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The rise of Utah Jazz rookie Grayson Allen comes ahead of playoff series against Houston Rockets

LOS ANGELES — Grayson Allen was one of the last Utah Jazz players to leave the Vivint Arena home locker room, following a 119-98 win against Sacramento on Friday, April 5.

“People be changing quick,” teammate Joe Ingles teased the rookie guard about lingering around late.

“Wow,” Donovan Mitchell chimed in, with Allen smiling boyishly, before a media scrum near his locker. “I didn’t know it was that quick.”

“I wasn’t expecting anything less,” Allen murmured, somewhat embarrassed.

Five days later, the former Duke star was one of the last ones in the locker room again after going off a career-best 40-point performance during the regular season finale overtime loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday.

“Good job, Grayson,” Ingles interrupted Allen’s postgame interview at the Staples Center.

“Thanks,” Allen responded.

“You took 30 shots, I’ve never taken 30 shots,” Ingles added.

“Stop,” said Allen. “Two of them were at the end of the quarter.”

“Twenty-eight of them weren’t,” Ingles said, before laughing. “Nah, he had a great game.”

As the rookie of the bunch, Allen has experienced a roller coaster of highs and lows before earning the respect of the guys around him in key moments. The 21st overall pick out of Duke University received a dozen G League assignments with the Salt Lake City Stars, was sidelined for nine games during the winter with a right ankle sprain, completely fell out of the rotation at one point only to catch fire right before the start of Utah’s opening round playoff matchup against the Houston Rockets with Game 1 set for 7:30 p.m. MT Sunday on TNT.

His 40-point explosion against the Clippers, with seven of his Jazz teammates on the injury report, was only the second time a Jazz rookie has posted a 40-point effort. The only other one was Mitchell, who did it twice in 2017-18.

“He’s shown his ability to come in and anytime you’re a young player, there’s always challenges associated with new situations,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said of Allen. “We want to be demanding of all our guys and Grayson, he is demanding of himself.

“Part of learning to play in the NBA, especially on the defensive end, is learning how to compete and also discipline when you’re finding yourself in new situations or new habits.”

Through training camp and the start of preseason, Snyder challenged the rookie to improve defensively if he wanted to see time on the floor. Transition defense was his biggest struggle, as he was learning to anticipate shots in the offense before they happened before sprinting back while adjusting to the professional level as a whole after a four-year career at Duke.

Even now, he goes through defensive slide drills in addition to shooting during his pregame warmup routines on game days.

“Right now, his biggest adjustment is transition defense, so he’s either going to make that adjustment or he’s not going to play,” Snyder said ahead of the Jazz’s preseason game in Portland on Oct. 7. “I hope he reads that.”

Allen would soak in gems all year from Mitchell and Jae Crowder while working alongside assistant coach Johnnie Bryant on player development. Stars head coach Martin Schiller and his staff also helped him develop successful habits throughout his G League stints, where even Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski would check on him from time to time via text message.

“You’re lucky to be there. You’re fortunate to be in the NBA,” Krzyzewski said to Allen. “Learn your craft. That’s what we say, and that combination of doing both is good for you. You can’t just sit and watch.”

Utah Jazz guard Grayson Allen (24) drives against Sacramento Kings guard Yogi Ferrell (3) at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 5, 2019.
Utah Jazz guard Grayson Allen (24) drives against Sacramento Kings guard Yogi Ferrell (3) at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 5, 2019.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

All of the player development has helped Allen get to the position he’s in now, where he could help the fifth-seeded Jazz in some capacity during the playoff series versus Houston. Allen is averaging 5.6 points and 0.7 assists for the season, but is posting 16.8 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists on 48.3 percent shooting during his last five games heading into the postseason.

He regained the fun element of basketball before being recalled from the Stars to the Jazz with a 37-point effort in the Stars’ playoff game against Oklahoma City.

“I think the G League definitely helped both of us,” said Jazz center Tony Bradley. “You can see now how solid every game at how he’s gotten better defensively.

“For sure,” he added. “We both just wanted to play and develop and continue to get better. That’s what we’ve been doing all year by being in the G League.”

Allen contributed 16.3 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 30.3 minutes per game in the 12 games he appeared with the Stars as the team improved by 11 wins compared to last season. Jazz center Rudy Gobert said he could relate to that pattern of being back and forth with the Jazz and Stars, because he also had to spend part of his rookie campaign in the then-NBA Development League before sticking with the Jazz and becoming the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.

“It’s always about seizing the opportunity when you get it,” Gobert said. “People don’t see what you do behind the scenes and it’s not always easy but once you’re able to seize the opportunity and do it again and again and again, that’s how you become a player.”

While Dante Exum (right knee surgery) remains out indefinitely, the Jazz are expected to be somewhat healthy with Ricky Rubio (left quad contusion) and Raul Neto (left ankle soreness) expected to return against the Rockets. Even with those guys back, Allen knows he can’t control how much he plays in his first NBA playoff series, but the 23-year-old says he’ll be ready.

“That’s up to coach but I will be ready,” Allen said. “Ending the regular season like this and those last few games has helped prepare me.”