On the day Grayson Allen committed to play basketball in Durham, SB Nation published an article calling him the player fans will love to hate.
“JUST LOOK AT HIM,” SB Nation pleaded.
Indeed, Duke’s roster always seems to have a villain—a scrappy, energetic white kid from the heart of suburbia with an exceptionally punchable face accepts a full scholarship. The Blue Devil haters don’t like him from the start and get new ammunition for their feelings every time he does something questionable.
Duke’s greatest villain was Christian Laettner, who prompted vitriol at the mere mention of his name. In 2013—more than 20 years after he graduated—Laettner won (or lost?) a Grantland “tournament” pitting the most hated college players of all time against each other. Players were submitted in categories: the 80s, 90s, 00s and Duke. The champion? Laettner.
His Elite Eight matchup was another Dukie, J.J. Redick. He was cocky. He was arrogant. And no matter how great his accomplishments were on the court—he once dropped 41 points on the No. 2 team in the county—they were always overshadowed by his antics. He threw up the 3-point-goggles and taunted opposing crowds, embracing the bad-boy reputation.
There was brief respite from villains when Duke teams were filled with fun, friendly faces—Jabari Parker! Tyus Jones! Marshall Plumlee!—but now the Blue Devils have someone for opposing fans to hate once again.
Grayson Allen has grown into a perfect villain. After bursting onto the scene against Wisconsin with a showing so scrappy it won a national title, Allen spent last season as the team’s star. As a sophomore, he averaged 21.6 points per game—a team high. Surely, his rise to greatness would be the dominant story of his season, right?
Unfortunately for him, Duke haters have pushed another narrative—Allen plays dirty.
On a fateful night in February, while laying on the baseline, our hero stretched out his leg and clipped Ray Spalding on the top of his right foot. Then, against Florida State later in the month, Allen again found himself tangled up with another player, only this time at half-court.
A leg was extended. An FSU guard was on the ground.
And if this wasn’t enough to sour his image to the basketball-loving public at large, Allen was implicated once more, in Duke’s Round of 32 win against Yale in the NCAA tournament, when another player ended up on the floor.
Throw in a handshake denial against Oregon in the Sweet 16, and you’ve got all the makings of a Certified Dirty Player.
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But is it true? Is Grayson Allen really all that dirty? To answer that, we have to check the tapes.
To assess Grayson’s transgressions, we’re going to rate them on the Laettner scale, from 1 Laettner Face (a misdemeanor) to 5 Laettner Faces (felony).
Trip I: Louisville
It’s Feb. 8, 2016. Duke is 17-6, unranked, and playing 13th-ranked Louisville at Cameron. Up 44-36 midway through the second half, Allen—the game’s leading scorer with 19 points—drives to the hoop, only to miss a contested layup and fall flat on his back.
Louisville’s Spalding collects the rebound, then turns up court to start a fastbreak.
Only, he doesn’t.
As Spalding runs by Allen, the Duke sophomore looks up and extends his leg, clipping the top of the running forward on the top of his right foot. Gravity takes over, and a second later, Spalding joins Allen on the floor.
Allen rightfully gets hit with a flagrant foul. It’s not the dirtiest move he’ll make all season, but it gets the haters talking. Pundits begin to speculate Allen’s intent. UPI calls it a dirty play. USA Today says he’s gone full villain. A narrative begins to form.
Trip II: Florida State
Three weeks after getting tangled with Spalding, Allen strikes again—this time against Florida State. Duke, up 15 points, is running out the clock. Matt Jones has the ball near the sideline, and is trapped by two Florida State players. One steals the ball, and begins to charge toward the basket.
He doesn’t get very far, but it’s his turn upcourt that sets this play in motion.
Near halfcourt, Allen and Florida State’s Xavier Rathan-Mayes were locked in a chippy matchup. Throughout the last possession, both players exchanged blows, trading elbows and jockeying for position. With 3.4 seconds left, after seeing his teammate steal the ball, Rathan-Mayes starts to run up court.
Allen kicks back his leg, and pulls it across Rathan-Mayes’s feet. Even the fans with obstructed views, watching the game through gaps in the rafters, can see this trip clearly.
The game is essentially over. There’s no reason for Allen to do anything but let the play go on and walk off the court with, at worst, a 12-point victory. But he can’t help himself and now the bad-boy narrative is full blown. Allen is no longer a reckless player who got caught up in the heat of the moment in a close game against a ranked conference opponent. No, this was an act of malice in a game less than four seconds from the buzzer.
Former Raleigh News & Observer reporter Laura Keeley covered Allen’s first two seasons in their entirety. The way she sees it, the foul (or in this case, lack thereof) was clear.
“When he tripped Xavier Rathan-Mayes, I thought that was pretty indefensible and ridiculous,” Keeley said. “It was so blatant.… I would not have been surprised if the ACC would have come down with some type of one-game suspension.”
Allen didn’t need to trip him. He didn’t even need to defend him. The game was over. And even though the nearest referee swallowed his whistle, this was the least defensible of Allen’s transgressions. He was later reprimanded by the ACC but didn’t face suspension.
Trip III: Yale
By the second round of the NCAA tournament, Allen’s reputation is set. He’s the serial tripper plaguing the Eastern Seaboard. Against Yale, in Providence, R.I., Allen is a victim of his reputation.
Just a few minutes into the game, Yale guard Makai Mason drives to the rim. As he starts his attack from the 3-point line, Allen pivots, and steps towards him. As Mason passes, he trips over Grayson’s planted foot, and stumbles to the ground.
For any other player, this would be inadvertent contact. Just a normal defensive maneuver that resulted in a slip. But this is Grayson Allen we’re talking about. Coincidences never happen. Fans cried foul, but in truth, Allen’s only crime was being Grayson Allen.
So what’s the verdict? Is Grayson Allen a dirty player? Or is he just hyper aggressive?
There’s a strong case to be made for the latter. Allen made his name fighting for loose balls in the 2015 national championship and doubled down on his rabid pursuit last season.
During October’s Countdown to Craziness, Allen tried to get his hand on a pass near halfcourt, and dove into teammate Amile Jefferson’s knee, sending the big man to the floor. Was it a dirty play? No. But it showed Allen’s lack of control. This is a guy who hurls his 6-foot-5, 202-pound body at anyone and anything that gets between him and a ball.
For what it’s worth, Jefferson was fine, and told The Chronicle he was happy with Grayson’s aggressive play style.
“I’m fortunate enough to have a player like that on my team and to go to war with him every game,” Jefferson said.
Even if Allen is a dirty player, Keeley says he can probably get away with it.
“As long as whatever he does doesn’t raise to the level of suspension or keeping him off the court, then I don’t really think, as far as a tangible practical sense that it really does matter,” Keeley said. “Ultimately, I think if Grayson Allen is not suspended and that he can play basketball, whatever he and his team is comfortable with is what’s going to go.”
As long as Allen’s hyper-aggressive mindset isn’t directly hampering the team’s ability to win games, then it’s not a problem. It’s Duke’s edge. Our Rasheed Wallace quality in a better shade of blue.
Allen took flack for avoiding a handshake with Oregon star Dillon Brooks after Duke’s Sweet 16 loss last March. As the final horn sounded, Brooks swarmed Allen, wrapping him in a hug, and pressing up against his face. Allen, understandably frustrated by the loss, didn’t take kindly to the affection, and pushed off.
Should he have shaken Brooks’ hand? Of course. But refusing to react positively to an aggressive response after an emotional loss is understandable. We ask our athletes to give maximum effort into the games and expect them to brush off losses seconds after they happen. Allen’s pedal-to-the-metal mentality makes that difficult, and that struggle led to this altercation.
Grayson Allen isn’t a dirty player. He’s just reckless. And as long as his actions don’t earn him a place in the penalty box, opponents should be wary of getting between him and the ball.