Grayson Allen’s recruitment to Duke began with a pair of duct-taped shoes and a red-eye flight to Richmond, but to understand the significance of his patched up footwear, you need to understand where Allen stood compared to the elite recruits in his class in the summer of 2012.
At that time, Allen was getting looked at by the likes of North Florida and other low-major programs near his Jacksonville home, but on a national scale, he was a nobody at a point in his high school career when most All-American caliber recruits have already been identified, over-analyzed and, in too many cases, corrupted.
He was the breakout star of the 2015 national championship game and the 2014 McDonald’s All-American dunk contest champ, but in the summer before his junior season in high school, Allen was still e-mailing coaches to try to get them to come watch him play during the July live-period.
“When I was in ninth grade, when I really started getting recruited [by smaller schools], I sat down and had a talk with one of my high school coaches,” Allen told me. “We were just talking about the recruitment process and how to handle it. He asked me where my dream school was and I told him Duke.”
“He laughed at me.”
* * *
It wasn’t the dogpile with his teammates when the final buzzer sounded. It wasn’t seeing his dunk on One Shining Moment, or facing the crush of reporters that comes with being in a winning locker room.
For Grayson Allen, the moment that the reality set in that he had scored 16 points and ignited the comeback in Duke’s title game victory over Wisconsin was when he got back to his hotel room and turned on SportsCenter.
“The TV was on and they played the highlights from the national championship game, and it was then that I was like, ‘Dang, I can’t even believe that this just happened,'” Allen said. “During the game you don’t realize it at all. You’re just out there playing and the fact that you won a national championship doesn’t really hit you.”
At the time, his biggest takeaway from seeing those highlights was that, “I look really short out there.” What he didn’t realize, however, was just how much things were going to change for him. Suddenly, he didn’t blend in on campus anymore. Prior to the title game, Allen could walk from class to class without being bothered. If he was with one of the team’s stars — Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones — he might get the old, “Oh, aren’t you on the team, too?”
But after the title game?
Everyone knew who he was.
“I went from kind of blending in on campus to being recognized with people congratulating me,” Allen said. “Even when I went back home at the start of the summer, I had people recognizing me and congratulating me.”
And in a weird way, that’s a good thing for Allen, because the role he’s going to be asked to play as a sophomore will be much different than the one he played as a freshman. Allen is wholeheartedly representative of what college basketball at the highest level is trending towards these days. He’s a veteran presence on this Duke team, a leader in the locker room because he’s been through a few battles at the college level. He’s also a sophomore who was so buried on the depth chart that he didn’t play more than eight minutes in a game against a high-major opponent until Jan. 31.
That came three days after he took a DNP-CD at Notre Dame, and it only happened because Rasheed Sulaimon was kicked off the team.
Compared to, say, Brandon Ingram and Derryck Thornton, two of Duke’s four five-star freshmen this season, Allen is quite experienced. But he really doesn’t have all that much experience to speak of.
“It’s weird that I’m only a sophomore and I feel this way, but you kind of have to be when there’s only four guys with game experience returning,” Allen said. “I’m just kind of getting put into that role, and I think I’m ready for it.”
It’s interesting talking with Allen about what he spent the summer trying to improve. Like every other player in the country, he’s got some stock answers in the holster. He’s worked on his ball-handling. He’s gotten stronger. He’s developing his mid-range game and learning when to put his head down and attack vs. when to pull-up or give the ball up. Standard stuff.
But he also gave this nugget: “To get out of my comfort zone a little bit and become more of a leader, become more vocal out there.”
Allen is a quiet kid by nature, a lead-by-example kind of guy. In the locker room after Duke won the national title, every single member of the program — players, coaches, walk-ons, water boys — praised Allen’s effort in practice, saying that more often than not, he was the best player on the court behind closed doors. Justise Winslow said that everyone on the team hated when they were matched up with Allen in practice because “he’s been so aggressive, he’s been a dog.” Coach K affectionately referred to Allen the practice player as an “a–hole”. Assistant coach Nate James said Allen was “putting on shows all year in practice,” and that no one in that program was surprised when he burst onto the national scene the way that he did.
That’s a terrific quality to have, but doing it while remaining mute is not going to work when he’s being asked to step into a leadership role at Duke, not when he’s playing for a coach in Mike Krzyzewski that prioritizes communication. And while Allen has a long way to go before he’s Quinn Cook, the early returns are promising.
“It’s night and day between where he is now and when he first stepped foot on campus, because he would hardly say anything when he first arrived,” James said. “He has opened up so much more. He’s more engaging. He’s quicker to speak his mind. It doesn’t have to be a long winded monologue or anything, but he speaks his mind at the appropriate times.”
* * *
The first person to discover Grayson Allen was Harry Douglas Sr.
Douglas, at the time, ran the Douglas Brothers Elite AAU program, named after his sons Harry Jr., a wide receiver for the Tennessee Titans, and Toney, a point guard for the Indiana Pacers. The previous summer, Douglas’ program, based in Georgia, had played against Allen in a small tournament in Jacksonville. Douglas was running late, so he asked his assistant to step in and coach.
“When I got there, I said, ‘Why are we down 15?’ He said, ‘You see that white boy?’ and when I turned around, Grayson was doing a 360,” Douglas said.
Douglas recruited Allen to join his program and eventually sold Allen’s family on the chance to play on a bigger stage. That July, Allen was scheduled to travel with Douglas Brothers to three tournaments in the Southeast. He tore up a Big Shots event in Myrtle Beach, S.C., the first weekend of the 2012 live period, which got him quite a bit of buzz nationally. The following weekend at Peach State — an event that’s held 20 minutes from the biggest event of the summer, Peach Jam — Allen once again went crazy. Suddenly, he was a national name who had some of the biggest programs in the country recruiting him.
“I went from having maybe five offers to having 40 schools recruiting me all at once,” Allen said.
Even with the increased attention, Allen was still holding out hope that Duke would come calling.
It’s simple: The kid was a Duke fan. He grew up rooting for the Blue Devils. When he first started watching basketball, J.J. Redick was rising to stardom. When he was in eighth grade, he traveled to Indianapolis to see Duke win the 2010 national title. Duke is one of those teams — like the Cowboys, like the Yankees — that has a strong enough brand and enough national exposure that they have fans popping up all across the country.
Allen was one of those fans.
So while programs like Florida and Notre Dame came calling, Allen made it clear to anyone that asked that if he had the chance to go to Duke, he was going to Duke.
No one on the Duke staff had even seen him play.
“During that particular time, everyone else on the staff was out at USA Basketball, so I was holding the fort down,” James said. “I was going to see everyone we needed to see, and since I was the only one here, I had to really identify the key guys that we were looking for. At that time, Grayson was not one of them.”
James was, however, aware that Allen loved Duke. And he was aware that Allen was putting on a show everywhere he went. His phone would blow up every time Allen took the court.
“But I had my marching orders,” James said.
The final weekend of that summer’s July period, Douglas Brothers Elite headed up to Richmond, Virginia, for another Big Shots event, but at this point in the summer, the team was gassed. Douglas Sr. has entered the team into two different fields meaning that, over the course of three days, the team, which was down to just six healthy players, had played 12 games.
Allen, meanwhile, had blown out the stitching on the side of one of his shoes. Douglas Brothers Elite wasn’t playing on one of the shoe company circuits, meaning that the program wasn’t adorned with an endless array of Nike, Adidas or Under Armour gear. In other words, Allen didn’t have a replacement pair of shoes for his size 16 feet readily available.
The team was set to head home a day early. The Allens were happy about it, too. Allen’s exposure was through the roof, his legs were wet noodles and he still had another year to prove to Duke he was worth a scholarship. July 2012 had been an overwhelming success.
And then James called.
“I got a hold of his coach and said, ‘Look, I’m going to catch a red-eye from Florida and come see him,'” James said. “I had to make a decision to miss the kid that I had to see to lay eyes on Grayson.”
Allen knew that. He knew that James was changing his schedule specifically to get a chance to see him play on the final day of the summer; there weren’t any other kids at the event that Duke would have otherwise taken the time to see. He knew that he had to perform.
And he knew that he had to do something about those shoes.
“I had to tape it up just to go out and play,” Allen said. “Duke was there.”
He wasn’t missing out on that opportunity.
The rest is history. Allen was dominant, and while the competition wasn’t all that impressive, James couldn’t help but walk out of that gym knowing that they had to make the kid a priority.
“He’s on one of those little side baskets playing a ragged AAU team, mismatched jerseys and tops, and he was getting after it,” James says. “One thing that really stuck out to me, not just the athleticism, but how tough he was. They were going at him, trying to be physical with him. At that time, he started to have a little buzz. I was the only high-major in attendance, and [Duke coaches in attendance] typically makes everyone go a little harder. They were going after Grayson, but he was putting on an absolute show. He was driving, dunking, hitting threes, finishing through contact. It was without a doubt one of the best performances, regardless of tournament, regardless of class, that I saw that summer.”
When Mike Krzyzewski got back from USA Basketball, he began corresponding with and recruiting Allen, who went on to win a state title as a junior. The Blue Devils offered him in April of his junior year.
“It was like five days later I committed,” Allen said.
* * *
There’s never been a question of whether or not Grayson Allen had the ability to be a star. Not in high school and not at the college level.
For Allen, the issue has been confidence. When he plays with it, he does things like score 27 points in a win over Wake Forest or put 16 on Wisconsin in the national title game. When he doesn’t, he’s the guy who loses Coach K’s trust on gameday.
“He was putting pressure on himself. When he would get into games, he was a little hesitant. He just wanted it so bad,” James said. “When we got into that [Final Four] environment, he didn’t come off the bench like a kid who had never done anything that year. He didn’t come in like a kid who didn’t have confidence.”
“Grayson is one of those kids you just turn loose,” Douglas said.
This season, confidence shouldn’t be the issue. Allen, after all, is going to get plenty of playing time. He has managed to work his way into the first round of many mock drafts. He knows how good he can be. His team knows how good he can be. We do, too.
The key this year will be making sure he doesn’t fall into the trap of success, that he doesn’t start to believe he’s “failing” if he doesn’t perform every game the way he did on that Monday night in Indianapolis. The staff doesn’t want him worrying about living up to his hype.
“He understands that he still has a ways to go in his development,” James said. “Just be the best that you can be every day [and] your legacy won’t be one of, ‘oh, you had that moment in the championship your freshman year.'”
“There’s no pressure on [him] to continue with the folklore of Grayson Allen.”