The biggest decision in college basketball's 2017 offseason came Tuesday when Grayson Allen announced his return to Duke for his senior year. Unexpected? Not entirely. Consequential? Yes.
Duke is a better team and has a better chance at making the Final Four in 2018 because of Allen's choice to come back. His recommitment to Mike Krzyzewski is too irresistible not to examine further.
Far too many Allen critics went overboard last season. In fact, "overboard" is an understatement. The propulsion of pundit opinions on this kid flung like a free-for-all arrow attack that would make a "Game of Thrones" director blush. In wake of all that attention and scorn, Allen's choice can be deemed vexing. Because things outside Allen's control aren't going to change. All-too-predictable stories of his redemption (coming this fall!) won't stymie the throng of millions who will watch Duke, first and foremost, to see what he does next. He's opting to put himself through another season of microscopic media coverage and unrelenting vitriol from myriad angles: opposing fans, social media, traditional media, you name it.
"The last few weeks have provided the opportunity for a lot of reflection and prayer," Allen said in Tuesday's statement announcing he was returning to Duke. "I'm a firm believer that when something feels right, you go with it. The chance to play with next year's team just felt right. I'm completely focused on helping Coach K and our staff lead this team to a special season. I love being a Duke student, and continuing to be part of the university culture is something I don't take for granted."
There are tints of Allen's gratefulness in that statement, lingering sentiments from the fact he was suspended for tripping another player and was picked apart for his at-times petulant on-court behavior. With Allen, the dichotomy is continually compelling. In interviews he's composed. He says the right things. He's smart.
On the court, something elemental takes over at times. It's gripping viewing, you can't deny it. When he plays, your eyes remain fixed on him.
Allen's senior-season settlement is a fascinating one because of one aspect (his reality and his alone) that we haven't seen in the modern media age in this sport: He is, by far, the most famous college basketball player in more than a decade. The most talented and prominent players in college hoops don't normally make it to their sophomore season, let alone their senior one. Yet here's Allen, clutched in limbo after coming up from a season that at times was hell. He's talented enough to be one of the best players in college basketball, yet not proven enough to make the early entry jump to the NBA. Now he's a contemporary villain with a spotlight life from another era.
Entering every season, you can count on one hand the number of college basketball players who hold household-name status. Allen transcends that.
It might be 20 years before college basketball gets another player this well-known who stays all four seasons. And if it happens, it will happen to that player the way it has happened to Allen: not entirely by choice. He can claim that this move "just felt right" but that feeling comes from the decisions of others: NBA general managers and scouts, who have sent along a strong enough message to let Allen and his family know that his standing in this upcoming draft is not on the level it was a year ago, when Allen made the same choice under different circumstances.
If Allen thought he'd be a high NBA pick, he wouldn't be coming back. But he knows he's not, so he's chosen to walk back into something he probably, in his heart, wants nothing to do with. And so college basketball winds up benefiting, as it will have the unusual attraction of carrying one of the 10 most recognizable people in American sports.
We haven't been able to say that about a college basketball player since, at the most recent, North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough in 2009. For me, the answer is J.J. Redick. Without debate, he's the last player who hit Allen's level of infamy while still in college. He was incredibly famous heading into his final season at Duke, just as Allen is. Redick, ultimately, probably was better prepared for the NBA due to all the crap he went through while at Duke, but that brings no poetic growth to Allen's path. And again, much of this is of his own doing.
In 2016-17, while Duke's Luke Kennard broke out to be a probable first-round pick and Blue Devils freshman Jayson Tatum affirmed his reputation as a top-tier lottery talent, Allen slipped in a huge way. He was the preseason choice, by more media members than not, to be the National Player of the Year. Instead, there were stretches when he didn't look like a top-three player on his team. By season's end he averaged 14.5 points (down from 21.6 his sophomore season) and 3.5 assists. Allen's usage rate and traditional statistics took a hit. Those dips are nothing compared to his reputation, which was parsed and prodded and degraded to Alex-Rodriguez-at-his-lowest type of levels.
He's not a terrible human being, not a misanthrope or Shakespearean symbol. Let's try our best to avoid another seven cycles of the tear-up-tear-down, or in Allen's case, tear down, strip naked, hoist to the stake, then burn the witch. He's a 21-year-old kid who plays for the most polarizing program in college sports and developed a bizarre habit of jutting his leg out and tripping people.
Much of this was his own doing, of course. Allen's tripping penchant earned him a suspension from his Hall of Fame coach and the ire of college basketball fans everywhere. If he really wanted, he could have opted to leave Duke and never come back, to take his chance on getting drafted and moved on with his life. The crowds would be less hostile, the lifestyle easier. But, to his credit, he is opting for the tougher trail.
If Allen gets through his senior season without incident, perhaps he'll get to upgrade his collegiate legacy. He'll never rewrite it, though. He's a national champion, an All American-level player, a three-time All-ACC Academic honoree — but also a white kid with DUKE across his chest and a temperament that separates him from everyone else. He's a target. He's going to be treated as such by opposing fan bases, and the media (and social media watchdogs) will track every step he takes, every move he makes. It's going to get tiresome.
That's why I'm surprised he decided to come back. I don't think I could have done it. I think I would have taken any chance on getting drafted in the back end of the second round, then accepted whatever money was offered to me. Just anything to get out of the college sports bubble. Instead, Allen is betting on himself and steeling for his senior season.
There will be another four million stories written about this guy between now and the end of next season. I hope not all of them focus on his villainy. He'll have a chance at being an All-American again, you know. And Duke's a top-10 team next season with him in the fold. He'll also get a good shot at being drafted higher next season. He can be a first-round pick if he can get back to doing what made him great in 2015-16. No player enters next season in the ACC with more points to his name than Allen's 1,424.
Who's to say what awaits in the next 12 months for the kid. Allen has lost the ability to control the context, but he can control the content. It's guaranteed to be interesting, overblown and complicated — again. He can't recoup all that he's lost, but for Allen, coming back can't be about the cost. If it is, he'll have little left to gain.