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CHICAGO — With 2.5 seconds remaining in the first half, Grayson Allen took a handoff from Trevon Duval and squared up to shoot. Midway between the United Center and Champions Classic logos, Allen was safely into NBA three-point range. Above the extended right arm of Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn Jr., Allen fired and sank the shot. The buzzer sounded, Allen celebrated with teammates, and No. 1 Duke went to halftime with a 38-34 lead over No. 2 Michigan State.
Even without the buzzer-beater, Allen would have had the most impressive stat line of any player on either team—and among those players were about a half-dozen future first-round NBA draft picks. But when he hit that deep three, he said after the game, the basket started looking big. In the locker room, Blue Devils assistants Jon Scheyer and Nate James told Allen he was hot and to keep shooting. So in the second half, he shot on, connecting on eight of his final 14 attempts and finishing with a career-best 37 points in Duke's 88-81 win.
Purely from a basketball perspective, it might have been Allen's most impressive performance. No longer is he reliant on what he has called "kamikaze drives," where he gets to the paint and, often times, crash-lands. He has rediscovered the deep shot that made him such a sought-after high school prospect. No longer is he hobbled by endless leg injuries. In fact, he played all 40 minutes against the Spartans. On college basketball's biggest stage, Allen was the best and most entertaining player. Can't that be enough for now?
This season, Allen will be the perfect candidate for the kind of redemption story opinion writers and on-camera pundits love. He saved Duke's national title game against Wisconsin in his freshman year and then derailed his sophomore year by repeatedly tripping opponents. After saying he'd put that bad behavior behind him, he continued to act out as a junior—and was even suspended for a game by Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski—and his statistics dipped drastically as he struggled to stay healthy and as Duke struggled to forge an identity.
This performance will put him at the front of the national player of the year conversation for the foreseeable future, and I say we leave it at that and let ourselves be entertained by one of the best players in the sport. Allen, for his part, seems equally committed to shifting the focus back to basketball. He only participated in one lengthy offseason feature story, and when asked twice by separate reporters about what this performance meant after his struggles last season, he deflected and spent time instead talking about his teammates.
And he had plenty to talk about there. It's no secret Duke loaded up in its most recent recruiting class, but it is surprising how much the Blue Devils have already shored up the team's weaknesses from a season ago. Where a year ago Duke lacked a true point guard, Trevon Duval is averaging 10 assists through three games. Where a year ago Duke was overly reliant on senior Amile Jefferson to anchor the frontcourt, the Blue Devils now boast an embarrassment of rookie riches. Before he left the game with an injured right eye, Marvin Bagley III looked nearly unstoppable, grabbing six rebounds and scoring four points. (He even showed off a Eurostep.) And Wendell Carter Jr. recovered from early errors to record a double-double.
"I really like the toughness of this team," Allen said after the game. "I really like how together we are. It's a really fun group to play with."
Last season, the question "Is Duke back?" became a running joke in college basketball circles, and while these Blue Devils may still have rough stretches ahead, it's clear they're building from a much sturdier foundation. On defense, they locked into a zone (playing it on every possession save one) that looked smooth and stifled the Spartans for much of the first half before Bagley's departure. Offensively, they recorded 21 assists to go against nine turnovers.
Allen similarly seems to be starting from his strongest position since his sophomore year. A big part of that, he acknowledged, was being healthy, but another part was committing to staying that way by slowing down. Last year, he practiced just as he played—slashing into the lane and crashing onto the court. After consulting with Coach K in the offseason—and spending some time away from the game—he came back determined to take better care of his body.
"I think he's matured as far as knowing who he is as a player," Krzyzewski said. "He doesn't have to be this guy that gets knocked to the floor all the time. Tonight he didn't get knocked to the floor. In practice he always used to extend himself and get hit. That doesn't happen anymore. He's become a great player—a great college player."
Grayson Allen has always been a great college player. Maybe by the end of the season, that's what he'll finally be known for. But for now, it's enough simply to enjoy the show.