Grayson Allen seems sincere, and maybe that’s the problem


Adrenaline is not Grayson Allen’s friend. It’s not Fran McCaffery’s friend either, of course, but at least the Iowa head coach didn’t give North Dakota’s Brian Jones a leg-sweep in the handshake line on Tuesday night.

Instead, McCaffery petulantly walked off the floor rather than shake hands. Dumb move from a guy old enough to know better, certainly (McCaffery apologized almost immediately), but one that can be classed as the standard-issue wreckage caused by male adrenaline.

What’s strange about Allen (who also apologized almost immediately) is that his adrenaline swells so unerringly and with such velocity in his right foot, of all places. I’ve played and watched basketball for a really long time, and I’ve seen every kind of scuffle and altercation imaginable. Scuffles and altercations are endemic to hoops, truly.

But I can honestly say I’ve never seen a player trip an opponent intentionally twice, much less three times. The particular form that Allen’s on-floor stupidity takes is sui generis. I have no idea where it comes from. This will be for a biographer to figure out, and if Allen indeed turns out to be a seven-time NBA all-star and/or wins a presidential election someday (don’t laugh), we may get answers.

I will only speculate that Allen-brand stupidity comes from an assumed position of privilege. Consider the instantly infamous phantom foul call that went his way against Tennessee State….

The best parts of this clip are, in order: 1) the fact that my ESPN colleague Doris Burke was already well into opening up a great big can of “Now wait a minute,” even before she saw the replay; and 2) Allen’s reaction when he gets the call.

The ref called the foul on this play very late, and it may have been the most tenuous and obsequious whistle I’ve ever heard. But when Allen gets the call, he gestures with his hands as if to say, “Finally, what took you so long?” That requires serious chutzpah, or perhaps it’s something far less self-aware and a bit more worrisome. It’s as if adrenaline-version Allen believes he’s a hoops law unto himself.

Players flop and snap their heads for foul calls they don’t really deserve every day of the week, of course. What’s intriguing about Allen in particular, though, is that in the moment he actually seems to believe what he’s doing. He’s the last player you can imagine giving a knowing wink to a teammate after successful baiting a ref into an incorrect call.

Allen’s insincerity in lobbying for a call he knows he doesn’t deserve or in jawing furiously at a player he just tripped seems to come from a weirdly sincere place. As does, of course, the remorseful tantrum that he then throws on the bench afterward. How did he get this way? Why does he keep tripping people?

I don’t know, and the basketball part of me isn’t all that interested in finding out. The Blue Devils will be fine without Allen for two games or 20. No roster in Division I is better situated to weather the absence of a preseason national player of the year than Duke’s. Allen makes threes, draws fouls and dishes assists, and there are other Blue Devils on hand who can do all of the above.

Ask not how good the absent player is at basketball. Ask how good that player is relative to the teammates taking on those minutes, and Duke happens to be an Olympus of elite coequals outside the paint. If Amile Jefferson smuggles a folding chair under his uniform and whacks Kennedy Meeks over the head with it, then we’ll have a team-performance-altering behavioral issue. Until then, the basketball implications of this are the easy part.

As for the rest, your guess is as good as mine. Allen is tailor-made to be loathed by opponents, naturally, yet he elicits approving quotes from his teammates. I believe what those Blue Devils are saying (for they go beyond what is pro forma), but I also played with guys who gave me an unmistakable “We are about to see something quite stupid and highly regrettable” sensation every so often. In Allen’s case, it would appear we can up that to very often.