Less than two months ago, Grayson Allen played arguably the best game of his collegiate career. Granted, Duke played that night in Chicago without Marvin Bagley III for most of the game, but 37 points and seven treys were career-best marks for the senior as the Blue Devils put down an early-season marker against then-No. 2 Michigan State.
Yet as Duke has slumped to just two victories through its first four ACC contests, so too has Allen, who has scored only 19 points in his last two outings and is shooting a miserable 7-of-42 from long distance in conference play.
The lone senior is Duke’s sole captain and unquestioned leader, but if Allen is the lead-by-example player that head coach Mike Krzyzewski described him as at the start of the year, his recent performance has done little to inspire much confidence in that role.
“When [Coach K] says that I lead by example, it doesn’t necessarily come from me performing well or me making shots in a game,” Allen said after Friday’s practice. “Leading by example comes from my habits and how I’m acting off the court—habits in practice, getting to practice early, getting shots up in practice, being sharp, talking, just going through everything sharply and with a focus because the freshmen are looking to me as to how to do it right.
“Actually, being a leader helps you because you can’t think about you, you can’t worry about your own problems—you have to worry about everyone else’s.”
At times, however, it has seemed that extra burdens have weighed heavily on the Jacksonville, Fla., native. Since his sophomore season, when Allen averaged a team-best 21.6 points per game and shot better than 40 percent from both the field and beyond the arc, his numbers have dropped to 14.4 and 16.4 points per game as a junior and senior, respectively.
In his sophomore year, Allen didn’t have to be the leader. The Blue Devils had the veteran trio of Amile Jefferson, Matt Jones and Marshall Plumlee, plus freshman Brandon Ingram to command the opponents' attention on the floor. And despite Allen’s claims that last year’s tripping incidents did not weigh on his mind, the results showed otherwise as he also battled a series of toe and ankle injuries.
Now as the sole veteran in his final season, it’s a different responsibility he has to carry—one that Allen is still figuring out more than halfway into the year.
“I think it can [take your focus away from your own game] because it’s something I’m not used to,” Allen said. “For me, talking and being a leader is not natural, so I have to try to do that and make an effort to do that. But now that I have been doing that, it becomes more of a habit, more second nature and when it becomes that, it’s helpful because there should be no way for me to be thinking about my own stuff.”
Leadership is not the only new role Allen has taken on for this Duke team. With freshman Trevon Duval as the Blue Devils’ clear point guard, Allen has shifted back into an off-guard role, spending much of his time on the outside rather than frequently driving to the rim as in years past.
For someone who many college basketball pundits expected to be a potential national player of the year entering the season, the results certainly have not been as desired.
“A lot of times, guys are going to try to not let me catch because they know I’m a shooter, so it’s keeping a focus where if I’m on the ball, I can do a lot of things with the ball,” Allen said. “When you have the ball, you’re comfortable with the ball in your hands and the flow of the game. But off the ball, it can’t just be a game of standing and watching—and that’s very easy to fall into when Marvin and Wendell [Carter Jr.] have the ball because they’re shooting 70 percent.”
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According to basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy, Allen has been utilized on just 20.0 percent of Duke’s possessions—less than Bagley, Duval and Carter and well below each of the last two seasons when he was involved with at least a quarter all of Blue Devil possessions.
Still, it has not all been bad. Allen’s turnover rate is at the lowest of his career, just 12.2 percent, his free throw percentage is at a career-high and according to Pomeroy’s metrics, Allen ranks fourth nationally in offensive rating among players used on at least 20 percent of possessions.
“One of the things Coach always stays onto me about is hunting my shot,” Allen said. “That doesn’t mean to go and jack up threes—it means anything I can do to help the offense because I know there’s going to be a focus on me as a shooter. If I can make a cut and I might be open for a second, the defense will react to that and someone else might be open.”
With Duke likely leaning on a short rotation the rest of the way, Allen’s importance will only be emphasized down the stretch. If he can rediscover his offensive stroke, it could go a long way to a lengthy Blue Devil run come March.