When it's just about basketball, former villain Grayson Allen sure is fun to watch


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SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Adam Woodard talks with college basketball insiders Lindsay Schnell and Scott Gleeson for insight on the upcoming season.
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CHICAGO — Prepare yourself, America, to meet Grayson Allen, protagonist of the 2017-18 college basketball season. We know that might be a hard one to swallow, given his history of tripping incidents and emotional meltdowns, not to mention the fact that he plays for Duke.

But the formerly villainous Allen, whose on-court behavior spawned countless memes over the course of his four-year college career, is no more. And if his performance Tuesday night at the Champions Classic in a 88-81 victory against No. 2 Michigan State is any indication, that caricature is about to be replaced by someone who we are far more likely to be talking about in March as the national player of the year.

“I felt like I was coaching (J.J.) Redick,” Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski said after watching Allen score 37 points against the Spartans. “You keep calling plays for him and they work. Grayson was fantastic tonight. Come on. He wasn’t good, he was fantastic.”

That was no exaggeration. On a night where multiple executives from every NBA team gathered in Chicago to watch a game featuring five potential first-round picks, Allen controlled everything, ultimately making 7-for-11 from three-point range from a variety of odd angles and distances, including a 26-footer to beat the buzzer before halftime. Even in a year where No. 1 Duke will rely so heavily on its freshmen to chase Krzyzewski’s sixth national title, Tuesday was a reminder that Allen is the kind of older, mature difference-maker who will make all the difference in March. 

And yes, mature is now a word you can seemingly use with Allen, who was stripped of his team captaincy and suspended for a game last season after a series of incidents in which it seemed like he was deliberately tripping opponents.

But for all the grief he took — pretty much all of which was deserved — it’s worth remembering one thing about Allen. When it’s only about the basketball, he’s always been an awesome college player. And now as a senior, he might be an even better version of that. 

“He’s unbelievable,” sophomore forward Javin DeLaurier said. “He’s played at an unreal level all summer, all preseason. He’s always been a problem as long as I’ve been here. I think he’s now at his best.”

If there was any doubt that Duke start this season with the nation’s most gifted team, it was erased watching the Blue Devils pull away from Michigan State late despite getting only 10 minutes out of freshman Marvin Bagley, III, who was poked in the eye going for a rebound and didn’t return. 

Krzyzewski calls Bagley “our most talented player,” and at some point we’ll see how that makes the Blue Devils even scarier than they looked without him. 

MORE: No. 1 Duke holdx off No. 2 Michigan State in Champions Classic

MORE: Michigan State’s Tom Izzo just can’t beat Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski

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But the last couple Final Fours have showed that the trend in college basketball has been toward older teams advancing in March. Even Duke last season, while talented enough with first-round draft picks Jayson Tatum, Luke Kennard and Harry Giles to get a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, fizzled out in the second round.

That’s why it will be such a luxury for Krzyzewski to have an older player with this group who, while not necessarily a vocal leader, will make clutch shots when the moments get really big. 

“He’s not a good shooter, he’s a great shooter,” Krzyzewski said.

He’s also a healthy shooter, which wasn’t the case last year. In addition to playing under significant scrutiny, Allen also battled a foot injury, which contributed to his drop from 21.6 points per game as a sophomore to 14.5 as a junior.

“I never come into a game like I’m going to take over,” he said. “It helps when you get a few easy ones. When I get a few open looks, the basket gets bigger.”

Though Allen is never going to stop being a fiery player, there was nothing egregious or over-the-top against Michigan State. Even in practice, Krzyzewski said he’s calmed down and learned that he can’t play with reckless abandon all the time and risk injury. 

“I’ve played in 90 more games than the four teammates that are out there with me so I feel a little more comfortable and calm and confident out there,” Allen said. “Watching a lot of film of me my last two years, a lot of times it’s good to go 100 miles an hour but it’s also good to slow it down a few times. That’s the adjustment I’ve tried to make.”

There’s still a long season ahead for Duke, and it’s impossible to say whether controversy will find Allen at some point. But the early returns suggest the talk about his maturity is more than lip service. 

And if that’s the case, America will eventually fall back in love with the kid who came off the bench as a freshman in the national championship game against Wisconsin and wowed everyone with his athleticism and confidence on the biggest stage possible.

Though Allen spent the two subsequent years making himself into a villain, it feels like a corner has been turned. When it’s just about putting the ball in the hoop rather than all the other antics, he showed Tuesday there’s nobody more fun to watch. 

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