Duke University's Grayson Allen knew things had changed for him last season when people started comparing him to a Presidential candidate. Until then, Allen was known among college basketball fans mostly for his breakout performance in the 2015 NCAA tournament championship game, when he came off the bench to score 16 points and help the Blue Devils win the national title.
At the time, Allen was a relatively overlooked member of Duke's star-studded freshman class. Less than a year later, he was getting booed on the road and turned into a meme online, pictured side-by-side with Senator Ted Cruz. The resemblance, to some, seemed uncanny. Allen took it all in stride.
"Those are pretty funny," he told VICE Sports. "My mom will tell me I don't look like him, but there's thousands of people telling me I do. It's pretty funny."
Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, J.J. Redick—Allen is just the latest in a long line of Duke players opponents love to hate.
The wave of animosity crested last season, when Allen was Duke's top player, averaging a team-high 21.6 points per game and making the third-team Associated Press All-American team. He didn't help himself with a pair of tripping incidents that brought about accusations of dirty play. First, Allen received a flagrant foul on February 8 after falling to the court and tripping Louisville forward Ray Spalding. Later that month, he stuck out his left leg and tripped Florida State guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes with a few seconds remaining. The Atlantic Coast Conference publicly reprimanded Allen, but the league did not suspend him.
As the season wore on, Allen spoke with a few former Blue Devils who had faced similar ordeals.
"They just told me to keep being myself through it," Allen said. "I don't have to be them, just find my own way to be a basketball player and focus on what we're doing here and not let anything become a distraction."
The 21-year-old Allen is well accustomed to grabbing attention, positive or negative. Growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, in high school he quickly caught the eye of coaches with his aggressive style. Harry Douglas's team was playing against him at an AAU tournament when Allen made a 360-degree dunk that had the Atlanta-based coach doing a double take.
"Let me tell you something, sir, I got so happy," Douglas said. "I said, 'I've got to have him because I knew that whoever he was playing for and was coaching him had him in the wrong place and didn't know what to do with him.' I told the kids, 'I'm getting that kid right there.'"
For the next two years, Allen commuted between Jacksonville and Atlanta to play with Douglas's team, the Douglas Brothers Elite. He emerged as a top recruit in the summer of 2012 heading into his junior year of high school, and when Duke offered him a scholarship the following spring, he quickly committed to play for his dream school. By then, he was used to opponents heckling him.
"Guys would foul him hard," Douglas said. "They would do little things like punch him and stuff, man. It was ridiculous, man. There were times I would get hot and tell the ref, 'C'mon, man. We can't play like this.' I used to always be real with Grayson. I used to say, 'Grayson, you're white. It's hard for a black guy to accept a white guy playing like this.' I'm just being honest. There's no other way to put it."
At Duke, Allen joined a freshman class that included Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Tyus Jones, each of whom would leave school after one year and became first-round NBA draft picks. It took him a few weeks to adjust to his new surroundings.
"He wasn't Grayson Allen or that type of college player when he first came to Duke," Winslow told VICE Sports. "He had a lot of talent, but he did need to become tough. He did need to kind of embrace being the white guy on the team and all that because it's basketball. We see race. We see that. He had to embrace that he's white, but he can still play with us, he can still hang with us. He did that really quick."
Winslow and Allen were roommates at Duke, but they didn't get along right away and barely spoke for the first several months of school. It wasn't until midway through the season, after Allen wouldn't back down from Winslow's physical play in practice, that the two became close friends. Winslow and other teammates weren't afraid to tease Allen, either.
"We messed with him and said he looks like somebody from Friday Night Lights," Winslow said. "He's good about it. He can take it and he can give out the jokes and all that. He's a cool guy."
Now a junior, Allen is arguably the most high-profile player in the country and a veteran on a deep, skilled Duke team that is 11-1 and ranked fifth in the Associated Press poll. In early November, he received the most votes on the Associated Press's preseason All-American team. Later that month, though, he sustained a toe injury that forced him to miss a couple of weeks of practice. He fought through the pain and only sat out one game, but he wasn't the same player as last season.
"I'm shooting like crap right now," Allen said after scoring a season-low six points in Duke's victory over Florida at Madison Square Garden on December 6 (he also had eight assists). "I'm not making shots right now, but I'm doing a much better job this year of passing the ball, being more controlled on my drives, and finding these guys that we do have on the team."
Those guys include sophomore guard Luke Kennard (20.3 points and 5.8 rebounds per game) and senior forward Amile Jefferson (14.3 points, 11.1 rebounds), who are both having All-American-caliber seasons. The Blue Devils also have three freshmen forwards (Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, and Marques Bolden) who are projected NBA lottery picks. All three players were injured early in the season, but Tatum and Bolden returned earlier this month. Giles made his college debut on Monday night, although he played only four minutes.
With all of that talent on the Blue Devils' roster, Allen doesn't have to shoulder the scoring load like he did last season. He's averaging 17.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game, but his 40.1 percent field-goal percentage and 35.0 percent three-point percentage are more than six percentage points lower than last season.
Still, four days after the Florida game, Allen showed he may be recovering from the toe injury and remains a difficult player to guard. During Duke's 94-45 victory at UNLV, he made six of seven three-pointers, had a highlight-worthy dunk, and scored a career-high 34 points.
Afterward, the Duke basketball team's Twitter account posted a note that Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper—another athlete who's no stranger to haters—had written Allen on a copy of the box score. "To G.," Harper wrote. "Keep Doin Your Thing!"
With Duke starting ACC play on New Year's Eve at Virginia Tech, Allen won't be receiving such glowing platitudes any longer. He knows he'll be hearing from opposing fans from now until Duke's season ends. It doesn't faze him at all.
"I don't really take the villain role," Allen said. "It's just so cool that they care enough about me to say my name. I think that's funny that you have all these people, whoever the team that we're playing against, they've got on their jerseys and they're cheering for me more than they're cheering for the other team. I just think that's funny."
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