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The subtle evolution of Jarrett Allen

New Orleans Pelicans v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

BROOKLYN, N.Y. --- “Whatever I can do to help the team win, that’s what I’m going to do…”

These were the words that flowed easily off the tongue of Brooklyn’s reflective center Jarrett Allen on Media Day streamlined straight from his pensive mind. At the time, the soon-to-be third-year pro was discussing his role in the crucial season ahead.

After reportedly tacking on 15 extra pounds, some expected that “The Fro” would take ‘the leap’ in 2019-2020; generically speaking, Year 3 is when we typically learn if our precocious prospects are diamond-cut studs or just run-of-the-mill acrylic gemstones. To the untrained eye, it might appear as if Allen’s glow is more toward the gemstone end of the scale. In seven games, he’s seen his scoring drop from 10.9 points to 9.1, his celebrated blocks decrease by a notable whisker and, most important of all, his starting position evaporate. After all, he’s only started 57 percent of Brooklyn’s total games. (Small sample theater alert.)

Jarrett, 21, is Brooklyn’s youngest starter by three-and-half years. No longer the man in the middle for a cutesy on-the-bubble playoff team, “The Fro” entered this season – like many of his incumbent brethren – with larger responsibilities, fresh new teammates and sparkling feelings of energy. Through seven games, those ingredients haven’t always conjured up the most enchanting of basketball potions. After coming off the bench in the loss to Memphis, Allen detailed his play to kick-start the year.

“You know, I would say [I’ve been struggling] a little bit. I turned the ball over, and not making shots I need to, not being assertive like I need to,” Allen said in a remarkable outburst of self-criticism not often heard in NBA locker rooms. “It’s a mixture of both; I need to be assertive and I also need to calm down.”

It’s times like this when we must remember: Many of our beloved players are so dang young. Barely able to purchase a pack of Trulys, most kids his age are pondering what easy elective classes will boost their college GPAs (I’m certainly guilty of this in the not-so-distant past). Allen, on the other hand, is now expected to quarterback a championship pedigree defense. Early season jitters and patterns of nervous energy are understandable, if not expected. And if we zoom-in a little deeper, the 6’11” former first-round pick is taking mammoth-sized baby steps —is that a thing?— in the right direction.

As it stands, just four players on the Nets’ roster are producing a positive net-rating: Brooklyn’s royal-heir-in-the-wings Caris LeVert (at 3.7), MVP candidate Kyrie Irving (at 5.8), 40 percent marksman Taurean Prince (at 7.6) and the front of it all is Jarrett Allen, whose 12.1 net rating silently leads his team. The statty accolades go on and on: He’s fourth on the team in VORP, first in average plus-minus (+7!!), fourth in win-shares and second in PER.

As Brooklyn Larry David might say, “pretty, pretty good.”

Allen’s soundless statistical impact is quite congruent with who he is as a person. (I find this to be the case quiet often; players’ behavioral patterns tend to be personified in their play.) He passes time by “lurking around Reddit,” dismantling and reconstructing computers and building his LEGO sets meticulously, piece by piece. Reserved as he may be, there’s no denying he’s an intellectual guy. (He’s an American who spells favorite as “favourite.” That’s free admission into Oxford in my eyes.)

That brilliant mind glows on the hardwood. After establishing himself as one of the league’s premier shot-blockers just a season ago, Allen has only improved as a rim-shielding guardian. Opposing players are shooting just 52.8 percent in the restricted area with Jarrett Allen hovering nearby – a top-10 mark among centers who have contested at least 20 total shots. That is a dramatic improvement from a season ago when opponents connected on 60.2 percent of their total restricted area attempts.

Outside of the causal humiliating block on your favorite neighborhood superstar, Jarrett’s game is a neo-classical symphony of minutiae: Hard screens, clever decoys in the form of rigorous rolls to the basket and willful weak-side assistance. It all epitomizes Allen as an NBA hooper. “The Fro”’s background music-like imprint is the continuous tune that births ingenuity from his teammates, yet very rarely does his name pop from the stat-sheet.

Jarrett Allen is a league-leading opposing-defense demolisher with an endless source of screen assists (5.3 per game – sixth-best among those who qualified). Setting picks isn’t exactly the flashiest basketball attribute, especially when compared to someone like Caris LeVert, whose spidery, willowy game jumps off the sheet music like a shrill arpeggio. But Jarrett’s willingness to put his body on the line is just as important. After all, he holds the Nets’ harmonics together.

Take a look at the possession below. NBA’s play-by-play library accredits Kyrie Irving with the made 26-foot pull-up three which, to be fair, Irving knocked own like the future Hall of Fame sniper that he is. What the database doesn’t encapsulate is Allen’s pair of excellent picks – the first of which allows Taurean Prince to sprint on by as a decoy, and his second (a whirl-winding pivot into a reverse screen), which clears ample space for Irving to dribble into an uncontested look from deep-land.

More than likely, Allen isn’t a star down the line. He’s not a soloist who can improvise like a featured violinist. Knowing this, it appears he’s turned his attention toward becoming a star within his role as Brooklyn’s unwavering bassist. He’s only improved at the things he’s already proficient at, ranking in the 87th percentile as a pick-and-roll big. Yet, if you pay attention closely, you’ll notice Allen is starting to step outside of his comfort zone.

Allen’s presence on the glass has improved substantially, and he’s grabbing nearly an additional rebound-and-a-half per game (9.7 boards this season). He’s improved greatly at securing the ball in traffic, snagging 34 total contested rebounds this season – eighth best among the 261 players who qualified. It appears former teammate and energizer bunny Ed Davis made a lasting impression on Brooklyn’s center of the future. As of late, “The Fro” is showcasing an “Iron Man Ed” tenacity on the offensive glass, and his 24 total offensive boards are tied for the fourth-most in the association.

(I, personally, LOVE the idea of using Jarrett Allen as a crash-the-offensive-glass pest. He’s so lengthy with his 7’6” wingspan and so springy for his size. Going against the grain and honing in on second-chance points is such a delightfully antiquated, yet refreshing, approach.)

For quite some time, I’ve privately fantasized over Allen transforming into a switchable center. I don’t want to sound the alarm just yet, but we may be getting our first taste of panko crust from that long trail of breadcrumbs. After supergluing his massive frame to the painted area for all of last season, Jarrett’s made concerted efforts in stepping out to the arc during Year 3.

Are these good, much less decent closeouts? Well, no, but what matters is that he’s trying. This type of effort was nonexistent a season ago, and if things break right, Allen could cultivate the necessary skills to extinguish Kenny Atkinson’s need for a drop-coverage defense.

The tools are already there for Allen to blossom into this type of a player – smooth footwork on defense, cunning hands and freakish height – and with more reps like possessions above, he’ll only improve over time. Already a “good” 59th percentile catch-and-shoot defender (per Synergy), we could be peering into the window of a very bright future, face-to-face with Jarrett Allen, manning the stomping grounds, the versatile big in Brooklyn’s nightmarish 1-though-5 switching defense.

It appears I’m not the only one who sees Allen’s subtle tinkerings and gradual improvements. Just this week, the man himself told Tom Dowd of the Nets official site that he can feel himself growing as a professional. “I think last year I struggled with talking,” said Allen. “I was being silent on defense. But now I’ve seen a big jump for myself.”

It’s easy to overlook Jarrett Allen’s subtle game, and many surveyors have scapegoated the Texas native for his team’s early struggles. Questions about his long-term fit are certainly worth asking. Does the kid project as a starter on a championship team? Only time will tell, you know, but I’m certainly optimistic about his future. Rather than criticizing Allen for his shortcomings, perhaps it’s best to appreciate the young’un for what he brings to the table…

Jarrett Allen is the booming baritone in Brooklyn’s chorus, steering the Nets’ melodies with his low somber notes, one ball-screen at a time.