postgame that he’s handled this correctly. If this was handled correctly, Allen wouldn’t have found himself committing the same mistake he made a year ago. I believed postgame would’ve been a good chance for Coach K to acknowledge that he should have taken stronger disciplinary action after the first two trips. He seemed to have no problem pointing out that Oregon’s Dillon Brooks made a mistake celebrating a late 3-pointer in the teams’ Sweet 16 contest a year ago.
The Blue Devils have yet to specify a time span for Allen's suspension. Considering his repeated actions and post-trip tantrum on the bench, how many games do you believe Allen should be suspended for?
AR: I think Allen should be suspended for three games since that that would mean about three weeks away from game action because of the Blue Devils’ lengthy holiday break. Considering Duke faces a tough test at Virginia Tech Dec. 31, that seems like an appropriate amount of time given his transgressions and the need for him to learn from his past mistakes.
HT: I think he should miss about three games, which would put him out for a road test at Virginia Tech and then home games against Georgia Tech and Boston College, which should both be relatively easy wins without him. Then, I wouldn’t be surprised if Krzyzewski suddenly decides he has learned from his mistake and he’s ready to come back for one of the Blue Devils’ toughest weeks of the season on the road at Florida State and Louisville in the second week of January.
If he does come back for the games against the Seminoles and Cardinals, though, the media would surely run with the storyline of his first two games back being against the teams whose players he tripped last year. There is no doubt that he would also be booed and heckled relentlessly in those two gyms. Perhaps it would be better for Allen’s self-confidence, if not for Duke’s win total, for him to miss five games and return Jan. 21 against Miami in the friendly confines of Cameron Indoor Stadium.
BP: The suspension comes at a tricky time because the Blue Devils are just beginning their Christmas break, meaning Allen’s absence won’t come into play for more than a week. Right now, I think even Krzyzewski is still deciding on how long the punishment needs to be—hence the indefinite suspension instead of a specific one.
Although I see Hank’s point about wanting Allen to return at home, I have a hard time seeing him being held out for five games, as former Duke star and current ESPN analyst Jay Williams suggested. On the flip side, just one or two games seems a bit light considering the widespread backlash in the wake of Wednesday’s game. The Blue Devils’ first major ACC test comes against Florida State in their fourth conference game, and I think that is likely when we can expect to see Allen back on the court again.
SP: I’m in agreement with Hank here that Allen’s return must come at home. I’m not sure Coach K can feel comfortable bringing the junior back in what could be a high-stakes game against the Seminoles—not to mention the fact that Allen would be returning to his home state and would likely be vilified any time he touches the ball. I certainly don’t think Allen’s return will come in Louisville after the captain lost his composure and was whistled for a technical foul after fouling out in that hostile environment on the road against the Cardinals just a year ago.
With that in mind, a five-game suspension would put Allen out for exactly a month, and the last thing the Blue Devils would want at this time is spending more time without their full complement of pieces. I expect Krzyzewski to end up settling on a two-game suspension with Allen returning Jan. 7 against hapless Boston College, before the aforementioned road contests. Yes, suspending Allen just two games seems a bit soft compared to his actions, but I believe the extended break between Wednesday’s game and the team’s ACC opener will also give Krzyzewski the chance to straighten out his captain before two of the biggest games of conference play.
With Allen out indefinitely, how do you expect the Blue Devils' rotation to change?
AR: I actually don’t expect Duke’s rotation to change much without Allen. If the Blue Devils want to keep playing small ball, freshman Frank Jackson should slide into the starting lineup, but if Krzyzewski and company want to start a more traditional big lineup, Jeter would likely start. Either way, Jackson and Jeter will probably see a slight bump in minutes as they did in the second half against Elon, and freshmen Harry Giles and Marques Bolden will likely keep playing short stints.
Based on what we have seen so far, I would be really surprised if the quartet of Luke Kennard, Matt Jones, Jayson Tatum and Amile Jefferson sits for long stretches moving forward. Bolden and Giles simply have not looked ready to take the major step forward needed to demand big minutes down low, but of course that could change when Duke returns from its holiday break.
HT: This is the perfect opportunity for Duke to experiment with bigger lineups it may need down the road against opponents with strong frontcourts like North Carolina. I could see the Blue Devils using a lineup with Jefferson, Tatum and either Bolden or Giles on the court at the same time to challenge teams with their size. Bolden and Giles have struggled to fit in with the team’s offense since missing the first month of the season with injuries, but Allen’s suspension could expedite their integration into the team.
BP: With Allen out for the near future, Duke’s highly-touted freshman class has no choice but to step up and contribute. Krzyzewski could stay with the smaller lineups he’s been implementing and give Jackson more minutes, but I think he’s more likely to try and continue to work in his younger big men, Giles and Bolden. Bolden has played very sparingly since debuting in early December, and Giles definitely needs more seasoning with just two games under his belt. Getting those two five-star recruits comfortable on the floor could pay huge dividends for the Blue Devils later in the season, and I expect Krzyzewski to make that a focus as Allen sits.
SP: In terms of the starting lineup, it seems logical to move Jackson into Allen’s guard position and keep the tandem of Tatum and Jefferson down low. Jackson fueled a game-changing run against Michigan State earlier this season and has shown the willingness to take and make big shots. There seems to be a general tendency for Coach K to view Jackson as a spot-up shooter, but I feel like the freshman can do so much more if he attacks the basket, looking to either score or set up his teammates.
The case for a bigger lineup is certainly there and if there ever was a time for Krzyzewski to experiment, now would be it. But in order to do that, the reserve bigs must take a giant step in terms of their understanding of the team’s gameplan. With Giles continuing to shake off the rust, Bolden has had the opportunity to step up, but is having more trouble adjusting than many imagined. On offense, the freshman seems content to stare into an abyss once he realizes the ball won’t be coming his way and on defense, Bolden has been far from the rim protector I expected. In what may come as a shock to fans, Jeter actually seems to be a more dependable option at this point for the Blue Devils.
After being named the preseason National Player of the Year favorite, Allen has had far from the start many expected to this season. What has been the main reason for Allen's struggles?
AR: I think Allen’s main problem has been that turf toe prevented him from practicing early in the season and playing as effectively as he did last year. The junior has looked out of sorts on the court for much of the season and struggled with his shot, and I really believe if he had been healthy and played well, Wednesday’s trip would not have happened. To me, the trip was a reaction both to Santa Ana locking arms with Allen and the preseason All-American’s rough shooting stretch against Elon and Tennessee State.
With Allen and several of his teammates unable to practice, Duke did not develop chemistry early in the season, and that has shown lately on the offensive end. Although the Blue Devils dominated a struggling UNLV squad and Allen had a career day, Duke has not been able to consistently get Allen in rhythm with its free-flowing offense. I do think expectations were a bit too high for Allen entering the season, but I believe the injury was the factor that really set him back.
HT: Allen does best when he has the ball in his hands, and he thrived last year when Duke did not have many offensive weapons around him. But this year, Kennard and Tatum have been better scoring threats than Allen, leaving the junior without a clear role on the team. With his teammates getting a lot of shots up every game, it has been difficult for Allen to get into a rhythm from possession to possession, and I agree with Amrith that his toe injury probably affected his shooting and ability to attack the basket more than he let on as well.
For an emotional player like Allen, scoring gets him going. Although he did show he could be a facilitator with eight assists against Florida, these types of unselfish performances have not been consistent enough with such a talented supporting cast.
BP: This is a tough question—it’s impossible to get inside a player’s head and know what is driving their performance on the court. That said, I think Allen has had trouble adjusting to a number of factors this season, such as the increased pressure of leading a preseason No. 1 team and the constant backlash he’s had to endure all through the offseason.
However, I think the most important change for Allen—who had to shoulder much of the load for last year’s short-handed squad—is that he is now surrounded by several equally capable offensive players, and he’s struggled to adjust his game to this new role. Last season, it was acceptable, and oftentimes encouraged, for Allen to take the lion’s share of shots, but that’s no longer the case with this team.
And while this may sound like a copout of sorts, I don’t think we can ignore Allen’s compromised health. He had to leave games against Kansas and Penn State already this year with lower-body injuries, and only started to look fully healthy against UNLV a few weeks ago. While many of his younger teammates have taken their time returning from injuries, Allen—who is averaging more than 31 minutes per game—has continued to play at less than 100 percent, and it’s hard to say that has not affected his production.
SP: I feared the Allen regression season coming into this year, but this has been even worse than anything I could have imagined. The guard simply doesn’t seem to mesh as well with this year’s group, which has many more offensive weapons than the Blue Devils a year ago.
The junior has not adjusted his game to the talents around him and it’s a bit unfortunate that Kennard’s rise has coincided with Allen’s struggles. There seem to be multiple times each game that Allen is insistent on making a statement by taking the ball to the hoop against multiple defenders or settling for a perimeter jumper, instead of playing within the flow of the team’s offense.
Unlike Brian, I’ll focus my copout for Allen on my belief that expectations were far too high for the junior entering the season. Yes, the guard was coming off a huge statistical leap from his freshman to sophomore seasons. But anybody who watched last season would tell you that Duke was devoid of weapons on offense, outside of Brandon Ingram, and needed Allen to be a volume scorer to have any chance of winning.
The idea that Allen would emerge as the singular best player on a team this talented never seemed to quite line up, and in some ways, it feels like the guard is out there focused on meeting the lofty preseason expectations set for him. Sometimes you just have to wonder whether Allen continues to live through regret that he didn’t make the jump to the NBA when his stock was highest.
What do you expect from Allen when he returns from this suspension and how do you believe Coach K will handle him?
AR: I expect Allen to play well when he returns from the suspension just because Duke should be able to practice in the coming weeks and develop more cohesion on both ends of the court. The Blue Devils will need all three of their co-captains playing well and leading the way as their ACC schedule toughens, and I expect Allen to return knowing that he personally as an NBA Draft prospect and his team cannot afford any more setbacks.
I also think that Allen won’t return until Krzyzewski and his staff are confident this sort of incident will not happen again in the future, so I bet he will look sharp when he does return. Of course, some of this has to do with the competition Duke faces, but I think Allen will ultimately put this behind him.
HT: I don’t think there is any reason to believe Allen will be limited in any way when he returns. I think Krzyzewski will throw him right back into the fire with a lot of minutes, but I just don’t know if Allen fits well with this team even at his best. In particular, he has struggled to coexist with Kennard on the floor at the same time this year. Allen’s best game of the year—a career-high 34-point performance against UNLV—was the only time in the last six contests Kennard scored fewer than 20 points, and Kennard’s 35-point explosion against Maine came on a night when Allen was resting his toe on the bench.
Kennard has easily been Duke’s best player thus far, and he could take even more control of the Blue Devils’ offense during Allen’s suspension. I expect Allen’s scoring opportunities to remain limited when he comes back and for the rest of this season.
BP: This, to me, is the most intriguing question of all. How Allen performs moving forward could decide whether Duke lives up to its potential as a national title frontrunner, or continues to struggle as it did in its last two games. With plenty of negative attention directed at him and a lot of time to stew over his mistakes, I’m sure Allen will have a chip on his shoulder for the rest of the year. The question is whether or not Krzyzewski—and the Blue Devils’ other two captains, Jones and Jefferson—can get Allen to control himself and channel that energy onto the court.
This team might well be better off with Allen playing less of a central role offensively, thanks to the emergence of Kennard and Tatum as major scoring threats. We’ve seen Allen be more of a facilitator in a few games early on, and I think that’s what Krzyzewski will try and guide him toward—a more selfless approach on offense and a key perimeter defender on the other end.
SP: I’m mostly in agreement with Brian here about Allen needing to take a step back offensively. The Blue Devils have other players who can put the ball in the basket, and Allen may better serve the team as more of a spot-up shooter or slasher away from the ball.
Personally, I don’t think handling Allen will be easy for the rest of the season. Coach K has to strike a delicate balance between continuing to develop his young team and finding minutes for a player who’s largely getting by on his career resume at this point—Allen is shooting below the 40 percent clip from the field and is shooting just 33.7 percent from deep. I believe Allen will look to pick and choose his spots to be aggressive once he returns from suspension and considering how important it is for the guard to get to the line, I’m extremely curious what his reputation with referees will look like following his latest actions.
Krzyzewski has continued to go to bat for his junior, and I wouldn’t expect him to have any hesitancy about putting Allen right back in the thick of things once he returns from his suspension.