PHOENIX – Jim Martin, who coached Grayson Allen at the Providence School in Jacksonville, Florida, recalls his first handshake with the Phoenix Suns guard when he was a fifth grader.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever shook hands with him … he had the biggest hands for a kid,” Martin said.
It turned out Allen had ambition as big as his grade-school paws.
“He told me, ‘Coach, I want to play at Duke,’” Martin said, recalling that first meeting. “Can you imagine the look on my face when he said (that)? But you know what my answer was?
“Let’s get to work.”
Hard work is something that Allen has never shied away from, and it has taken him on a journey that started in Jacksonville and has taken him to Phoenix, where he has found a niche as the fifth starter in a star-studded Suns lineup.
It is a group, which includes the team’s “Big Three” of Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal, center Jusuf Nurkić and Allen and has a +15.6 net rating in the 16 games those starters have played together.
Allen and Martin were serious in their pursuit of that goal to play at Duke, even if it meant making sacrifices along the way.
“People wouldn’t even believe,” Martin said, describing Allen’s work ethic between 5th and 6th grade. “He’d put in eight to 10 hours a day all summer long. His mom would call me up asking, ‘Where’s Grayson? We can’t get a hold of him.’ I guarantee he’s that relentless now.”
That relentlessness and a desire to win propelled Allen to McDonald’s All-American status, a state high school championship at Providence, a four-star prospect rating in the 2014 class according to 247sports.
And a scholarship to Duke, where he helped the Blue Devils win a national championship.
The 6-foot-4, 198-pounder was drafted in the first round, 21st overall, by the Utah Jazz in 2018, and his winning mindset has stood out to Suns coach Frank Vogel, who called Allen a “competitor.”
Allen’s competitive nature has gotten the best of him at times, as his well-documented tripping incidents at Duke made him a notorious and polarizing name. His hard-nosed style in the NBA has made him the latest example of a player that fans love on their team and hate when he is wearing the opposition’s uniform.
Martin believes it’s time for fans to move on.
“Give him a chance,” Martin said when asked about Allen’s character. “What has his body of work been for, let’s just say, the last three years? I guarantee you every organization loves the fact that he’s such a great competitor.”
Vogel echoed Martin’s sentiment. He said Allen’s incidents are “all in his past,” adding: “He’s just a guy that’s going out there and playing clean and playing hard.”
While at Duke, Allen was asked by coach Mike Krzyzewski to change his playing style for the betterment of the team.
“Coach K told me at Duke that I needed to be more of a driver than a shooter,” Allen said. “My freshman and sophomore year when I first got there … he just thought that what I was best at then was attacking downhill, getting to the rim, being aggressive, and using my athleticism at the rim to finish. But by the time I was a senior he was like, ‘Okay, I need you to take a ton of 3s.”
This ability to adapt has landed Allen in a comfortable starting spot alongside some of the NBA’s biggest names. He’s had to adjust accordingly. In Milwaukee, for instance, Allen was asked to play a different role than he is in Phoenix.
“When you’re playing with Giannis (Antetokounmpo) 70-80% of the time, they’re already going to have five people in the paint. So if you pass up a 3 and drive it, you’re not going to go anywhere,” Allen said about playing next to the Bucks’ two-time NBA Most Valuable Player.
“With (the Suns), we’re getting a lot of kick-aheads, so I’m able to drive in transition. A lot of swing-swing, where I’m attacking a closeout. And in the last month or so, (I’m) getting run off the 3-point line a little bit more.”
Allen’s breakout this year wasn’t too surprising for Martin because he has seen the amount of work Allen has put in for more than a decade.
“When he first got drafted by Utah, we sliced up all their offensive plays,” Martin said. “We worked on every shot that he could possibly get out of their offense, and I guarantee he’s doing that with the Phoenix offense … and he’s not leaving the gym until he’s perfected (those shots).”
In a lineup headlined by Durant, Booker and Beal, Allen has also shined.
He has the highest eFG% by any non-big in the NBA this season (66.8%). Outside of a recent ankle tweak that Allen experienced, the Suns finally have their core players healthy and have won 10 of their last 13 games as they prepare to play host to two of Allen’s former clubs – the Bucks and Jazz – this week at Footprint Center.
And now the guy who has clutched state high school and national collegiate championship trophies is back to work, hoping to get his big hands on another prize. It’s the Larry O’Brien Trophy, which is awarded to NBA champs and has eluded the Suns throughout franchise history.