Which Grayson Allen returns, not when Grayson Allen returns, is the question

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The biggest question for the Blue Devils moving forward isn’t going to be how many games Grayson Allen gets suspended.

They don’t play again until New Year’s Eve, a trip to Blacksburg to face a good Virginia Tech team. Then they get the two worst teams in the ACC, Georgia Tech and Boston College, at home before a trip to Florida State. It’s not until the fifth game of the season, a visit to Louisville on January 14th, that Duke will get their first major test of the ACC season.

If I had to set the over/under on how many games Allen will get suspended, I would set it at 2.5 … and take the under. I’d be shocked if his suspension lasted until Duke’s trip to Tallahassee, which means that, at worst, the Blue Devils would come out of this with a 2-1 record. They could still win the ACC title. It certainly wouldn’t hurt their national title chances much.

And that’s assuming that Allen is a piece that Duke cannot live without, which is certainly not the case. The Blue Devils are 11-1 on the season, their only loss coming to Kansas on a buzzer-beater, and they’ve done it with Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles III and Allen all missing time. Luke Kennard is playing like an all-american. Amile Jefferson is playing like an all-american. There are enough weapons on this team to get to a Final Four if Allen spends the rest of the season on the shelf.

No, the biggest question for Duke is going to be which Grayson Allen returns, and whether or not he’s going to be able to A) handle the criticism leveled at him stemming from his latest tripping incident and B) provide the leadership that a struggling Duke team needs.

And yes, Duke is struggling.

They trailed Tennessee State midway through the second half on Monday. They trailed Elon at halftime. They won those games by a combined 21 points. They were favored by a combined 53.5 points.

The problem, according to Luke Kennard, is selfishness.

“These last two games, we struggled in all sorts of aspects of the game,” Kennard told the Fayetteville Observer. “I just don’t think we’re a very unselfish team right now. And that’s both offensively and defensively. We’ve just got to figure out who we’re going to be.”

“Everybody … they’re not bought in,” Kennard added. “They’re not all the way consumed in winning. Everybody’s not consumed in just being one. It’s not in a bad way at all. I’m just saying, in our minds, some of us have, we just want to be inside of ourselves. Especially when we hit adversity, we want to try to take over the game or we want to try and make the big play and sometimes it’s not the right play. It’s happened constantly throughout these past couple games.”

In other words, Duke lacks a clearly defined leader. There are too many alphas on a roster that lacks a true point guard. When Duke needs a bucket, there are too many guys on the roster that decide it’s their time to go 1-on-1, to try to takeover. That’s what they do. It’s what they’ve done the entire time they’ve been a basketball player. It’s how their wired.

What they need is a veteran that can handle the responsibility that comes with being the primary ball-handler, with being a distributor, with being a leader. That guy was supposed to be Allen. We all heard about how much work he had put in at being a lead guard during the summer and in the preseason. This was when it was supposed to pay off. This is when they need him.

So what will Allen be when he returns to Duke from winter break? He averaged 21.6 points, 4.6 boards and 3.5 assists last season while shooting 41.6 percent from three. He was awesome. He scored three points on 1-for-8 shooting last night and was a non-entity when he returned to the game after the trip.

He’s is, officially, Duke’s difference-maker now.

Can he handle the onslaught of criticism he’s going to get from now until football kicks off on Christmas Eve? Does he have the mental fortitude to be able to carry the weight of this baggage? Will he be tough enough to deal with the fact that he himself is the only one that carries any blame for his evolution into being college basketball’s most notorious villain?

Allen is a 21-year old man. He threw a temper tantrum on the bench last night. But if a 21-year old man is throwing temper tantrums, it’s fair to wonder where or not he’s mentally ready to handle the role Duke needs him to play.