Young Duke team gets response they needed from Grayson Allen, Derryck Thornton

(AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
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NEW YORK — Grayson Allen got benched.

Three days after he was held to 2-for-11 shooting, three days after he finished with six points and four turnovers as Duke was run out of the Champions Classic by Kentucky, Allen was relegated to reserve duty by Coach K.

And he responded by, once again, being the best player on the floor.

“The response that Grayson had from Kentucky was huge,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I think it’s spectacular. A lot of kids would question themselves. He never did.”

Allen scored a career-high 30 points on Friday night, adding six boards and three assists as as the No. 5 Blue Devils came-from-behind to knock off VCU, 79-71, in the semifinals of the 2K Classic at Madison Square Garden.

It was the second time in the first eight days of the season that Allen has set a career-high and the third time that he’s finished with more than 26 points. The one outlier? That horrid performance against Kentucky, when Isaiah Briscoe hounded him into a 0-for-9 shooting performance in the first half.

Allen may not have questioned himself after learning that he would be watching the opening tip while sitting down, but the reason he was on the pine was because he spent the 28 minutes that he managed to play doing just that: questioning himself.

“I thought he was driving to score, not just to get a shot off,” Coach K said. “Unless you’re playing against that [kind of talent] every day … he’s a good player, but he’s not as experienced as he’s getting. He wasn’t able to make an adjustment during the Kentucky game, but since then he’s made that adjustment.”

The difference on Friday — from Tuesday, from the rest of the season, really — wasn’t just Allen’s mindset, it was that he was no longer a one-dimensional player. The first two games of the season, Allen essentially did one thing when he got the ball in his hands: he drove right, he drove hard and he drove straight to the rim. That worked great against Bryant and Siena. Not so much against Kentucky’s athleticism.

“We have a thing on our team, a standard that we tell each other the truth,” Coach K said. “He didn’t play well against Kentucky. He didn’t have a good look and he didn’t adjust. That was his first big time start. It’s not like he’s this combat veteran.”

“That was a rough film sensation after Kentucky,” Allen said.

“I was hard on him,” Coach K added, “but honest. I said, ‘We gotta look at something else,’ and it gave us a chance to look at Derryck.”

That Derryck that Coach K is referring to is Derryck Thornton, Duke’s freshman point guard who started in place of Allen, but I’ll get to him in a minute.

On Friday, Allen showed off the versatile offensive repertoire that assistant coach Nate James raved about this summer. He went left. He hit floaters. He drilled pull-ups going left and right. He drove right and spun back to his left. He broke Doug Brooks’ ankles with an in-and-out dribble that belonged at Rucker Park, not the Garden.

“I learned that from Tyus,” Allen said with a laugh after the game. “He got me a lot with that in practice.”

It was all there for Allen on Friday night, and the result was that he was a much more dangerous offensive weapon, one that VCU had scouted correctly and still could not find a way to slow down.

“The first half we were giving him the shots we wanted him to take, he was just knocking them down,” VCU senior center Mo Alie-Cox said.

But enough about Allen, because he wasn’t the only guard that thrived for the Blue Devils on Friday. Thornton, a freshman who is supposed to he a senior in high school right now, wasn’t phased by the moment. He wasn’t phased by starting in Madison Square Garden or by squaring off against the kind of pressure that VCU is always — Havoc! — going to put on opposing ball-handlers.

He finished with 19 points and four assists, shooting 7-for-11 from the floor and committing just three turnovers in 31 minutes.

“For Derryck to take of the ball and do that was sensational,” Coach K said.

He wasn’t perfect. He made mistakes. He did commit three turnovers, but he also missed some defensive rotations, whiffed on a box out here and there, threw a couple of lazy passes that didn’t get charted as a turnover but cost Duke an open look. Freshmen do that. Freshmen point guards in their first start do that.

It was Thornton’s presence that made as much of a difference as anything.

“Derrick brought a personality,” Coach K said. “His talk, he looked strong, played that way. If there was a mistake, it never rattled him. What he’s doing, he’s earning the respect and confidence of his teammates. He brings something different to our team, and it’s not just being a point guard.”

“It’s not being afraid.”

College basketball teams generate hype because of the new pieces that they bring in. That’s just the way it works these days, and Duke is as much to blame as anyone. They won a national title with three one-and-done players and then went out and snagged a recruiting class that was among the best in the country.

But the dirty little secret that’s coming to light now that games have begun is that this freshman class really isn’t all that good. It’s not on the same level as the Class of 2013 or 2014. It’s no where near as good as the Class of 2016. Some analysts say it’s the worst class since Gerald Green and Josh McRoberts were pegged as the best high school hoopers in the country.

For Duke, this manifests as their top three recruit, Brandon Ingram, struggling to find any kind of a rhythm against collegiate competition. It manifests as sharp-shooter Luke Kennard opening the season by going 2-for-15 from beyond the arc. The bottom line is that this is a team that returned just four players that saw playing time in last year’s Final Four: Grayson Allen, Matt Jones, Marshall Plumlee and Amile Jefferson.

They are young.

They are inexperienced.

They are learning.

They aren’t a top five team right now.

“We have to develop into a team,” Coach K said. “We are not a team yet. All these situations help us. When we got down by six and had a turnover, it could have gone south quickly.”

“It wasn’t coaching, it was them. They have that in them.”