Duke might be the most disliked team in college basketball, but at the ACC championship in New York, the reception was generally cordial. During introductions, the cheers from the sizable Blue Devils fan contingent outweighed any jeers. When leading scorer Luke Kennard hit a shot, there was a joyful cry of “LUUUUUUUKE.”
Without fail, the mood suddenly changes a few minutes into each game with the arrival of Grayson Allen, Duke’s sixth man — and the most hated college basketball player in America. Against Clemson, the boos are louder than you’d think a few fans of a football-focused school 750 miles from home could muster. Against Louisville, fans boo Allen’s entry louder than they cheer any Cardinals basket. Against North Carolina, Duke’s biggest rival and the tournament’s biggest draw, the boos overwhelm the arena.
They don’t go away, either. They come back every time he touches the ball, every time he shoots free throws. When he draws a foul on a 3-pointer — boos. When he gets a technical for screaming “FUCK” as he slams the ball into the ground — boos.
Even past Duke villains are taken aback by the way fans rally around hating Allen.
“I got booed, and people said all rude things,” said Jon Scheyer, once a Duke All American, now an assistant coach. “His level is a whole ’nother thing.”
When I asked Duke senior Matt Jones if he’d ever heard a crowd treat a player the way they treat Allen, he smiled. “Nope.” He paused. “Never.”
After Duke’s ACC quarterfinal win over Louisville, coach Mike Krzyzewski was asked about Allen’s performances while sitting next to the junior guard. He brought up the situation unprompted, patting Allen on the shoulder as a physical reminder that the team stands with him.
“The public eye on our program is a blessing and can be a curse,” Krzyzewski said. “I love Grayson. Grayson, I got his back all the time. And everyone in our program has his back all the time.”
Allen, meanwhile, has come to expect the jeers.
“I know I’m gonna get booed no matter where I am,” Allen said after Duke’s victory over North Carolina in the ACC semifinal. “It happened last year. You really just get numb to it.”
Some of the reaction to Allen is deserved criticism of a player with a short fuse. Some of it is pernicious criticism of things Allen can’t control: Twitter consensus is that his face is “punchable.”
And for reasons justified and not, hating Allen has become a cultural phenomenon. Yet, as Allen’s on-court influence has waned over the past year, the jeers have only increased. He is no longer the most important player on Duke, but he represents the team: highly talented, wildly erratic, and forging on, even though you don’t like him.
“I definitely play with emotion,” Allen said. “I don’t think that’s anything new.”
This, he believes, is a gift.
“When you’re playing with emotion, you don’t really feel tired,” Allen said. “When you’re down, you need that emotion to say, ‘No, we’re not going to lose this game. We’re going to come back.’ Whether it’s getting angry out there, whether it’s getting excited or passionate, whatever it is, playing with emotion is a very good thing.”
Energy is a critical part of his game. He’s a spectacular athlete who won the McDonald’s All American slam dunk contest, and he can be an excellent scorer when slashing with the ball. But his game is limited. He doesn’t have mile-long wingspan, he isn’t a knockdown shooter, and he doesn’t have afterburners. On DraftExpress, two of his listed strengths are “motor” and “effort.” This isn’t just cliché run rampant, it is an actual thing professional talent evaluators consider a highlight of his game. It’s why Krzyzewski has Allen coming off the bench, even though he’s one of Duke’s five best players.
Of course, energy is also Allen’s biggest problem. He loves his emotion but sometimes seems unable to control it. When Krzyzewski was asked about a technical foul of Allen’s against Clemson, he joked, “The one he was called for, or the one he wasn’t?”
Then there are the infamous trips — two last year, against Florida State and Louisville, a third this year against Elon, which was followed by a sideline temper tantrum. There’s no way to rationalize it: It’s a cowardly move, maximizing potential for opponent injury while attempting to avoid being noticed by an official. Each time, Allen has gotten frustrated at his own poor play and lunged a leg, flailing to try to erase his own failure.
At its core, I think this is why Allen gets booed. The whole point of booing is to fluster a player, and no player has ever been so obviously flustered as Allen.
Allen, though, claims the boos don’t bother him.
“Most of the people that are booing me don’t really know what the heck’s going on anyway,” he said. “They just know they want to boo the guy wearing no. 3.”
Last season, Allen led Duke with 21.6 points per game, posting game highs of 23 and 29 in the team’s two NCAA tournament wins — and when he managed only 15 in the Sweet 16, they lost. In 2016–17, his scoring has dropped to 14.1 points per game, and his shooting has dipped in virtually every category. He last led the team in scoring on February 9 against UNC. He’s been dealing with an ankle injury for the past few weeks, and it hasn’t prevented the team from notching some of its most impressive performances of the year. The team beat Virginia when he scored just five points, beat Florida State when he scored just two, and managed an ACC tournament win over Clemson in his first scoreless game since 2015. A year ago, Allen was an All American and a possible first-round draft pick; now, he’s coming off the bench and looking at Round 2.
If crowds wanted to get at Duke’s best player, they’d boo Kennard, who seems capable of feathering the ball into the hoop from within two steps of wherever he gets it. If they wanted to bother Duke’s most talented player, they’d go for Jayson Tatum, who plays with the fluidity of a guard, power of a big man, and explosion of a no. 1 NBA draft pick.
Instead, Kennard takes free throws in peace, Tatum’s slams are cheered, and everything Allen does stirs road arenas and neutral sites into a frenzy.
Duke does not need any more distractions. This team is built on the backs of youngsters, like Tatum and Harry Giles, both freshmen who missed the beginning of the season with injuries. It’s also built on the back of Krzyzewski, who missed a month to deal with the chronic back pain that’s haunted him for decades. All of this has created an incredibly inconsistent team. The Blue Devils can be great, as evidenced by the fact that they just won the tournament of basketball’s toughest conference; they’re the first team ever to win the ACC with four games in four days. They also lost three of their final four regular-season games. They comfortably beat no. 1 seed UNC twice, and they looked listless against Syracuse, which missed the NCAA tournament.
Allen can be a key part of the team’s success. He helped spark its spectacular ACC run; posting 18 points as Duke erased a double-digit deficit against Louisville, knocking down his first four 3s to help cut into a big UNC first-half lead. But perhaps Allen’s most useful role can be as a sponge for the hatred directed at Duke.
“We choose not to focus on any exterior motivation,” Allen said. “It all comes from within.”
He might as well have been speaking in the first person. Allen is emotional, but the problem isn’t contracting negative emotions from a crowd. It’s bottling up the frustration he creates for himself when he fails. His worst moments are sudden furies in response to his own failures.
“I know the player that I am, I know what I can accomplish, I know what I can do,” Allen said. “That doesn’t change from a boo from someone in the crowd, or someone who I don’t even know saying some negative thing.”
Allen can bear the burden of the boos; he and his younger, more talented teammates can silence them.
“When you win,” Allen said. “It gets quiet.”
An earlier version of this story misstated which teams the Blue Devils played at different levels of the ACC tournament. Duke faced Louisville in the quarterfinals and UNC in the semifinals.