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In a career year, Grayson Allen's fit with Suns Big 3 is downright unfair

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
January 6, 2024
Grayson Allen is solidifying his place as the fifth starter for the Phoenix Suns and a perfect fit with the Big 3

Heading into the season, Grayson Allen was an overlooked part of the Deandre Ayton trade. He was also doubted or disliked by a significant portion of the fanbase for his reputation as a dirty player.

At Phoenix Suns Media Day, he owned up to those past antics once again, and inadvertently made a prophetic pledge when he said he’d compete every night.

“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,” Allen said. “So I’ll just leave that up to the people. I don’t go out there and play to try to change minds or change opinions, but that seems to be what happens when I go to new places.”

Fast-forward a few months, and Allen had already won over the fanbase before his 32-point explosion on Christmas or another 31-point outing on Friday, when he tied the Suns franchise record with a career-high nine made 3s. Coach Frank Vogel was pleasantly surprised when he first learned Allen would be included in the Ayton trade, but even he wasn’t expecting this.

“I didn’t foresee the way he’s played for us this year,” Vogel admitted. “I think he’s exceeded all of our expectations from that standpoint.”

On a team that’s missed Devin Booker and Bradley Beal for significant chunks of the season, Allen is one of the few role players who’s exceeded expectations. He’s started in all 30 games he’s appeared in and become a staple in that lineup by necessity.

If what we’ve seen from the 28-year-old sharpshooter is any indication, he might just be the perfect fit alongside the Big 3.

Grayson Allen, silver-haired sniper

Approaching the midway point of the season, Allen is averaging 13.6 points in 33.3 minutes per game while shooting 50.9 percent from the field and 47.3 percent from 3-point range. All those numbers are career highs.

Allen ranks third in the NBA in 3-point percentage, and as Shane Young pointed out on Forbes, he’s posting one of the seven-highest effective field goal percentages in Suns history. He’s just a hair under 50-40-90 shooting splits, drilling 44.5 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s and knocking down 50 percent of his corner 3s, per NBA.com.

“He’s a sniper,” Booker said. “Somebody that I have a bunch of trust in on the court, and not only to make 3s, but to playmake and to defend at a high level too.”

Vogel and Allen admitted the Suns have emphasized getting up more 3s, which starts with Allen and Eric Gordon. Their floor-spacing and 3-point marksmanship forms a mutually beneficial relationship with whichever members of the Big 3 they share the court with.

“They draw so much attention, so there’s a lot of space on the backside or if you’re one pass away from them,” Allen explained. “So that’s obviously a great spot for me to be one pass away from them, ’cause I can either give them space, or if they help off, I can knock down the shot.”

In recent weeks, Allen’s appeared in that “one pass away” zone next to Booker, Beal and Durant. Vogel said the basketball gods reward you for playing the right way, and lately, they’ve rained down blessings on Phoenix like Grayson Allen triples. Help off Allen at the nail when he’s one pass away, and he’ll make you regret it:

Figuring out the spacing felt like a prolonged struggle until recently, when Beal’s return from an ankle sprain finally gave Phoenix an opportunity to play with a full deck. Durant’s hamstring strain has set the Suns back again, but Allen’s found his spots regardless. With two primary ball-handlers in Booker and Beal, Allen’s become part of a potent three-guard lineup, and he’s had no problems meshing with Durant, since his ability to operate out of the mid-post calls to mind how Allen spaced the floor with the Milwaukee Bucks.

“That was the spot I loved the last two years in Milwaukee too,” Allen said. “It was the same with Giannis [Antetokounmpo], like, throw it to him and play the game of chicken. If my guy helps, I’m ready.”

Durant wasn’t on the court for Friday’s 3-point barrage, but all the time Allen’s spent filling an expanded role has elevated him from “standard role player.” He can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, or the meteorite that smites it completely.

“That’s the beauty of it,” Beal said. “It’s a lot of threats out there, a lot of guys who are very versatile. We can shoot the ball really well. EG and Grayson have been shooting the leather off of it, so you’ve gotta respect everybody on the floor.”

That respect starts with the Big 3, but their willingness to get off the ball is what leads to a night where Grayson Allen even attempts 14 3-pointers at all.

“When you play teams that are gonna plug and help and force our main playmakers — Book, Brad, Kev, whoever it is — to make the extra pass, then that’s how you have to beat them,” Allen said. “A lot of it just comes from, we have such an unselfish group. I don’t get up 14 3s if Book and Brad aren’t making the extra pass all night long and sticking with it, not getting frustrated that they’re not able to drive.”

Slowly but surely, that trust and chemistry that’s been a source of concern all year is starting to build. Booker’s drives are often met with at least one help defender, and when that happens, he’s looking for Allen and Gordon on the wing or in the corner.

“If they do, those are guys that I trust to get it off quick, and they’re gonna make a play,” Booker explained. “For that to be our second, third, fourth option on the floor is gonna be tough covers for teams.”

Allen is under no illusions about his role. He knows he’s not Stephen Curry, running off 10 screens every time down as the offensive focal point. For this particular sharpshooter, his focus centers around what kind off off-ball opportunities he can capitalize on.

“Is my contribution to this game gonna be that they’re scared to leave me so that Book and Brad can get downhill and score?” Allen explained. “Or are they gonna help off and turn me into a shooter and play one pass away? And so from then, it’s just making the read.”

On Friday, Allen got to feast. But his gravity has shown up in his select few games with the Big 3, and it’s no surprise that Beal (57.4 percent), Booker (52.5 percent), Durant (54.8 percent) and Gordon (54.5 percent) are all shooting terrific percentages on their drives, per NBA.com.

Allen uses his gravity to open things up for this teammates, makes timely cuts to do the same, and showcases just enough secondary playmaking ability to keep the offense churning. He’s second on the Suns with a 23.8 percent frequency in transition and semi-transition, and his commitment to pushing the tempo creates inherent advantages with that much firepower on the court.

On the ball, it looks like pull-up 3s in transition, drives to the basket, drive-and-kicks or simple hit-ahead passes:

Off the ball, it looks like sprinting to the wing or corner to either knock down open looks or open up driving lanes.

“I know if I sprint to the corner, someone’s getting an open shot right down the middle of the lane, ’cause the guy’s not gonna leave me,” Allen said.

Attacking closeouts makes Grayson Allen unfair

Allen’s career year shooting the ball magnetizes him on a number of possessions, but teams will usually focus more on taking away Booker, Beal and Durant. Some defenses may possess the speed, length and IQ to double the Big 3, rotate, and close out hard for late contests on whatever role players are parked around the 3-point line.

But Allen is no run-of-the-mill role player, and he and Gordon are both capable of making plays on the second side. Vogel called them “two of the best in the business” in that respect.

“You have to run at them, because they’re elite catch-and-shoot players, and they’re elite putting the ball on the floor as well,” Vogel explained. “A lot of role players are just one-trick ponies, so to speak, where they can only catch-and-shoot and are limited off the bounce, but all those guys are really good attacking off the bounce as well.”

For weeks now, Allen’s nimble forays into the lane have left defenses flummoxed when they’ve run him off the line. His shot-fake and hesitation dribble are enough to freeze defenders frantically trying to close out, and once he gets into the lane, Allen displays graceful, change-of-pace footwork to finish off plays.

Watch some of these finishes, starting with arguably the best bit of ball movement from the season. Even after the Orlando Magic contain the Beal-Jusuf Nurkic high screen-and-roll, they still have to contend with the drive-and-kick to Duruant, who drives and kicks to Booker, who drives and kicks back to Durant, who makes the quick swing to Allen, who attacks his closeout for one hell of a finish:

“I didn’t know he had all this stuff off the dribble, he had the incredible footwork in the paint, he can make smart plays driving,” Durant said. “So I think he gives us that advantage as somebody else that can attack the paint.”

Euro-steps and slithery up-and-unders — where he pump fakes before drop-stepping past his defender — are among Allen’s favorites, reminding how his admiration for Dwyane Wade translated to his own skill-set. Allen is shooting 67.1 percent at the rim, and even when he can’t get all the way to the cup, he’s got a solid floater, shooting 52.4 percent on those looks.

“Everybody’s gonna see the 3s made, but people start running him off the line, he’s not one of those guys that’s one-dimensional where you run ’em off the line and he doesn’t know what to do,” Booker said.

Unlike a lot of drivers and great finishers in this league, however, Allen doesn’t get tunnel vision when he enters the paint. He’s actually passed on 54.9 percent of his drives, the highest mark on the roster. It speaks to his willingness to drive-and-kick, always searching for the right play to keep the offense humming.

That doesn’t always lead to a direct assist, but two of the Suns’ best dimes of the season came from Allen attacking the lane and throwing highlight-reel passes out to Booker and Durant for 3:

Even if you bottle up his drive-and-kicks, that doesn’t mean the play is over. Allen won’t turn down an opportunity to immediately relocate for an open 3:

“It’s what we’ve been preaching since the beginning, just be aggressive,” Booker said. “You can’t be timid if you’re out there on the court with us, ’cause that’s what teams are gonna play into. So Grayson’s one of those guys that is elite at his role, and he does it all out there.”

He may not be “Big 4” material, but having an additional ball-handler, playmaker and shooter could push defenses to their breaking point. Even if they manage to contain the Suns’ Big 3 on a given possession, Grayson Allen can render it futile in a variety of ways.

“To be out there with those guys, some nights, it’s gonna be me taking 14 3s, some nights I’m gonna take two and I might get five or six assists just dishing,” Allen explained. “So my goals are just to be an efficient player, an efficient scorer next to these guys.”

Grayson Allen is unfair in the pick-and-roll

The best part is, the Suns have barely tapped into their secret weapon: Using any combination of the Big 3 in pick-and-rolls. Allen isn’t quite on their level, but putting him in small-small screening actions with them is just as unfair.

The sample size is minuscule for Allen as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, but he’s still ranked in the 73rd percentile in points per possession on those plays. Even if he or his roller don’t score directly, Allen knows where to move the ball to rack up a hockey assist:

“He’s not just being a standstill shooter,” Durant said. “He’s handling the ball, he’s making plays in the paint, he’s making plays off the bounce in the pick-and-roll. He probably already did this already, but from watching in Milwaukee and the stops he was before, it was hard to see this type of stuff in his game because of the role he was playing.”

As a screener, though, is where things get interesting. The Suns found success on Christmas using Allen as an on-ball screener for Book, feasting on the pick-and-pop opportunities created in the confusion. Even when a hedging or double-teaming defender recovers in time, Allen can still attack those closeouts.

“I’ve done that a lot, so I know I can mix in that, be a screener, get some 3s, roll and make plays in the paint finding other guys or scoring in there,” Allen said.

For all those reasons, Vogel said Allen has solidified the fifth starting job for the time being. It’s not set in stone; certain matchups against elite point guards like Steph Curry or Ja Morant could open the door for a point-of-attack ball hawk like Josh Okogie to re-enter the picture.

But the numbers don’t lie, and the Suns’ preferred starting lineup of Booker, Beal, Allen, Durant and Nurkic is a +17 in 35 minutes together, shooting 59.4 percent overall with a 68.3 percent assist rate and a staggering 138.9 offensive rating.

Their 115.3 defensive rating together could use some work, but does it really matter if you’re wiping the charred remains of the opposing defense off the court? Vogel knows it’s a small group, but the offensive firepower and Allen’s willingness to guard opponents’ best perimeter players could help make it work.

“He’s really taken the challenge of guarding the other team’s best player so we can have that shooting lineup out there that we like,” Vogel said. “And he’s just shot the cover off the ball for us this year, and he’s made plays off the bounce and in transition. He’s a high-IQ player, and he’s definitely been a real positive of our season.”

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