If you’re sick of hearing people talk about Grayson Allen, imagine being Grayson Allen right now.
It’s difficult to definitively speak for the Duke University junior who’s been responsible for tripping three opponents within the last year, yes. However, it’s perhaps impossible to envision a world in which the 2015 national-champion basketball player isn’t tired of seeing his own name plastered across headlines, and especially exhausted of hearing it chanted from rival student sections during hostile road games. (Yes, perhaps he should’ve thought of this first; you get what you deserve. So it goes.)
The bottom line, however, is that it’s going to be a long a season for all of us. Because as tired as everyone is of the Saga of Grayson Allen’s Appendages, it’s guaranteed to be the lead narrative for the duration of the college basketball season, as evidenced by every Duke matchup since Allen’s very-brief-one-game-indefinite suspension.
Against Georgia Tech, Allen returned to a wave of “too early” criticism from sportscasters and fans alike. Against Boston College, he was swiftly under scrutiny when he lifted his leg against an opponent on the floor during an awkward fall. During a competitive Florida State away game, he collided with an FSU assistant coach, shoving him as he chased a ball heading out of play; the sports world waited until the coach dismissed the crash as a pure basketball play. Over the weekend at a heated Louisville away game with taunts of “Sweep the leg!” raining down from the seats, a tussle for a loose ball on the floor ended with an opposing player’s palm across Allen’s face. Allen motioned for acknowledgement of dirty play that he didn’t get.
It’s only mid-January. The madness of March feels a long way away.
The Duke University men’s basketball program is, objectively, many things: storied, hated, disciplined, dynastic. One thing they are not is run by stupid people.
Led since 1980 by Coach Mike Krzyzewski (equally storied, hated, disciplined and dynastic), Blue Devil men’s basketball has, historically, had a mostly squeaky-clean image. In a sport that’s been plagued by controversy for decades including recruiting violations, academic fraud (an issue currently hanging over Tobacco Road rivals UNC), game-fixing and violence, Duke has remained not only above board in terms of scandal, but they’ve also strived for the persona of a program that creates a high cultural standard for its players. Becoming a Duke recruit is meant to be a comment on character.
Coach K and the arbiters of Duke’s image have upheld the promise that not every player is worthy of Cameron Indoor; the 2015 mid-season dismissal of Rasheed Suliamon for the inability to live up to Duke program standards is evidentiary of Duke’s pursuit to maintain face. (Suliamon finished his career on Mark Turgeon’s Maryland Terrapins the following year, perhaps helping Duke’s narrative that there is, indeed, a disparity among programmatic expectations.) However, whether or not the Duke bar is authentically higher or merely sanctimonious smoke and mirrors is contingent on which way you tilt the lens used to view them. Coach K’s notorious opacity with how he conducts program business can foster either storyline.
Although Allen is said to be a particularly quiet, exemplary student who’s on track to graduate early, his very un-Duke-like behavior on the court is like a heat-seeking missile for unwelcome attention. The program knows that they’re going to be scrutinized on a national level because of that public high-standard narrative and relative track-record cleanliness. Save for Christian Laettner, the permanent figurehead of contempt, whose villainy one can easily paint into a ’90s storyline of perceived class and race, Allen is easily the most hated Duke player in decades – if not ever. And there’s a lot more objective evidence in which to ground distain for him. He threatens the Blue Devil high bar with something real, and Duke knows it. With another transgression, he could deal significant damage to the reputation the program has spent decades manicuring.
But, as the dull ache of Grayson has manifested as a full-blown pain within their healthy program, Duke Basketball is too smart to let Allen become a cancer.
As they’ve reinstated Allen from his indefinite suspension, especially after sitting him for only one conference game – against all expectation and to much criticism – Duke is taking a bet that he’ll play the remainder of the season under control. And it’s a good bet to take. A run for National Player of the Year, for which he was the pre-season pick, is likely off the table, but in order for Allen to have any semblance of a future in the NBA, he’ll need to last the season and prove that he can play a composed game. That he can distinguish himself from the mercurial Draymonds and the Demarcuses. That he can run plays and distribute instead of plowing through traffic, the only way he’ll have a lifeline against more physically punishing pro competition. Allen doesn’t have much of a choice – and he’s appeared to have endured thus far, even in increasingly vicious environments that are rooting for his failure.
And what then if the bet pays off, and Grayson Allen does survive the next few months of playing a less-familiar game under intense scrutiny? Coach K and his staff look like wizard geniuses. How does a 21-year-old athlete go from exhibiting one of the most dramatic, public displays of emotion after the call for the third trip against Elon’s Steven Santa Ana, to becoming a composed athlete who carries himself with the blinders of a professional on the other side of a one-game suspension? It’s the best possible publicity Duke could ask for. (It’s also worth nothing that if this bet on Grayson does fail, assistant coach Jeff Capel at the reigns for the next few weeks as Krzyzewski recovers from emergency back surgery makes any slip up much easier to disown.)
There are almost two months until Selection Sunday – generally, the first time annually during which NCAA basketball pops into national-level consciousness in a substantial way. This year, however, college hoops has not only been in the conversation for months, but it’s also led it, even in the midst of NFL playoffs. You can thank Grayson Allen for starting that fire. So, keep Grayson under the microscope. Keep yelling from the stands. Adored or reviled, right now, Duke may be the most interesting sports program in the country. Duke may be the most interesting sports story in the country. And Duke is just fine with that.