Jazz guard Grayson Allen had his share of memorable rookie moments this season — the stereotypical pink backpack from the veterans; the eye-opening occasion of finding himself on the same court as Dwyane Wade, whom the Jacksonville native grew up revering; that time he was made to haul around a bag of popcorn so gigantic he had to sling it over his shoulder just to make it manageable.
“I don’t think anyone really wanted it, they just wanted me to carry it,” Allen said with a laugh.
Then again, the former Duke star’s first-year campaign was probably more lacking in memorable on-court moments than he would have envisioned. Allen wound up appearing in only 38 games with the Jazz — playing 10.9 minutes per game, and averaging 5.6 points, 0.6 rebounds, 0.7 assists, and 0.2 steals, while shooting 37.6% from the field, and 32.3% from 3-point range.
Still, by the regular-season finale, on April 10 against the Clippers, he dropped 40 points, made five shots from deep, went to the line 14 times (and hit 13 of them), and added seven boards, four dimes, a block, and a steal, and was whistled for but a single foul.
So then, clearly all those concerns about what came before have been relegated to the dustbin of history, right? Pulverized to unrecognizable smithereens by the undeniable progress inherent in that final stat line?
“I’m careful not to say ‘arrived,’” Allen said, “’cause I definitely don’t feel that way.”
Smart move, considering there are yet myriad questions about his NBA future.
When the Jazz selected Allen with the 21st pick of the 2018 draft, whatever trepidation there may have been about his checkered reputation was mitigated to some degree by the idea that he was something approaching a finished product, worthy of rotation minutes from the outset.
And then he didn’t play a single second in the team’s first two games of the season. And when he did get on the court, he was frequently so overmatched defensively, he wound up getting myriad assignments to the G League-affiliate Salt Lake City Stars.
Rather than feel he was owed anything, though, and treating those games with the Stars as punishment, Allen had the foresight to recognize that, even if this wasn’t how he had perhaps envisioned his career beginning, it would undoubtedly help his career continue.
“The biggest takeaway for me has been the learning experience,” Allen said. “… I feel like going down to the G League was a great opportunity for me to get some playing time, work on a lot of the things that [assistant coach] Johnnie [Bryant] and coach Quin [Snyder] wanted me to work on, habits to put in.”
Allen cited a game against Memphis as a turning point in his season. He was on the floor, and got blown by defensively. And then he got blown by again. He was expecting to get yelled at. Instead, he got a film session that revealed a simple but persistent flaw in technique.
“This is why I say the coaches here are so great — there’s such good attention to detail. Instead of, ‘Don’t let your man reject a screen,’ it’s, ‘Look at your footwork here and why he was able to do that,’” Allen said. “Watching film with Johnnie and coach Quin, there were a lot of times where I’m in the right position and then I end up crossing my feet when I take that first step.”
Forward Jae Crowder, who served as Allen’s veteran mentor this season, was pleased to see the rookie take things to heart and put the effort in.
“Obviously, you saw him get better as the year went on — his confidence grew more and more each time he touched the court. That’s all you can ask for a young player is to continue to grow and build your confidence,” Crowder said. “He did that. He listens, he’s always open for any criticisms or knowledge, and that’s key for a young player at this level.”
The results began to show. After a stretch earlier in the season where he didn’t get on an NBA court for 14 straight games, Allen wound up appearing in each of the Jazz’s final five. He set a new career high in scoring in three of those, culminating with that 40-point explosion — admittedly in a matchup where neither team was playing its primary players.
And while he was excited by that outburst, he’s even more happy with the other strides he made.
“It’s definitely nice to have that, where I can look at the same plays from the beginning of the year and the end of the year and it will look a lot different,” Allen said. “… I feel like I’m in a lot better place now.”
Now, he added, comes a summer of work to keep it up. While his will include the usual improvement in conditioning, the rest may be a bit different than that of his NBA colleagues, as he intends to focus on upgrading his midrange game, elevating his playmaking prowess, plus, “I don’t think many people picture guys in summer workouts doing defensive slides,” he noted with a grin.
While there are naturally lingering doubts about how real Allen’s late-season progress was, coming as it did vs. inferior competition, Crowder, for one, is certain that whatever was lacking in Allen’s rookie season will occur often enough in his second year.
“Another good summer under his belt, and I think he’ll be ready to go come training camp time to get some real live significant minutes with us,” Crowder said. “… He definitely got better as the year goes on. I’m proud of him.”