Personnel evaluators aren’t big fans of Pro Days: One-on-none drills don’t say much about whether a prospect is ready for the NBA.
But as Utah Jazz officials Dennis Lindsey and David Morway sat in the stands in Thousand Oaks, Calif., watching a number of these workouts, they got a text that actually mattered.
“Grayson at 21?”
It came from Donovan Mitchell, their star acquisition in last year’s draft who was also on hand for the workouts — Grayson Allen and Mitchell had both signed with Creative Artists Agency, which was running the Pro Day. Mitchell had tangled with Allen before, when his Louisville teams played Allen’s Duke teams, and by all rights, he should have disliked Allen — a player that cameras caught him slapping in the face after a rough tumble to the court.
“He said, ‘Look, he was tough to compete against, but I’d like to compete with him,’” Lindsey recalled Mitchell saying. “Not that that means everything, but it means something.”
Chances are that many Jazz fans already have a strong opinion about Allen, who was one of college basketball’s best-known villains over the last four seasons. Part of that reputation was burnished simply by going to Duke, where Allen said he was “caught in the middle” of the polarizing nature of the blue-blooded basketball power. Part of it was earned: Allen became known as a dirty player for flailing out his limbs in an effort to trip opponents.
But by selecting Allen No. 21 in Thursday’s NBA Draft, the Jazz are gambling on the flip side of those ugly incidents: they’re betting that the 22-year-old can overcome his less-than-admirable moments in college, and that the competitiveness he showed can be something the Jazz can use.
“You guys saw what the playoffs were like: how physical, how competitive, how skilled you have to be,” Lindsey said. “But your skills don’t come out unless you can stand your ground. We saw it over time, especially in all the number of big games Duke played. But in particular here this workout, the guy was able to stand his ground and be a physical player as well as a skilled player.”
The Jazz wouldn’t have picked Allen if they thought he didn’t have an NBA skillset. Throughout his four years at Duke, he proved a good shooter, capable ball-handler and occasional red-hot scorer. What’s different for Allen is that he didn’t show all his skills every year.
Playing alongside lottery picks each year such as Jahlil Okafor, Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum and Marvin Bagley III, Allen was often a moving puzzle piece for the Blue Devils. As a sophomore, he needed to be a volume scorer and closeout attacker. As a senior, when he played with two big men who would go on to be top-10 picks, he had less opportunities to attack in space.
“Grayson’s ability to attack the rim didn’t go anywhere,” Lindsey said. “Just the geometry of the floor changed.”
In that, the Jazz saw a useful trait: flexibility. While Allen showed the capacity to do all kinds of things at the NBA Draft Combine, at his CAA pro day and at his Jazz workout (where he reportedly demolished the competition), the Jazz valued his ability to play multiple roles and sacrifice for other players on the floor.
Allen can shoot: Lindsey said he hit 66 of 100 3-point shots in the fabled Jazz 100 (but it might’ve been 67 depending on who you ask). The Jazz also liked Allen’s athletic testing, as well as his ability to dribble and pass, which Lindsey said is aided by his unusually thick hands. In all, Jazz officials felt he had one of the best individual workouts of any of the 66 visiting prospects this offseason.
But he’s going to have to earn his role next season, which frankly is nothing new for Allen.
“Each year we had a new set of guys that I had to learn how to play with and that I got to play with, and it was awesome for my game because I had to learn how to adjust,” he said. “I had to learn to find different spots on the court. I had to expand my game.”
No one is trying to side-step the tripping incidents. Lindsey said it was the first thing the Jazz asked about in interviews, and that Allen was “contrite.”
For one thing, the team believes that Allen is slightly misunderstood: Grayson Allen, the fiery competitor is an on-court caricature. Off the court, Allen is much more mild-mannered.
But the Jazz also believe that Allen’s competitiveness can be harnessed in a constructive way. They want to see that side of him in player development. They want to see that side of him in high-stakes games. They want to see that side of him in the playoffs, where the Jazz sometimes struggled to meet the Houston Rockets’ level of toughness in May.
Lindsey knows that if Allen reverts back to his old ways of dirty play, the Jazz will get raked over the coals: He cited the power of the “electronic herd,” knowing it will be ready to stampede if Allen crosses the line. But if Allen truly is past that chapter of his career, the Jazz believe he can hold his own in the big moments.
Allen wants to prove he’s ready to turn the page on his era as a heel.
“They know I’ve grown and matured in my college career — there was no convincing,” Allen said. “It was obviously something I had to explain in my interviews, but it was very short and very quick.”
The Jazz hope that the team similarly won’t have to talk about Allen’s checkered on-court history much longer. With Utah Summer League on the horizon, Allen hopes to show people why he’s ready for the NBA, and start moving past the incidents which defined his college career.
Mitchell, for one, seemed already prepared to move on. Allen was someone he didn’t like competing against, but he’s someone Mitchell is glad to have on his side.
“Man,” he said, less than a month after his text, “we got a good one in him.”