Jarrett Allen was immortalized on December 18th, not even two minutes into LeBron James’ first game at Barclays Center as a Los Angeles Laker. If you like basketball, you know the play. James caught a pass at the top of the key, made two strong dribbles with his left hand, then blasted his brick-solid body towards the basket with enough speed and force to clap a sonic boom. What happened next felt like reality malfunctioning.
As LeBron reached for the sky with his right arm extended, Allen—the 6-11 (opulent afro not included) 20-year-old starting center for the Brooklyn Nets—bent his knees, thrust his massive right hand into the air, and, nearly a foot away from the basket, cancelled the dunk.
The incredible play enhanced Allen’s visibility and, dare it be said, changed his life. A bashful soul, he submits to this new reality even when it gets a little annoying. Double takes and shout outs are now inescapable on strolls through his Brooklyn neighborhood, up the aisles of the Gowanus Whole Foods he frequents to shop for food he’ll cook later. When spotted in public, Allen does his best to leave before anyone can make a scene or even realize exactly who he is. The increased attention doesn’t upset him, but it’s clear he’s most comfortable in the background. And in his mind, that’s also where his block on LeBron probably belongs.
“I don’t want to be that guy to make it like, ‘I blocked LeBron!’ and then post it on Twitter,” Allen tells SLAM. “I don’t want to be that guy. I’m still respecting him. He’s an amazing player, I just made the play on him.”
Sitting on a folding chair inside the Nets’ Sunset Park practice facility a couple months later, Allen appreciates the glow that still surrounds that moment, but it comes with a tint of embarrassment, crossed with the even-keeled modesty that defines him. In response to more questions about it—along with his at-the-rim stuffs against Blake Griffin, James Harden, Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo—Allen adopts the tone of a bored contrabassoon: “That’s what I’m here for. That’s what I want to help my team with. So I’m not really super ecstatic about it. I mean, I’m happy about it, but I’m not gonna like jump out of my seat or whatever.”
Bring Allen up with almost anyone around the Nets and “quiet” is the first word that’s used to describe him. “I’m never really the one to outwardly converse and start up a conversation,” he says. (While growing up in Austin, TX, Allen’s general demeanor led people to call him Tim Duncan Jr). That oak-tree stoicism doesn’t go anywhere when he’s on the court, but it’s complemented by a critical fearlessness. Allen throws himself into unforgiving airborne clashes that promise to live on forever, in one form or another, whether he’s victorious or not. “Giannis was like that,” Nets forward Jared Dudley says. “When I played with Giannis four years ago, he would get dunked on once every four or five games. He didn’t care. Jarrett Allen doesn’t care.”
Already one of the League’s most disruptive rim protectors, Allen spends every game actualizing his potential within the confines of his limited role. But as the center position emerges from an identity crisis, his basketball-related ambition exceeds the duties of a rim-rolling gatekeeper. Instead, it mostly revolves around becoming what Al Horford is now: a tide-riser whose mere presence on both ends elevates those around him. “[Horford] is able to spot up at the three. He’s good at passing. He’s good at taking it to the rim. So just a little bit of all of the stuff he does,” Allen says.
This is life as an overlooked cog who’s undeniably invaluable. It feels like a fitting destiny, though one he isn’t particularly close to realizing. Allen’s usage is down from his rookie year, there are very few opportunities within Brooklyn’s offense for him to create his own shot and he isn’t strong or assertive enough to impact this season’s games the same way he someday may. That’s fine. This is only year two, and even the most optimistic expectations have already been surpassed. “He’s embraced contact more than I thought he would when I saw him in the draft,” Chicago Bulls head coach Jim Boylen says. “You’ve gotta give him credit for it. You’ve gotta give him a lot of credit.”
Heading into the All-Star break, Giannis was the only player in the Eastern Conference with more dunks than Allen. (“Trust me,” Memphis Grizzlies rookie Jaren Jackson Jr says. “We account for him.”) There’s confidence in Allen’s outside shot, too, but Brooklyn has understandably resisted giving him a permanent green light on non-corner threes. If he’s wide open, the instruction is to engineer a dribble hand-off with one of Brooklyn’s many capable ball-handlers. But it won’t always be that way.
“I still insist that when I look at his shot and see him practice that he can stretch the floor eventually,” Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson says. Several of Allen’s teammates feel like a $100 million contract is on the horizon, and during a recent appearance on ESPN’s “The Jump,” Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie called Allen “a future top-five center.”
“I look at [Clint] Capela, and you can’t tell me Jarrett can’t be just as good if not better than Capela. I think his shot blocking is already better than Capela right now,” Dudley says. “I think he’s more mobile and active than Rudy Gobert…I think the high is him being an All-Star player, averaging around 19-20 points, 10 rebounds, and about 3-4 blocks.”
All those marks are far from guaranteed, but Allen’s selfless, simple nature makes reaching them extremely plausible. Off the court, his free time better reflects a soft-spoken college junior than a building block for one of the NBA’s most intriguing teams. He sinks into Haruki Murakami novels (“From what I think I know about Japan, they have their traditional side, and then they have their more modern side,” he says. “I just love how they stick to traditions but they’re still evolving.”), glues himself to Nintendo Switch, follows the Overwatch League, peruses Star Wars subreddits, and, whenever possible, constructs 1700-piece Lego sets.
(A Star Wars fan since he was little, watching VHS tapes over and over, Allen was a tad turned off by The Last Jedi: “They tried to put too much comedy in it for me,” he says. “I don’t know how to describe it. Just, like, Luke throwing his lightsaber behind his head was too much.”)
Video games have been a huge part of his life for as long as he can remember. In a league that’s increasingly populated by aspiring media tycoons who leverage their humongous platforms to self-promote, Allen prefers to explore someone else’s creation. Half Life 2 and Zelda: Twilight Princess are two favorites he’d rather play than watch a random game on NBA League Pass (Allen has yet to set up his free account, but it’s on his to-do list).
“When he leaves here he probably plays video games 80 percent of the time,” Dudley says. “He still has that college mentality. That will change, but why do you want that to change right now? Let him live in the moment. Let him have a good time. Let him play basketball and have fun.”
Allen grasps and accepts who he is in a way that’s both refreshing and impressive, a truth that was never more clear than after the Rising Star Challenge at All-Star Weekend, when he tucked his lanky frame behind a small round table for a makeshift post-game press conference. For the next few minutes, Allen politely batted down random questions, including an unexpected inquiry that wondered which hip-hop song he’d choose as his own entrance music before each game, if that sort of thing was ever up to him.
“Darude’s Sandstorm always gets me,” Allen, who doesn’t like hip-hop, says. “You’re gonna laugh, but there’s something about that song that gets me going.” Almost every answer in the session was punctuated by a nervous chuckle: You probably weren’t expecting me to say that but I don’t feel the need to explain why I said it.
There’s a through line from this exact moment to Allen’s pre-draft interview process, when teams likened his low intensity to questions about his desire. “In my eyes I’ve always loved basketball. I just went about showing it differently from everybody else,” he says.
At the time he thought about shifting his answers to appease NBA front offices, but decided it’d be too stressful to manufacture and then maintain an inauthentic facade for the rest of his career. “If I didn’t love basketball they’d be able to tell that I didn’t love basketball,” he says. “So I stuck to what I wanted to say.”
There are instances where Allen’s reticence will clash with his professional curiosity. He wants to know how to shoot like Joe Harris—his teammate and newly crowned Three-Point Contest champion—but never asks him about mechanics or form. Same goes with D’Angelo Russell’s vision. Allen wants to understand how his most talented teammate makes quick decisions with the ball, but never raises it in conversation.
“When I roll and I get the ball, I can’t always score,” Allen says. “So I have to make the decision to pass it. I’m interested to see how [Russell] does that…I never really talk to him about it. I kinda don’t want to steal his style, but I’m gonna try to take pieces from him.” (Russell’s response when asked about this: “He’s definitely a shy dude, just in general. But I think [playmaking] will come naturally as the game slows down for him.”)
Back behind that small round table at All-Star Weekend, Allen is asked about one specific play that occurred midway through the third quarter, when Philadelphia 76ers phenom Ben Simmons (who he’ll meet in the playoffs) attempted a dunk that wasn’t too far removed from what LeBron tried a week before Christmas. Once again, Allen denied an easy two points. But before he could comment on the decision to play defense in a defense-optional exhibition, Rodions Kurucs, Allen’s Brooklyn teammate, interrupted with insight that was at once obvious and necessary.
“He never hesitates,” the rookie said, eyes wide, still bordering on disbelief. “He always goes for everything!”
Michael Pina is an NBA reporter who lives in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVPina.
Photos via Getty.