Grayson Allen has experienced a lot of time in the spotlight throughout his first three years at Duke. And a lot of it — especially last season — wasn’t enjoyable.
But during the 2017-18 college basketball campaign, the veteran has taken a back seat to the four freshmen that have helped the Blue Devils build a 23-5 record and 11-4 mark in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
One of those youngsters has been 6-foot-11 forward Marvin Bagley III, who is averaging 21.2 points and 11.4 rebounds per game. However, the absence of Bagley due to injury necessitated another piece to step up on the offensive end.
The senior guard, who has been a bit of an afterthought this season, continued his surge on Wednesday night in an 82-56 home trouncing of Louisville. Allen’s 28 points marked the third time in his last four games that he has recorded at least 20 points for No. 5 Duke, which is on a four-game winning streak after holding the Cardinals to their season-low in points.
Allen shredded Louisville’s defense, connecting on 10 of his 20 shots, including six 3-pointers, as the Blue Devils claimed their fourth straight victory without Bagley. And Allen was a big part of all four of those wins. His performance against the Cardinals was his highest-scoring effort since he tallied a career-best 37 points in a victory over Michigan State in November.
The Florida native’s aggressive and confident play has been much-needed, and the Blue Devils will need those attributes on the offensive end even when Bagley returns to the lineup if they are to have any chance at making a run to the national championship in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Prior to this hot stretch, Allen had six games over his previous 10 in which he failed to score in double figures. But with Bagley out of the lineup, his shot attempts per game have increased along with his efficiency as he has attacked the rim and been able to take advantage of ball screens.
Allen is most effective when he is aggressive, which helps breed a rhythm that helps the offense flow. And his leadership seems to be more effective when he is playing well. As the elder statesman on a team filled with youngsters, that’s appreciated by the coaching staff.
So will this strong play continue when Bagley returns?
The star big man has to actually come back first.
The seriousness of his injury is unknown, and head coach Mike Krzyzewski has not exactly been clear on a timetable. He simply said that he is not going to push the young player, who is suffering from what team trainer Jose Fonseca termed as a tweaked right knee. The injury occurred in the first half of the loss to North Carolina on February 8, and Coach K says he is day to day.
“We’re going to make sure that he’s completely good before we get into March,” Krzyzewski said on Monday’s ACC teleconference with the media.
Bagley, who is the ACC’s top scorer and rebounder as well as a potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, warmed up in a hoodie and basketball shorts before the tilt against the Cardinals, but he is not expected to be ready for Saturday’s game against Syracuse.
In the meantime, Duke is playing its best defense of the season behind its 2-3 zone — yes, Krzyzewski has actually strayed away from his man-to-man principles, which has helped hold opponents to an average of just 58.5 points over the last four games — and it has a veteran in Allen playing his best ball of the season. He is someone who has excelled on the big stage before, and that experience will be key as the Blue Devils look to finish out the ACC season strong in preparation for a deep run in March.
With or without Bagley, Allen could be the key ingredient as to whether Coach K can claim a sixth NCAA title. Certainly, each piece of the Duke rotation will need to do his part in the team’s championship quest, including Wendell Carter Jr., Gary Trent Jr. and Trevon Duval, but this is a Duke team playing with a much-needed fire.
Bagley is going to be an NBA lottery pick for good reason. But Allen can carry a team when he is playing at his best. And he’s certainly been at that kind of level as of late — reminiscent of a sophomore season in which he was one of the best offensive players in the ACC, averaging 21 points per game and shooting 43 percent from downtown.
Youth can no longer be used as a crutch this season for the Blue Devils, who have shown lately that having a wily veteran is a valuable commodity in today’s college hoops landscape.