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Duke's Grayson Allen shows in Champions Classic he's no longer the Devil you knew

Sporting News logo Sporting News 5 days ago Mike DeCourcy
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Video by ACC Digital Network

CHICAGO — The best player in college basketball is not a freshman you’ve barely seen, not a darling of the mock draft crowd, not a projected lottery pick. The best player in college basketball is someone you’ve known for a while, someone whose name you’ve probably taken in vain.

The best player in college basketball torched a pretty terrific college basketball team for 37 points Tuesday evening in front of more than 75 NBA scouts and a full house of spectators at the United Center assembled for the annual Champions Classic. His name is — and before I say this, I’m going to duck in case there’s flying debris — Grayson Allen.

Yes, I know. You don’t care for him. You probably use stronger language, but I’ll leave all that to you. You focus on the three actual instances from his career when he purposely tripped opponents, which led to one public reprimand and one suspension. (And if you are among the more imaginative who populate Twitter, you might also have bought into a few “offenses” exaggerated by people who are handy with a .gif.)

PRESEASON ALL-AMERICANS: Allen the headliner

It’s going to be like this a lot of the year, so it might be best now to make peace with it. He is going to be an All-American. It'll be a challenge to beat him for all those Player of the Year trophies, although it's too early to make any proclamations along those lines.

The truth is: Grayson Allen is a new man.

"He's a great shooter. He's not a good shooter, he's a great shooter," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said following Allen’s 7-of-11 long-distance performance in an 88-81 victory over No. 2 Michigan State. "He’s really a good driver; concentrate on shooting and then driving.”

Allen’s success attacking the rim in the 2015 title game against Wisconsin led him, he said, to go 100 miles per hour in so many games and practices since, to extend his body on so many drives that put him in position to take punishment. His more measured approach now takes less of a toll on his body.

MORE: How Duke-Michigan State unfolded

"He's matured as far as knowing who he is as a player," Krzyzewski said. "He doesn't have to be this guy who gets knocked to the floor all the time."

Oh, you thought I meant — no, that's another item about which it's far too soon to make any definitive statements. Until he arrives without a recurrence at the conclusion of his senior season, whether in San Antonio or somewhere short of that destination, the possibility will always lurk, if only because another episode would almost certainly trigger greater consequences.

In the meantime, we have Grayson Allen the player, the guy whose finest moments included rescuing the 2015 NCAA championship game for the Blue Devils and averaging 21.6 points per game as a sophomore. He now is at 25.7 points per game, and though it’s unlikely that number will hold through 35 or 40 games it's good for the top-ranked Devils to know that kind of production is conceivable.

MORE: Coach K says basketball needs more than a Band-Aid

"You keep calling plays for him," Krzyzewski said, adding it was reminiscent of coaching 2006 Naismith Trophy winner J.J. Redick. "They work, so, thank you. Grayson was fantastic. He was not good. He was fantastic."

Allen’s barrage of buckets really began when Michigan State erred on its final possession of a tight first half, with sophomore guard Josh Langford firing a 3 from the wing about four seconds earlier than the shot clock dictated and with just enough time remaining for the Devils to race up floor, get the ball to Allen at about 27 feet and watch him nail a contested 3-pointer.

What would have been a single-point deficit for the Spartans became 38-34, and what would have been a solid first half for Allen became the accelerant to a statement-making, game-breaking performance.

"I felt like I was kind of hot from 3," Allen said. "For me, when I get a few open looks, the basket gets bigger."

Duke needed all those 37 points to secure a victory against the Spartans, who converted more than half their shots and accumulated 25 assists on 31 baskets, with freshman Jaren Jackson and sophomores Miles Bridges and Nick Ward each contributing 19 points.

DeCOURCY: Bagley learning to stand above elite teammates

There was another reason Allen had to be great. The guy Krzyzewski acknowledges as Duke’s most talented player — yes, college basketball’s best player is not even the most gifted on his team, let alone the nation — is freshman forward Marvin Bagley. He played only 10 minutes of the first half before he was inadvertently scraped across the eye in a rebound battle by teammate Javin DeLaurier. Bagley had scored 25 in each of his first two college games.

When the Blue Devils found themselves in a back-and-forth scrum in the final minutes, they had to have someone willing and able to convert big shots. Allen's two 3-pointers in the final 150 seconds extended a 78-75 lead to 84-77.

"He's unbelievable. He's been playing at an unreal level all summer, preseason, all that," DeLaurier said. "We kind of go as he goes. He’s our senior leader. He’s invaluable to us."

It might surprise you to know Allen is a naturally shy person, not the sort who is easily cajoled into speaking to his teammates in the way a team leader ordinarily would. But there's no choice but for him to lead. He is a champion, a veteran, a senior. And the four players who join him in the starting lineup are freshmen. "I've played about 90 more games than my teammates" is how Allen put it.

FLASHBACK: Time to act like a senior, Grayson

Krzyzewski acknowledged that the Champions Classic enables the teams involved to experience big moments that some other teams don't. Allen, having lost in his last two games in this event, felt strongly enough to step in front of his young teammates and make the point that they had to be strong enough to handle it.

"This was a big one for us. I wanted to win it," Allen said. "I definitely talked to them a lot about the game, made sure they're not too nervous. I told them, 'If you're not nervous for this game, you don't care. So I hope you’re a little nervous. But once the game starts, just get all that out.'"

Grayson Allen is a new man. And the best player in college basketball. If both of those still are true in another four months, you might even come to appreciate him.

Related slideshow: 2017-18 college basketball season (Provided by photo services)

Southern California forward Chimezie Metu (4) scores ahead of Vanderbilt forward Jeff Roberson (11) in overtime of an NCAA college basketball game against Vanderbilt, Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. Southern California won 93-89. 2017-18 college basketball season
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