Grayson Allen, Championship Game X-Factor

Grayson Allen, Duke vs Wisc

Photo courtesy of Duke University

Grayson Allen, Championship Game X-Factor
| published April 20, 2015 |

By Earl Perkins, Thursday Review features editor

His basketball coach told everyone around what a great player he was at Providence, but only a few believed. Now the whole world knows, because the young man moved on and helped lead his team to one of the most exciting victories of all time.

No, not that Providence. Providence School in Jacksonville, Florida. And the player was Grayson Allen, a freshman whose eight-point run late in the game keyed Duke's 68-63 win over Wisconsin for the NCAA National Championship last Monday night.

It would be an understatement to say the 6-4 shooting guard saw limited action. He rode the bench almost all season. Stanford, the ACC/ Big Ten Challenge vs. Wisconsin, ACC road games against Louisville and Notre Dame. Coach Mike Krzyzewski didn't even look his way, and Allen's name wasn't in the box scores.

But Jim Martin, his high school coach, wasn't shocked by Allen's play, because he knew the McDonald's All-American had what it took to win under pressure. And then there was Martin's wife, steadily screaming at the television.

“I literally had to stand up and get next to the screen,” Martin told Perform Media on the Tuesday after the game “As everyone else that’s a Duke fan and a Grayson Allen fan, we were as nervous as probably his parents are up in the stands.”

The clock read 12:52 left in the game, the Blue Devils were down nine points and two key players (Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow) were benched with foul trouble.

Then Allen came on and took over the game, just like Martin and his Stallion fans had seen many times. Allen scored six consecutive points, bringing Duke within four to help spark the final rally. That was more than he'd scored in all but six full games that season. Allen finished the night with 16 points.

“He’s an aggressive kid that can really score the ball and felt it was time,” Martin said. “He had been on a big stage and got the job done before, so it didn’t shock me about what he could do, but I don’t think anyone could dream it would happen in the NCAA Championship Game.”

Martin met Allen when he was a sixth-grader at one of his local camps, but their paths crossed again in high school. Allen went from a hungry, talented 10th-grader to one of the nation's top recruits.

“When he came to us as a sophomore I told him he was was going to get recruited and he was a talented kid,” Martin said. “I asked him where he wanted to play and he told me he wanted to play at Duke. I said, ‘Wow.’ As a 10th grader, he was’t that kid. He was a talented kid, but he was not that kid that could play at Duke.”

But Allen's relentless work ethic paid big dividends, and it's obvious he'll play plenty more basketball. However, his "relentless" workout attitude worried Allen's mother at the time.

“His mom would call me and say she hadn’t heard from Grayson for hours,” Martin said. “I told her, ‘Mrs. Allen, he’s in the gym with us. We can’t get him to leave.’”

Allen led the Stallions to a state title as a junior and a title game appearance the following year. He would become the first player to commit to Duke's 2014 recruiting class. And then he went from averaging almost 23 points per game as a high school senior, to barely four points per game at Durham. Martin talked to Allen “all the time” this season, and he never complained about limited playing time.

“Nothing about him changed as a player, he just had to figure out where he fit in as part of Duke basketball,” Martin said. “The one thing we wanted to make sure was that he never doubted what he could do and that it was just a matter of getting that opportunity.” Allen saw few opportunities to play this season, although he scored 27 in a blowout win over Wake Forest in early March. He saw no playing time in his team's win over Wisconsin in December, and played three scoreless minutes in Duke's Elite Eight win over Gonzaga. But as many coaches and sports analysts now easily see in hindsight, Allen’s confidence was advancing steadily along with his sharpening skills.

But then it all came together that Monday in early April when the biggest of the big games was on the line. Before the game, there was no clear X-factor, but afterwards it was clear that Allen was that one magical element which helped to tip the outcome.

“Grayson has a swagger about him. When he steps out on the court he thinks he’s going to get the job done,” Martin said. “He just needed to be reminded that he’s still that guy. He’s never lost what he had, he just never got the extended minutes to show what he could do. Towards the end of the season his confidence kept rising and it just culminated in [Monday] night’s game.”

Soon after the victory, Allen texted Martin, letting the coach know he couldn't wait to get home to practice on improving his game.

Duke's famous reserve guard has put Providence School on the map. Meanwhile, Martin reminisces while looking at a picture Allen sent him at the beginning of the season. The youngster was grinning during his first basketball camp with Martin, and the coach's hair was much darker then. He blames the gray locks on the hot-headed high schooler Allen became en route to stardom.

“That little kid blossomed into that kid and the star that was born [during the championship game],” Martin said. “We’ve always thought of him as a star, but now the national media and everyone else has come to believe the same.”

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