A Key Piece of Nets' Rebuild, Jarrett Allen Embraces Life on and off the Court

Leo Sepkowitz@@LeoSepkowitzContributorJuly 31, 2018

Brooklyn Nets center Jarrett Allen reacts during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Indiana Pacers, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Jarrett Allen says he's never been to a bar, hasn't even tried it. He doesn't own a fake ID, even though the kids back in Texas used to have them, even though no bouncer in New York City would challenge a goateed near 7-footer when it comes to the matter of whether he is of legal drinking age. Allen has no interest in deception. It'll only be another year until he can drink for real, he says, and he can wait.

Besides, Allen prefers to stay busy with more sober tasks: examining computer parts, scanning Reddit, napping, calling home. He recently spent two hours in Manhattan at the Museum of Natural History, checking out the dinosaurs, the sea creatures, the famous giant whale. He has the Bronx Zoo and the local aquarium on deck. He crushes The Legend of Zelda. He's learning to cook, trying his luck with chicken and vegetables, and a steak one time too. "I wouldn't say I'm good," Allen says. "But I'm surviving for a 20-year-old."

It's the simple things that please Allen, who is living alone for the first time. After two decades spent on twin-sized mattresses, he takes great joy in noting that he's expanded to a California King. He has a self-imposed midnight video game cutoff, but sometimes he runs through it, and who's gonna stop him? Nobody. 

Allen seems to be living his best life, balanced and varied. By day, he is a dominant gamer and an explorer of New York City. By night, he is a rising star in the NBA, a vital piece of the Brooklyn Nets' yearslong rebuild. The combination makes him unique, but that's not always the easiest thing to be in the league; questions have been raised about whether Allen can balance basketball with his other interests.

"There's a certain mold that you expect of an NBA player, and when people break the mold, people are like, 'Wow, he's so different,'" says Spencer Dinwiddie, Allen's best friend on the Nets. "But to me, Jarrett is a fairly normal guy, just not a normal NBA player."

He continues: "His passion for the game is underrated. And just because he likes tech things and video games and has passions outside basketball, that doesn't mean he's any less dedicated to being the best center in the league, which I believe he's capable of being."

Spencer Dinwiddie
Spencer DinwiddieCarlos Osorio/Associated Press

In June 2017, Allen was drafted No. 22 by Brooklyn. He entered the league with low immediate expectations. He was raw and skinny, after all, and anyway, non-lottery rookies often tally more nights in the G League than points per game. But Allen hung around as a reserve, surviving.

In December, Carmelo Anthony approached and complimented Allen after a game, providing a jolt of confidence. In January, Allen made two starts. In February, he started every night. He gained steam. In March, his blocks per game climbed toward 2.0. In April, he swatted a career-high five shots against the Bucks, then four the next game and four more in the contest after that.

Allen has the makings of a dominant shot-blocker, and though the modern NBA demands more than that from its centers, Allen has a chance to be more. Defensively, Allen believes he'll one day be capable of switching onto guards, allowing the Nets to oppose small-ball lineups with a legit 6'11" center.

On offense, Allen makes his money moving within the paint. The Nets, says head coach Kenny Atkinson, "all love playing with him because he's gonna sprint into a screen, hit somebody and roll." Allen finishes lobs emphatically. Otherwise, he likes to hang by the rim while ball-handlers do their thing, and if a bounce pass or wraparound handoff comes his way, Allen will collect with soft hands and dunk it home.

Part of Allen's growth in that area stems from his introduction to serious film study. When he entered the league, he struggled with certain tactical matters. It was a yellow flag for Atkinson, who recalls a coaches meeting in which they all wondered to each other: "Does this guy watch basketball? Does he have League Pass? There was a push from coaches, like, 'Son, you better start watching games.' And guess what he did? He started watching games."

He continues: "I'm sure if you asked, 'Would you rather play Overwatch or watch a game?' he'd probably say, 'Overwatch.' That's where people say he's got a peculiar personality. But when challenged with a task, when asked to improve something, he quietly does it."

Specifically, Allen and point guard D'Angelo Russell studied some of the great P&R tandems in recent history, including Chris Paul and Tyson Chandler in New Orleans and Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire in Phoenix. During the playoffs, Allen kept a close eye on Clint Capela and Al Horford.

It's easy to draw similarities to the former, but there is reason to believe that Allen's repertoire may come to resemble Horford's too. His free-throw percentage spiked from 56.4 at Texas to 77.6 last year, providing early evidence of a refined shooting touch. This summer, he's adding muscle and developing new tricks. Namely, he's sampling a Eurostep (to slow himself down on dives to the rim) and improving his three-ball (Allen shoots a couple hundred per practice and claims to hit roughly 50 percent of them).

Count Dinwiddie among the believers. "I think this year you'll see some corner threes, and he'll be more dynamic the stronger and bigger he gets—as an on-ball defender, [guarding] the pick-and-roll, or with brute strength, walling up a dominant post guy, which at times he struggled with last year," he says. "You can't name a skill that he can't really do. Good touch, good post footwork, can shoot the ball, high IQ, he sets screens, he rolls hard, quick hands to steal pocket passes, and he's also vertically gifted enough to block shots at the rim."

Perhaps the only skill missing from that list is the presumed one when it comes to athletic centers: rebounding. Atkinson desperately wants Allen to improve on the glass, where strength and assertiveness rule the day.

Nets coach Kenny Atkinson confers with Jarrett Allen.
Nets coach Kenny Atkinson confers with Jarrett Allen.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Last season, Atkinson benched Allen multiple times because of rebounding issues (which Allen appreciated as tough love). Atkinson would then rip Allen during the ensuing film session. To Atkinson's delight, the big man always seemed to respond.

"He doesn't have an ego," Atkinson says, "but he has a ton of pride, and he doesn't want to fail. That's the part that people were missing with him, because he's smart and he can apply whatever you're teaching."

Allen is one of five core pieces ages 25 or under with whom the Nets will move forward. He is joined up front by Rondae Hollis-Jefferson; Russell, Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert make a lively backcourt triumvirate. Four of them are recent first-round picks, and the fifth, Dinwiddie, finished third in Most Improved Player voting in June. The team's record with these players is not good, but together, they're an inspiring group, not just because they're young and talented but also because they're pioneers, leading the Nets to someplace worth going.

This forthcoming window doesn't merely represent a chance for Brooklyn to be really good—it represents its first chance to be a real franchise. The Brooklyn Nets have never existed in any legitimate, relevant way. At first they were a Jay-Z brand with a contrived team apparently attached, and then they were less than that. But the current group is authentic and pulsing, with fan favorites and player development and everything. It is real: It is incomplete, and it captures the imagination. It has a feel.

"It's a new era," says Allen. "We're going in the right direction."

On a Friday afternoon in June, Allen sits in a booth at his favorite restaurant in Brooklyn, Forno Rosso. Allen arrived late to lunch—traffic—and apologized, which on its own makes him an unusual NBA personality. His trademark Afro is in midseason form. (It's about five years old now, and only Allen's father is allowed to cut it.) He's wearing a generic NBA T-shirt, stamped with the company logo, with gray joggers and checkered shoes. It is a look that neither invites nor discourages recognition. He's happy to chat with fans—or not.

I had suggested we meet at a barbecue joint somewhere to make him feel at home (or else far from it), but he took a liking to Italian food as a kid in Texas. I ask if it's any good there. Allen is careful not to offend the apparent Italian population of Round Rock, his hometown. "You have your spots," he says. "Normally, when I travel, I experience the better ones."

Allen is smart, considerate and easygoing. He has a habit of saying, "I'm not gonna lie," as if a strong opinion is forthcoming, before revealing something unobjectionable, like that he's getting hot during a scorching summer day or that he wishes he had a balcony.

Jarrett Allen, left, defends Dwight Howard.
Jarrett Allen, left, defends Dwight Howard.Chuck Burton/Associated Press

He's tough to shake. When the Nets acquired Dwight Howard this offseason, theoretically blocking Allen's path to a breakthrough sophomore campaign, he was excited; Howard was Allen's favorite player growing up. Then, naturally, he was disappointed but only because he realized he'd have to guard Howard in practice. And then, OK, with great hesitation, Allen admits that the acquisition confused him a little bit, but by the way, he has great faith in Nets general manager Sean Marks and feels respected because Marks called Allen after the deal. (The Nets quickly bought out Howard.)

"That's him in general," Dinwiddie says of Allen's courteous nature. "He's consistently himself, and that's not always the case in the entertainment industry. He's a breath of fresh air."

Jarrett's father, Leonard Allen Sr., played several seasons in Spain before beginning his second career at Dell, where he works as a manager. One might assume that Allen Sr. pushed Jarrett onto his current path, but that wasn't the case at all; Jarrett credits his father with teaching him how to be independent.

"If it's something serious, my dad would step in and give me the advice I need," Jarrett says. "But if it's getting in trouble in school, it's like: 'You did this. You have to take responsibility for your actions, and you can't back down from anything.'"

Allen's mother, Cheryl, is a little more hands-on. "I don't want to call her my agent, but my mom is the person you have to go through," Allen says. He'll be calling her later to rehash this interview. "She just wants to find the best situation for me." When Allen went house-hunting in Brooklyn last year, Cheryl demanded that his building have a full-time doorman. But the love swings both ways: It was Jarrett who chose an apartment with two bedrooms. "When my parents come by," he says, "I don’t want them sleeping on the couch. I gotta have respect for that."

Allen was born in San Diego, but when he was eight, his family made the three-day drive to Round Rock, Texas. There, Allen was a self-described normal kid. He joined the basketball team as an excuse to hang with his friends. He was not a particularly serious student nor a troublemaker, excluding the summer nights when he'd blow past bedtime, usually playing Call of Duty. (It was on the sticks—not the driveway hoop—where Jarrett developed a rivalry with his older brother, Leonard Jr., who would also go on to play Division I ball.)

Allen attended a boarding high school just 45 minutes from home, a stone's throw by Texas standards. It was chosen by Cheryl for its strong academics. Meanwhile, Allen didn't see himself as an athletic standout there, just lanky and tall.

When D-I schools aggressively came calling, he was startled. After all, Allen had never paid attention to that stuff; not only was he oblivious to the circus of college recruiting, but also, he was basically not a sports fan, period. For all his hours spent gaming, he never liked to pop in 2K and still doesn't. He is a supposed Spurs fan who can't quite recall the last time they won the title or for which team Pau Gasol currently plays (it's the Spurs). He's a San Diego native who confuses the Padres with the Dodgers.

"When I got my first offer for D-I, I didn't realize the whole college scene is that big," he says. "I didn't know people were offering money to people to go to college. I didn't experience any of that. ... I was just playing, and I was getting offers from like Baylor and the University of Houston, and it was nice, but I didn't realize until senior year when I had to decide that people wanted to know like immediately."


Jarrett Allen at Texas
Jarrett Allen at TexasChris Covatta/Getty Images

Allen prolonged his decision, skipping the early signing period in November and then the late one in April. In June of 2016, he chose the University of Texas, just 20 minutes from Round Rock. Amid weekly trips home to wash his laundry—and while maintaining a 3.9 GPA—Allen broke through: 13.4 points, 8.4 boards and 1.5 blocks per game.

Any questions regarding his basketball expertise were proven silly. "He got better and better with his capacity for that stuff," says Longhorns head coach Shaka Smart. "The one thing about Jarrett that sets him apart from pretty much any other player I've been around is his desire and his insistence, even, on learning. He's very curious, and he wants to try to figure things out. He'd ask questions, and I think that's a big part of why he made such big strides."

By the end of his freshman season, it was clear that Allen would have a place in the NBA. Worst-case, he'd be a jumpy rim protector; at best, who knows.

And yet, as Allen made his way through the predraft process, teams kept inquiring about something odd. The love-for-the-game thing, Allen calls it.

"People say I don't look interested when I play because I'm not a big emotional guy on the court," he says. "That's probably where it spawned from." It's true that Allen is pretty stoic out there. Look, for example, at his February poster on Lauri Markkanen: After flushing through a one-handed tomahawk, Allen landed directly above his victim—prime taunting position—and simply directed his shoulders upcourt and jogged away.

But more than likely there was another element in play, one that goes beyond Allen's demeanor. It was the idea that Allen—who came to basketball incidentally and because of his height, who only started studying the sport two years ago, who is more inclined to watch science and space clips on YouTube than MJ highlights—didn't fit the profile of a really good basketball player. The very traits that distinguished Allen were being flipped on their heads and served back to him with skepticism.  

Many teams, Allen says: "Were like, 'We heard reports that you aren't in love with the game.' I'm like, 'I don't know where you're getting that.' I remember Portland asked that, and I told them straight up, 'That's bulls--t.'" If Allen curses, he means it.

"I think it's definitely a rare thing that people weren't so into the sport that they're playing professionally," he says. "I love playing it. It's just, outside of that is the whole world, and I don't want to sit 24/7 in front of a basketball."

Smart came to appreciate that side of Allen at UT, but he was not surprised when NBA teams called to ask about it. "Jarrett is so honest. I think he's more honest and authentic than a lot of guys during the interview process," Smart says.

"They'd ask him a question, and he'd give a literal answer. One of the teams was a little taken aback because they said, 'Could you live without the game?' Jarrett said, 'Yeah I could.' What he meant was: 'Literally, yes, I could.' Like that's true for every person. There's very few people who would jump off the top of a tall building. We'd all be upset without basketball, but his point was, 'It doesn't define me.'"


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