His first chance at being a Duke captain ruined by his own legs and a lack of self-control, Grayson Allen is confident his second go-around will be successful.
“It’s not going to happen,” Allen said Tuesday. “For me, my focus this year is going to be on the team, and that’s what I have to do as the leader. What I’ve learned is, these individual battles, you have to deal with emotion. So when I play with emotion, I can’t get focused on one-on-one stuff with someone on the other team. If I get angry, I have to turn that to my team. If I get excited I have to turn it to my team and not an individual battle.”
The calendar year 2016 proved nightmarish for Allen. As a sophomore, he had twice tripped opposing players in February, making him college basketball’s top villain and earning him a public reprimand from the ACC.
In December, after having been voted a captain by his teammates, Allen tripped Elon’s Steven Santa Ana during a game at Greensboro Coliseum. A video of Allen throwing a tantrum on the Duke bench went viral.
“I know a lot of people probably thought I was mad at the call,” Allen said. ”But I knew what the call was. I knew what I’d done wrong. It was a much bigger picture than just a foul called in one game. The whole game, the consequences that were going to come from the game. The whole thing after it. Kind of that big picture flashed before me.”
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski suspended Allen for an 89-75 loss at Virginia Tech on Dec. 31 and stripped him of his captaincy.
That didn’t satisfy the hordes of college basketball fans nationwide who saw Allen as petulant. Still, Allen decided to stay at Duke for his senior season rather than enter the NBA Draft. He came to a place where he’s able to tune out his critics.
“I honestly think I don’t care at all,” Allen said. “That’s better for me. That’s something I had to learn. I’m not a person who has a lot of social self-confidence. I put a too much meaning into stuff people say. Now I’m to the point where I can’t do that at all. I think I’m to a point where I don’t care. That was part of my process coming back. I wanted to be at Duke for so long. Why would I let what someone said force me to leave early. I know this is where I wanted to be, and I’m happy here.”
His teammates and coaches believe he’s in a better place, too.
Last month, before this year’s Blue Devils started practice, the players voted Allen as their lone captain. His job now is to handle his second chance better than he did his first.
“He deserves the opportunity to lead,” Krzyzewski said. “A lot of times the best leader is the one who has been through the most experiences because they can have empathy for highs and mediums and lows. I think it’s a tremendous opportunity for him and the guys. He’s done a really good job. He’s not this vocal guy. But in huddles he’s good. He’s in great shape, and he’s playing lights out basketball right now. The best thing that he can do is just play hard like that.”
Allen rarely was able to just play basketball as a junior. As a sophomore, he was an all-American when he averaged 21.6 points per game.
Last season, his scoring average dipped to 14.5 points per game as he made just 39.5 percent of his shots. That’s down from his 46.6 percentage as a sophomore.
His disciplinary issues played a role, but so did physical injuries. He was slowed by a hamstring injury during preseason practices and he injured a toe in November before his suspension.
His best stretch of basketball game in early February. Over a three-game stretch of ACC games against Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and North Carolina, Allen averaged 22 points per game while making 21 of 41 shots (51.2 percent).
But the following game against Clemson, Allen suffered an ankle injury that would require post-season surgery. Over the next month he had five games where he failed to score in double figures.
“Grayson, his stuff really started with the hamstring injury and it permeated from there,” Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel said. “He was really hurt all year. You saw a few glimpses.”
The surgery allowed Allen to take a much needed break from basketball. He’d been on campus all summer his first two years at Duke. This time he got away – home to Jacksonville, Fla., for a while, to Chicago with a teammate – and came back refreshed.
“Just relax,” Allen said. “That was big. It re-energized me. I started missing the game a ton the last couple of weeks.”
Now his play and his behavior will greatly impact how Duke’s talented but young team will fare this season. He’s the lone senior but Duke’s staff believes all his ups and downs have prepared him for this challenge.
“There’s no one in college basketball that’s been through what Grayson’s been through,” Capel said. “The difficult things like that. So there should be a toughness with our group. That’s one thing we need these returning guys to teach the younger guys is to understand that you need to be tough and you have to grow up quickly.”