With the Blue Devils dropping seven ACC games for a second straight season and failing to lock up a double bye in the conference tournament, many would immediately jump to the conclusion that the preseason No. 1 team in the nation never lived up to the hype.
Certainly, Duke rarely displayed the night-to-night consistency required to enter the postseason in the discussion as a clear title contender.
But there were a few times in the regular season when the Blue Devils did actually resemble the unit many envisioned coming into the season. Almost all of those games had one thing in common—a healthy Grayson Allen playing with the contagious energy and aggression that still make him one of the most dangerous competitors in the nation.
There was a 94-45 demolition of a listless UNLV team Dec. 10 in which Allen dropped 34 points in 29 minutes on 12-of-16 shooting—including six 3-pointers—and threw down a one-handed dunk that had many thinking he had put his turf-toe woes behind him.
After the trip heard around the world against Elon, the Jacksonville, Fla., native looked determined to show he could be Duke’s primary ball handler, fueling the team’s 53-point rout of Georgia Tech Jan. 4 and a 27-5 first-half run against Boston College three days later with by far the best assist numbers of his career.
Finally, in the Blue Devils’ first game against North Carolina Feb. 9, Allen looked like the player who had UNLV running for cover, torching the Tar Heels to the tune of 25 points, seven 3-pointers and helping the team earn a marquee win it desperately needed.
Yet for every moment the junior has looked like himself again this year, the overwhelming majority of Allen’s headlines this season have been negative. From inefficient early-season shooting as he struggled with turf toe to heavy ridicule in every ACC road game Allen played in as Duke stumbled to a 3-6 mark away from home, frustrating probably does not even begin to describe the former first-team All-ACC guard’s campaign.
Allen turned down the NBA Draft only to return and watch injuries decimate his third regular season, his role on the team seemingly change every few weeks and a firestorm erupt following his third trip in two years as he lost his co-captaincy.
“It’s been a year, for him, a season of coping with different injuries—hamstring, toe and ankle,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said Friday before the team’s regular-season finale. “Then he had the incident at Elon, which is nothing to do with injury, but it’s been a crazy year for him.”
Perhaps what has made Allen’s year most difficult is that each time he looked ready to right the ship and provide some consistency, one setback or another prevented him from playing a bigger part in the Blue Devils’ success.
Even when Allen put together his best four-game stretch of the year in late January and early February—Duke’s first four victories in a seven-game winning streak that turned its season around—the junior was clearly playing a completely different brand of basketball just a few weeks after being the primary facilitator.
In season-saving wins at Wake Forest and Notre Dame and home victories against Pittsburgh and the Tar Heels, Allen was almost exclusively a jump shooter. Forty-one of his 54 field goal attempts during that stretch were 3-pointers, and his ability to knock down 20 of those helped the Blue Devils find some semblance of an identity.
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Allen and Kennard coming off screens ready to fire from the perimeter or facilitate after drawing attention had Duke looking like a unit that was starting to enjoy playing together.
“I’ve definitely felt good lately and I am having a lot of fun now,” Allen said after the first North Carolina game. “It’s never been about the shots falling. I’m just playing for this team and nothing else. It’s really as simple as that.”
Yet immediately following that contest, the 2015 national championship game hero’s shots stopped falling, and his inability to generate points attacking the rim because of his health became a paramount concern.
Allen kept launching from deep at a rapid rate, with 27 of his next 39 shots in the next four contests coming from beyond the arc. But only seven went down, making Allen a footnote in stressful wins against Clemson and Wake Forest and a non-factor in a key win at Virginia.
After the loss to Syracuse, Allen sat out against Miami and combined for just 39 minutes and seven shot attempts against Florida State and North Carolina to finish off a tumultuous regular season. Although he finished with 14 points against the Tar Heels and two key 3-pointers, Allen still did not look like himself attacking off the bounce.
“You don’t have the push for a strong drive, but you can shoot. So he’s been more selective,” Krzyzewski said. “I think if you take a look at it transition-wise, he’s made a lot of mistakes in transition trying to complete [plays].... As he gets to that point where he would be explosive, it’s not the same.”
If Allen’s drama-filled regular season had been Duke’s only major obstacle, the Blue Devils probably could have stayed in contention for the ACC regular-season title and avoided two stretches in which they lost three of four games.
But of course, Duke has had to also deal with its talented freshman trio sitting out with injuries to start the year and missing valuable repetitions on the defensive end, Krzyzewski’s lower-back surgery that took him away for seven games and yet another foot injury to the team’s anchor inside in Amile Jefferson.
Considering the team had rotation players miss 43 games and 10 different starting lineups, its 10 RPI top-50 wins still stand as quite an impressive feat. From that standpoint, the Blue Devils coped with a brutal ACC schedule that featured road games against the other nine teams projected to represent the league in the NCAA tournament remarkably well.
However, most people have not stopped comparing Duke to the preseason hype machine we all expected or the unit that flashed its brilliance a few times when Allen felt right and got his shots to fall.
So now, the Blue Devils trek into the postseason as one of the most battle-tested and banged up teams in the nation. The non-stop drama is unlikely to end until Duke has taken its last breath in March—and as last year’s incident with Krzyzewski and Oregon’s Dillon Brooks showed, maybe not even then—meaning Allen and the Blue Devils will now have the chance to turn a season of hardships into a story of redemption.
“We’ve battled so much adversity.... It can be difficult to adjust, but I think we’ve done a really good job with that,” sophomore Luke Kennard said Friday. “It’s made us tougher, it’s made us more together, it’s made us a better team overall and that’s what we want to do. We want to become a great team. I don’t think we’re at the top of where we can be, but we’re working towards it.”
Brian Pollack and Sameer Pandhare contributed reporting.