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Despite being a sixth-year pro, Grayson Allen didn’t get the opportunity to ease into training camp with his fourth NBA team. Less than a week before Phoenix Suns Media Day, the 28-year-old was traded from an Eastern Conference contender to one out West.
Joining a Suns roster with a dozen new faces and an entirely new coaching staff, Allen felt the same nerves and anxiousness he experienced during his first training camp as a rookie. But despite being the new guy, it hasn’t taken long for him to fit in.
Devin Booker, who’s battled against Allen since they were both top high school prospects, was familiar with what he brought to the table.
“There’s a lot of guys at the top, and you slowly watch people fall off, fall out and not even make it through college or to the NBA,” Booker explained. “He’s just continued to get better and better and be a super threat on the court.”
Allen missed out on the summer pickup runs that helped the rest of the newcomers get acclimated, but less than a week into preseason, he already felt more comfortable.
“I’m at a point now, Year 6, where I kind of know how I can contribute to a team, how I can help,” Allen said. “I have a lot of confidence and kind of security in my ability and what I can do to help the team, so from that spot, it makes it a little bit easier to come into a gym and just fit in.”
Allen is coming off a season in which he averaged 10.4 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 27.4 minutes per game for the Bucks. Lost in all the consternation over the Deandre Ayton trade was the fact that the Suns also added a guy who started in 70 of his 72 appearances for the NBA’s best regular-season team last year. Allen’s game has been easy to overlook in recent years because of his reputation as a dirty player, and even Allen himself can’t say it’s unwarranted.
“I can’t really say it’s not fair, because I have owned up to the stuff,” he said. “I think most of it comes from Duke. I will say, I’ve done this interview and this question 100 times, and I always say I did a ton of self-reflection back when I was at Duke, and 99 percent of it was just immaturity.”
It was just over a year ago that Allen was accused of another dirty play, fouling Alex Caruso on a fast break layup that forced the Chicago Bulls guard to miss nearly two months with a fractured wrist resulting from the awkward landing. But Allen swears it was an accident, and for Suns fans concerned about his penchant for unruly incidents, he’s hoping to prove people wrong — again.
“I’ve been to four different teams now, and every spot I’ve been, I feel like the fans kind of slowly change their mind and opinion,” he explained. “So I’ll just leave that up to the people.”
Allen quickly got to work on that front. In four preseason games, he put up 11.8 points and 3.8 assists per game. He also shot 48.7 percent overall and was shooting nearly 43 percent from downtown until an 0-for-5 performance in the final preseason game.
For all the focus on his scrappiness, Phoenix values the skill level that comes with it.
“A lot of irritants type of players in the NBA aren’t as skilled as Grayson Allen is,” coach Frank Vogel said. “That’s what I love about what he brings to the table. He brings that that scrappy mindset, but he’s an elite 3-point shooter, he’s an elite playmaker, he can attack the basket. He’s got a great IQ for making the extra pass.”
The question is, should Grayson Allen be the Suns’ fifth starter? How does he fit with the Big 3, and what might he provide off the bench as a leading Sixth Man of the Year candidate?
Grayson Allen’s Shooting fits with anyone
Last year, Grayson Allen shot 39.9 percent from 3-point range on 5.1 attempts per game. The year prior, he made 40.9 percent of his 5.9 attempts per game. For his career, Allen has made 39.5 percent of his triples. It doesn’t take an analytics expert to understand how he’ll help the Suns.
“The easiest thing right away is shooting,” Allen summed up. “Great players, great scorers are gonna draw multiple defenders, and so if you’re out there with a great player, you’re gonna get open looks; just be able to knock ’em down.”
Allen was a knockdown shooter by every metric. He made 41.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s, 46.9 percent of his corner 3s and 37.9 percent of his above-the-break 3s. He ranked in the 95th percentile in “off screen share” by The BBall Index, which is why going under any screen set for Allen spelled doom for defenses:
Allen has great footwork and effectively set himself up for better looks on the perimeter by quickly floating to the open spots, planting two feet and launching straight up before letting his momentum carry him to his landing spot. That type of movement shooting made him a nightmare for opponents who already had to worry about Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez.
Going from that Bucks team to this Suns squad represents a chance for Allen to build on his career-high 61.2 true shooting percentage from last season.
“I’ve been put into a position where I’ve had to be able to score off the ball, impact the game in other ways, find my spots, find how I can help out in other ways, and I was able to do that the last two years really well,” Allen said. “So I think coming over here, it’ll be a seamless transition.”
The talent around him undoubtedly contributed to Allen ranking in the 90th percentile in 3-point shot quality, but placing in the 98th percentile in points per possession on spot-ups? That was all Allen. His relocation skills made him a constant concern:
His ability to read the defense and hit poor closeouts with a quick pump-fake, side dribble and pull-up 3 didn’t hurt either:
Allen probably won’t be taking a ton of pull-up 3s off the dribble this year, but he made 36.2 percent of those looks last season too. So if he’s playing with a second unit that could use additional ball-handling and shot creation, it’s another weapon in his arsenal.
Grayson Allen’s fit with the Big 3
Shooting helps any NBA lineup, and pairing Grayson Allen’s elite floor-spacing with a group that includes Booker, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal would be downright unfair. The Suns’ interchangeable Big 3 will already be unstoppable, but Allen’s shooting and Jusuf Nurkic’s passing would be next-level fits.
“When he gets the opportunity to play with myself, Book and Brad, I think the floor opens up even more for him, and we could play off him a little bit more as well,” Durant explained. “He’s just a guy that can fit in. You see how many teams he’s played on and how well he’s played at each stop, so we’re expecting him to have a solid year this year.”
His fit has already been apparent in preseason:
For those who don’t put much stock in limited preseason reps, it’s still easy to imagine him cashing in on these same types of looks that he got in Milwaukee:
The Suns’ Big 3 can all get buckets, but they’re also selfless players capable of making the right pass, rewarding open shooters when their gravity attracts help defenders.
“They make good plays,” Allen said. “The ball is moving well, they’re driving and kicking really well. So when the ball is flowing like that, it’s kind of easy for me to fill in, drive and kick with them, get open shots. That’s been pretty seamless so far.”
Allen credited Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski for teaching him the value of embracing different roles to better suit the team around him. Those lessons will only streamline the adjustment process, especially as someone who ranked in the 91st percentile in points per possession off cuts and dump-offs last season.
“When he is on the backside with those guys scoring, he’s gonna really give us a different dynamic,” Vogel said.
Playing with that much gravity around Allen, the Suns could easily benefit off one of the Bucks’ favorite trick plays. Allen would curl around an elbow screen set by a big (usually Antetokounmpo), at which point the other guard would pass the ball to the big. Allen then pretended to set a back screen for the cutting guard, before darting back out to 3-point range for an open look:
The Suns want to push the tempo this season as well, turning defensive rebounds and turnovers into fast break opportunities. Allen ranked in the 87th percentile in points per possession in transition, mostly because he wasn’t afraid to pull the trigger on transition 3s. Good luck to scrambling defenses trying to get matched up with the Big 3 when Allen can just do this:
Vogel has remained tight-lipped on the fifth starter for opening night. It’ll likely be Josh Okogie, but the Suns coach is looking for the right feel in that spot, which won’t be “static” throughout the season.
“Even if we feel good about who that person is, we may still go stretches of our season having someone else in there, just to see what type of dynamic that gives us,” Vogel explained. “So there is an element of trial and error throughout the course of an 82-game season, and that’ll be part of it.”
Allen has said he doesn’t care whether he starts or comes off the bench. Even if isn’t a starter, his 10-of-20 shooting last season in crunch-time (including 5-of-10 from 3) makes him a suitable option to help close games out.
“I feel like we can throw a lot of different lineups out,” Allen said. “It doesn’t really matter to me. It’s not a pride thing to start the game. Whenever I get in there, I’m gonna help how I can. So it doesn’t really matter to me. I kind of still have the same mentality going in.”
The driving component
The Suns aren’t just high on Grayson Allen as a spot-up shooter, however. In their fourth preseason game, Allen showed just another glimpse of how he fits with this team, attacking a driving lane when the defense paid too much attention to Durant on the wing:
“You have to have guys that can take advantage of that in whatever way that we’re talking about, whether it’s our rolling bigs or Grayson and Eric being able to penetrate and put pressure on the rim and take advantage of that space,” Vogel said.
Once again, Allen’s time with the Suns has taken him back to his younger playing days. As a kid growing up in Jacksonville, Allen’s favorite player was Dwyane Wade after he got to watch the Miami Heat play a few preseason games against the Orlando Magic. On his lowered hoop outside, Allen would mimic Wade’s drives and emphatic finishes at the rim.
“When I was outside, practicing in the driveway, I would have the hoop lowered down to like seven-and-a-half feet, and then each year I was putting it up a little bit more and more and more as I was able to do dunks like he was,” Allen said. “I know my reputation now in the league is a shooter now, but when I first got to college, for like the first two years, I was a driver, and a lot of the stuff that I was doing was just stuff that I saw D-Wade do.”
Those traces of his driving roots could be found even last year in Milwaukee. Allen ranked in the 70th percentile in drives per 75 possessions, and despite placing in the fifth percentile in rim shot quality, he still managed to rank in the 98th percentile in rim shot-making.
Watching the tape, it’s easy to envision him attacking poor closeouts with the same speed and verve:
Allen is an underrated athlete, especially in midair. Those double-clutch layups helped him shoot 62.9 percent at the rim, punishing defenses for running him off the 3-point line. That fear of him pulling up made his hesitation dribble that much more dangerous: Defenders frequently bit whenever he hesitated, only to watch Allen blow right by them.
In college, Allen used his athleticism to launch off one or even two legs and dunk on people. In the NBA, he had to adapt, learning how to mess with shot-blockers’ timing around the rim by throwing in a “slow step,” pump fakes and pivots. Being able to attack frantic closeouts and either finish or find the open man makes him an excellent fit alongside the Big 3.
“When I’m off the ball, it just puts that guy in a tougher spot, ’cause they’re gonna be in their actions — pick-and-roll, DHOs, splits, whatever it is,” Allen explained. “A lot of times, my guy is gonna be in a closeout scenario. So when you have a guy flying at you, they’re trying to run you off the line, or closing out short preventing the drive. The options are pretty easy there.”
Allen understands he’ll be a “more 3s than 2s” guy on this team, but he’s enjoyed mixing up different looks on offense. In Milwaukee’s high-powered offense, he was often relegated to the corner and expected to let it fly when the ball came his way. In Phoenix, he’s gotten a chance to function as more of a secondary playmaker.
“When we’re getting into our delay action, Nurk’s handling the ball, we’re in split actions, I’m coming off stuff, and that kind of stuff, there’s not this fire mode where it’s like, ‘Okay, I gotta take the first look I get,'” Allen explained. “It’s more like, ‘I can create for those guys, they’re gonna create a good shot for me.’ There’s a lot of confidence in the ball moving three, four, five, six times when we come down on offense.”
The Suns value guys like Allen and Eric Gordon getting into the paint and drawing two defenders before kicking it back out to shooters. Just like the Big 3 will be able to feed Allen on open spot-ups, Allen’s willingness to attack closeouts and make the right play will make their lives easier too.
“I think as being a secondary playmaker, I can really help with those guys, ’cause I can put pressure on the rim, I can get to the paint, driving the ball when people close out hard,” Allen said. “And I am a good passer making plays in there. So being able to find those guys and make it a little bit easier for them works too, so it kind of goes both ways there.”
Allen ranked in the 82nd percentile in drive passout rate and the 69th percentile in potential assists per 100 passes last year. No one should mistake him for a lead ball-handler or traditional floor general, but whether he’s playing with the Big 3 or leading the second unit, going back to his roots as a more aggressive driver and secondary playmaker will benefit Phoenix.
“Just drawing two guys and being able to get that penetration into the paint and kickin’ it,” he said. “It’s fun when you look up and you see shooters and you know they’re gonna knock it down.”
Can Grayson Allen hold up on defense?
Offensively, Allen is the most capable candidate for that fifth starting spot. The big question that will determine whether he locks it down is: Can he hold up as a point-of-attack defender?
Vogel loves the fight Allen plays with. His time spend guarding the toughest backcourt matchups over the last couple of seasons doesn’t hurt either.
“He’s got that assignment throughout his career, and that’s something we love about him,” Vogel said. “I love his offensive game as much as anything, but he’s scrappy. He’s a competitor. He has had a lot of experience in those types of matchups against big-time offensive players. And he fits the bill.”
With that being said, Vogel did also throw one more Okogie nugget in there.
“I think JO has more of a body type to be more versatile in terms of guarding 3s and 4s when needed, as well as being able to be the point-of-attack defender,” Vogel said. “But Grayson competes with the best of ’em and guys like that.”
The advanced metrics back that assertion up. Allen ranked in the 82nd percentile in on-ball perimeter defense, 98th percentile in off-ball chaser defense and 91st percentile in ball-screen navigation. Okogie ranked in the 99th, 97th and 98th percentile in those categories, respectively.
He’s the best option to spare Booker and Beal from the toughest defensive matchups, but Allen’s scrappiness on that end, after spending a few years learning from Jrue Holiday and Wesley Matthews, might be enough to let his offensive advantage over Okogie to shine.
“On the ball, off the ball, as much as I can disrupt my man, as much as I keep my guy in front in closeouts, the less we need to get into the scramble situations, the better,” Allen said. “All the extra plays, the hustle plays, the competitive plays, those are the easier ones for me. Like, I’m gonna make those. It’s the other stuff about being strong on the ball, keeping your guy square in front that I feel like I’ve been getting a lot better at.”
Between his spot-up shooting, drive-and-kick game and defensive fight, Grayson Allen is a great option to start games. But even if he doesn’t, he might wind up closing them, and he’d almost certainly be a leading candidate for Sixth Man of the Year.
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