Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
Taken out of starting lineup, Grayson Allen responds with 30-point night
NEW YORK — The 2015-16 version of Duke basketball isn’t nearly as talented as the 2014-15 version that won the national championship and produced three first-round one-and-dones in Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones, but this much seems obvious through four games: Duke will go as far this year as Grayson Allen can lead them.
And Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski knows that better than anybody.
Krzyzewski made a calculated move Friday by taking the 6-foot-5 sophomore guard out of the starting lineup and replacing him with freshman Derryck Thornton for Duke’s 2K Classic semifinal against a tough and talented VCU team.
Allen was coming off a horrid performance Tuesday against Kentucky when he shot 2 for 11 for six points in an 11-point loss at Rupp Arena. Some players might shrivel up and become invisible after such a perceived slight.
If that had happened Friday, Duke’s fragile psyche might have taken a major hit early in the season while its still forming an identity.
But Allen did the opposite. He put the team on his back and broke out for a career-high 30 points to go with six rebounds and three assists, as No. 5 Duke edged VCU, 79-71, to advance to play Georgetown in Sunday’s 1 p.m. championship game.
“Grayson didn’t play well against Kentucky,” Krzyzewski said. “He didn’t have a good look and he didn’t adjust. That was his first big-time start, too. It’s not like Grayson is this big combat veteran, so I was hard on him, but honest. And he’s fine, we have a great relationship.
“For him to respond the way he did was terrific.”
Allen shot 9 for 15 from the field and 4 for 8 from deep as Duke outscored VCU 41-32 in the second half after trailing for much of the second half.
Kentucky’s length — and the defensive hounding of 6-3 New Jersey native Isaiah Briscoe — made for a very long night Tuesday for Allen and projected lottery pick Brandon Ingram.
VCU certainly isn’t Kentucky, but Allen pointed to the defensive strengths of both teams.
“Kentucky is a great defensive team and they have length,” he said. “But where they have length the team that we played tonight has aggressiveness and speed, so there’s different adjustments you have to make. Obviously, you have to adjust to Kentucky’s length and with this team, they’re very active and their guards are always looking to make steals so you have to make an adjustment against that.”
The game turned when Duke went small, putting Luke Kennard at the 4, and allowing a lineup of Thornton, Allen, Kennard, Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson to play to its strengths.
“They had four good perimeter players,” Krzyzewski said. “We could switch them 1-4. We just ran motion. … Having the four perimeter guys in there was better in running motion than having the two big guys in.”
Krzyzewski also praised Thornton, the freshman who reclassed to 2015 from 2016 to give Duke added depth at the point after Jones departed early for the NBA. Thornton finished with 19 points, four assists and three turnovers, looking more like a tested veteran than a kid who should be a high school senior at Findlay Prep.
“That kid had a helluva game,” Krzyzewski said of Thornton. “I thought he was terrific. And how he handled the ball and didn’t lose it, at the end of the clock, made plays, found people. And then he played really good defense. And their guard is quick, [Jequan] Lewis is quick. I can’t say enough about them, their team is really good. I don’t know of anybody who wants to play them. They come at you, they come at you. So Derryck playing that well in that type of game, he needs to be congratulated.”
But more than anything, this game was about Allen rebounding from a tough spot at Kentucky when he did not play well and then heard about it from the national media, his own fans and his coach.
Next up for Duke is a tough Georgetown team on Sunday and the next stage of Allen’s development will unfold.
If Allen can step up and be the player he was in the national championship game against Wisconsin, when he went for 16 points off the bench, there’s no telling how far Duke can go this year. But if Allen plays more like the version we saw against Kentucky, they don’t figure to do as well.
“The response that Grayson had from Kentucky is huge,” Krzyzewski said. “I think it’s spectacular, to be quite frank with you. A lot of kids would question themselves and he never did. Obviously, he never did.”
Next up for Duke is a tough Georgetown team on Sunday and the next stage of Grayson Allen’s development will unfold.
But on this night, Coach K learned a lot about the leader of his young team.
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Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.