Forget the old-school afro; Nets have found their modern center in rookie Jarrett Allen

NEW YORK -- Jarrett Allen slipped out a Barclays Center side door by himself after Sunday afternoon's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The 6-foot-11 Brooklyn Nets center -- it's more like 7-foot-2 including his voluminous afro -- crossed the street to go to Target, and two young boys wearing yarmulkes approached him requesting selfies. 

Allen politely obliged, even though they were in the middle of Atlantic Avenue. The attention continued while he did his grocery shopping. The rookie can thank his hairstyle for that. 

"It was a bad idea," Allen said. "Everybody was like, 'Oh, Brooklyn Nets, right?' I was like, 'Yeah, yeah.' That's the bad part about it: people keep bothering you because you're easily identifiable. But then the good part is you're easily identifiable. Let's say I wanted to do something with a company -- it's like, oh, you're the one with the afro. Everybody starts to know who you are. It's a double-edged sword."

Away from the court, the Allen is unassuming but unmistakable. He has an old-school look, but his game is decidedly modern. Labeled a project before the draft, he established himself quicker than anybody -- the Nets included -- expected. 

In an interview after practice three weeks before his 20th birthday, Allen said he thinks Brooklyn is building something special with its young players. He might be the most important one of them, and he wants to be the face of the franchise one day. 

"I want to make an impact here," he said. 

Jarrett Allen dunk
Jarrett Allen is not shy when it comes to dunking on people. USATSI

The first time Kenny Atkinson got on the court with Allen, the Nets coach had him work on his jump hook form, which he now describes as "beautiful" and reminiscent of Yao Ming's: straight up, with a soft release. The next two days, without any prompting from the coaching staff, Atkinson noticed Allen doing the same drill. 

"He just picked it up like that," Atkinson said.

Allen, selected No. 22 in last year's draft, has a wingspan of more than 7-5 with agility and leaping ability that scream high upside. In the short term, though, little was expected of him. DraftExpress described his basketball IQ as "a work in progress" and The Ringer said that his "intangibles are concerning" and "instincts are lacking." Allen never bought into any of that. 

"I knew I wasn't going to be a project," he said. "I have prided myself on I'm not what people say I am, in that sense. So I knew I could contribute more than what they said I could. I knew it wasn't going to take a couple years."

A hip injury sidelined Allen for summer league. It did not take long, however, for it to become apparent he was ahead of schedule. 

"I think training camp, after a couple of days, I said, 'Wait a second,'" Atkinson said. "The idea was, like, oh, he'll be spending a lot of time in the G League and he's 19, he's gotta get so much stronger. I think after a couple of days of training camp, we were like, man, this guy is better than we thought, farther along."

Allen had no problem remembering plays. He showed he was a good passer and had deft footwork on both ends. "He reminds me of those European centers who can pivot both ways and have pretty good touch with both hands," Atkinson said. He immediately became part of Brooklyn's rotation, and, in late January, he went from a backup to its full-time starting center. 

"I was nervous," Allen said. "First start, it was against [Kristaps] Porzingis, too. I was like, oh man, this is happening. And then once I got out there, all the nerves calmed down."

The very next night, the wiry Allen found himself matched up with Joel Embiid

In 2018, playing center means fighting for position on the inside and trying to stay in front of people on the outside. This can be challenging, especially when you're switching onto Kemba Walker or Kyrie Irving and trying not to bite on fakes. Allen, however, is not complaining.  

"I came in at a perfect time," he said. "Ten years ago, the Shaq era? Oh, I would have been crushed. But now I think the league is becoming more fast-paced, more perimeter-oriented. I think I fit in well." 

Dropped into the Nets' player development program, Allen had no choice but to get used to long hours in the gym and the weight room. With assistant coach Bret Brielmaier, he is trying to perfect everything from catching -- you might see them throwing a football after practice -- to shooting 3-pointers. Brooklyn wants him to play the Clint Capela role for now, but he is thinking even bigger.  

"People like Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid are like perfect examples of what people are trying to become. So, I mean, If I can translate their post game, their shot -- I'm obviously just as athletic as them, so if I can put all those pieces together, I think I can become more."

Atkinson said that Allen hasn't been given a huge "canvas" this season, but he has thrived as a rim-runner role, averaging 14.7 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per 36 minutes. He rarely posts up, but has 103 dunks on the season, per NBA.com, and is an effective deterrent at the rim on the other end. Perhaps the best sign for his future, though, is what is happening 15 feet from the basket. In his one season at Texas, Allen made 56.4 percent of his free throws. In his first season in the NBA, he's made 79.7 percent from the stripe. 

"I think the most impressive thing about Jarrett is his ability to retain things and adapt quickly," Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie said. "Some rookies, obviously, they got here doing whatever it is that they do, so it's hard for them to adapt to the NBA game. But you can credit that to his obvious intelligence and his willingness to get better, his work ethic, all that other good stuff."

Dinwiddie paused for a second. "Don't tell him I said that."

Jarret Allen Spencer Dinwiddie
Spencer Dinwiddie is encouraged by how the rookie has acclimated to the NBA. USATSI

Allen has no explanation for how 21 players were selected ahead of him: "I can't answer that one. Maybe it's supposed to be. I like where I am now, so I don't really mind."

Ask him what labels he thought were unfair, though, and he will immediately have an answer: "They saw me as not loving the game, basically." 

A stereotype persists about big men: Some play basketball simply because they are tall. There is also a preference for prospects who have few outside interests -- it's as if talent evaluators want them to be smart, but not too smart. Heaven forbid you are near 7 feet tall and know how to build computers, like Allen, who never thought he had to pick just one pursuit. 

"We're all more than basketball players," Allen said. "Sean [Marks] is more than a GM. You're more than a reporter. We all have other interests that we love."

Allen's interests? He's a bit of a geek. He plays a lot of video games. This did not prevent him from spending hours in John Lucas' sweaty gym in Houston while still a high schooler, working on the clever finishes that seem effortless today. And yet, in pre-draft interviews with teams, he kept getting questions about his supposed lack of dedication. 

"I just told them that it's not true," Allen said. "I have love for the game. There's really nothing more you can say to that. They already have the bias in their head."

Atkinson praised Marks' front office for seeing something that other teams didn't. As the coach talked about Allen's quiet determination at the Nets' practice facility, he pointed to the court where Allen was shooting free throws. 

"The free throw thing bothered him, and he just wanted to prove people wrong," Atkinson said. "And you just see him with laser focus. Like, you see him right now. Like, shit, I'm not going to be a poor free throw shooter. And he just kind of does it. You give him a task, and he kind of takes it as a challenge and he does it."

Allen remembers his first physical battle with 275-pound teammate Timofey Mozgov in a scrimmage, his first block while defending Willy Hernangomez in the preseason and the time Atkinson told him he belongs here. He believes his progress has shown that he is invested and he loves doing what he's doing.   

As for those much-discussed outside interests, Allen said he is nowhere close to a pro gamer, but he plays Overwatch "more than I'd like to admit." And while this is mostly just goofing around with his friends, he pointed out that Overwatch League has a lot in common with his profession. 

"They have six players playing at a time and they have their bench, people they can sub in," Allen said. "They have coaches, they have analytics teams, they have everything. Actually when we went to L.A., I had the chance to go back, meet some of the people, see behind the scenes where they do it. They train more than us. They have to have teamwork. If you actually listen to what they're saying during the game, they're doing call-outs like we do call-outs, like 'screen left' and stuff."

In the Nets locker room, Allen feels like he is everybody's little brother. Dinwiddie referred to him as "my little guy" upon learning this story was being written. When he watches tape of himself, he always notices how lanky he looks next to veterans. Allen still has to grow into his body, and he has a solid foundation of interior moves he will look to when it isn't as easy to push him around. 

"He's got all the signs of greatness," Dinwiddie said, predicting All-Stardom in his future. "He can even shoot a little bit, even if it takes him a year and a half to get it off. He's just a very talented guy -- I don't want to say kid because that can be disrespectful. He's a very talented guy. The sky's the limit for him."

As Allen's first season winds down, Atkinson is challenging him to "drink his tiger milk," go after rebounds aggressively and "watch Rudy Gobert and be Gobert-esque." He was on the wrong end of a 32-point, 30-rebound performance from Dwight Howard last week, but Atkinson believes rough nights will make him better, tougher and more resilient in the long run. Allen might not be a project, but he knows he still has plenty of potential to unlock. Softspoken young man that he is, he said that if people like Atkinson and Dinwiddie see something in him, it tells him he's on the right path and inspires him to work harder. 

"The exciting thing is where he can go," Atkinson said. "He wants it. He is not going to get on top of the Barclays Center and scream, 'I'm going to be the greatest ever,' but I do think he has that internal pride. Like, I feel that. You make fun of him or something, he puffs up. I love that about him. No ego, but a lot of pride."

CBS Sports Writer

James Herbert is somewhat fond of basketball, feature writing and understatements. A former season-ticket holder for the expansion Toronto Raptors, Herbert does not think the NBA was better back in the... Full Bio

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