Why Jarrett Allen Could Be the All-Star Nobody Saw Coming

Last offseason, Jarrett Allen and the Cleveland Cavaliers agreed to a five-year, $100 million deal. Such a decision has been met with skepticism from some corners of the basketball world.

People cited the arrival of third overall pick Evan Mobley, a hugely talented prospect who could be maxed out long-term at center. They worried that Allen, while good, might not be good enough to commit for half a decade. Others feared that the two great men could not coexist properly.

None of the points was totally unfounded. But they felt a little like getting bogged down in the thick of it, while ignoring the fact that Cleveland, a non-destination market, retained an excellent young player at a reasonable price.

For half the season, all those feelings died down.

Mobley is navigating as an NBA Rookie of the Year favorite and a rock-solid future superstar. The Cavs outscore their opponents by 6.0 points per 100 possessions when Allen and Mobley share the floor. Allen made the leap from rising young center to deserving All-Star. Despite season-ending injuries to Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio — as well as other enduring ailments and absences — Cleveland is the sixth seed at 24-18, destined for its first playoff appearance since 2017-18.

As the team’s best player, Allen is at the heart of this prosperity. In 34 games, he averaged career highs in points (16.9), rebounds (10.9), assists (1.8), blocks (1.5), steals (0.9) and true fire percentage (71.7). When the All-Star reserves are announced next month, Allen is among the East picks and rightly so.

Part of his outstanding production stems from playing a career-high 32.6 minutes per game. Per 100 possessions, his rebounding, assisting, and blocking numbers don’t stand out from previous years. Allen, nonetheless, is certainly building on the fundamental skills that made Cleveland keep him. He is one of the most improved players in the league, enjoying substantial progress on both sides of the ball.

After being a good defender in his first four seasons, he is building a case for an All-Defensive Team honor in 2021-22. Trotting three 7-footers most nights, Cleveland owns the NBA’s fourth-largest defense in the East, thanks in large part to outstanding contributions from Allen. He’s 10th in the league with a plus-1.7 defensive DRIP, which is a projection of a player’s plus-minus contribution to the team per 100 defensive possessions, among players with at least 800 minutes this season.

It has become one of the best rim protectors this year and is perhaps the best so far. Opponents are shooting 16.7% worse than their average on shots within six feet of the rim, the biggest drop among players who have had at least 100 attempts, according to NBA.com.

Allen has notoriously been on the wrong end of various poster dunks throughout his career, but that’s because he’s always willing to play with the ball. This willingness to never embrace a trade decision benefits him and the Cavs. He covers ground fairly quickly, is hyper-aware as an assist, is a practitioner of verticality, and has a wingspan of 7ft 6in that looks more like 8ft 6in when turning away from oncoming scorers. reverse.

At times this season, he’s achieved a much-vaunted rim protection feature: inducing a pass by his mere presence and dismissing whoever receives said pass. He also regularly keeps his hands high to deter shots.

His tendency to play with active hands extends to his pick-and-roll coverage, where Allen is threatening. It’s also a platform where he showcases his enhanced mobility, fueled by quick feet and the ability to flip his hips concisely in response to changes in direction.

Cleveland demands a lot of his big men defensively and he’s proven capable. He can play screen-level to contain practices, act as the weak side man to take advantage of his size and length, and still maintains sharp hands. Between rim protection and ball-screening exploits, he’s been an unquestionably dominant inside defender.

Because Allen is spending a few minutes alongside another elite inside defender at Mobley, he’s tasked with operating comfortably on the perimeter during stretches. His leap in this regard alleviated some of the concerns between their matches and amplified the couple’s profits.

When he moved on to ball handlers, he does pretty well. He’ll play the highlight like he’s a wing defender tasked with frustrating pilots with stunts and recoveries. His quick hands and fluidity against changes of direction are essential. Part of his newfound wealth and growth outside of the paint is revealed by a career-high 1.3 interceptions per 48 minutes.

If Allen resigned himself inside to thrive defensively, he and Mobley wouldn’t fit in as well. But in many ways, these two are largely interchangeable in their roles together, which makes the Cavs’ defense all the more stifling.

The contexts in which each excels are quite broad. He was expected for Mobley. Still, it was a welcome and crucial development for Allen, allowing this team’s atypical Tower City defensive approach to shine.

Although he has such large and extensive defensive responsibilities all over the pitch, he almost never commits fouls. Because he is disciplined, shrewd in his stance, and remarkably sharp in the use of his hidden claws, he averages just 2.8 fouls per 100 possessions.

Great defenders have mastered the art of making an impact on possessions without compromising their playing time due to possible foul issues. Allen has accomplished that momentum this season and it’s pretty impressive.

While it mostly fits rim runner criteria, it’s a term that often entails severe limitations and ignores the nuances of the archetype. Yes, his main duties are setting up screens and completing games around the edge. But he’s more than that, and running to the edge goes far beyond just catching the ball and putting it in the hoop.

Some guys in this role struggle to convert into traffic or create screens (Daniel Gafford, Mitchell Robinson and Robert Williams come to mind, though Williams is a bit different as a fabulous passer). They lack momentum. Allen is quite competent in all three areas and brings dynamism.

It contacts its picks and will reverse the angle or re-screen if necessary. Endowed with refined patience and acumen, he is not neutralized by an impending defender between him and a bucket; he will make a false shot and extend around or through them to score. Getting the ball on deck for a dribble or two isn’t a failure like it is for others in a similar position. He is also a heady mover and cleverly drifts through space to conjure passing windows for his teammates.

More importantly, he’s shooting a staggering career-high 75.8% at the rim. For reference, Rudy Gobert, the man renowned for converting almost anywhere near the hoop, is shooting a career-high 72.6% there this season.

Passing maestros like Rubio and Darius Garland undoubtedly helps Allen’s production, but being a reliable relief valve for them, given their interior scoring limitations, is incredibly valuable. Many offenses and ballhandlers are crippled without a reliable rolling threat.

Allen makes sure these two can focus on their strengths as brilliant enablers. He’s formed devastating chemistry with all of them (here’s a speedy recovery, Ricky) and understands the vast ways he can make himself available as a roller.

Assuming notable scoring volume is a skill, as it usually implies some level of useful versatility or prominence in specific skills. Most guys in a role similar to Allen can’t handle a scoring load that produces 16.9 points per game on high-level efficiency. This is why they are presented less prominently.

Among players with at least 800 minutes and a position estimate of 90 or more (1 is a real point guard, while 100 is a traditional center), only Nikola Jokic (plus-4.5), Jonas Valanciunas (1.5 ), Christian Wood (1.1), Jusuf Nurkic (0.5), Gobert (0.5), Steven Adams (0.4) and Nikola Vucevic (0.3) have higher offensive DRIP than Allen (0. 2).

Wielding patience, an off-ball sense, effective screen setting and unbridled dominance as a game finisher, Allen is capable. That’s part of what sets him apart from non-All-Star rim racers.

He’s by no means a guy Cleveland calls on to trash the self-creation charge, though maturing in that regard includes part of his All-Star bid.

He’s a master of the pivot, tricked defenders with counterfeits and incorporated a silky hook shot. His favored offices are elbow and low block, and he can finish with both hands. The growth isn’t overwhelming, but it’s there and further bolsters his All-Star efforts this season.

Outside of a few self-made chops, Allen walks away from the rim locker with a passing vision. Cleveland can trust him as a snap decision maker. While Mobley is his go-to distributor on the short roll or from the high post, Allen is a viable substitute.

These two work the high-low game hard. Allen hits the cutters and shooters for a good appearance. When asked to be the trigger man, he won’t lose his mind if the initial option isn’t available. Even though plus passing isn’t the lead singer of his game, he’s still a member of the band.

Nearly three months into the regular season, the Cavs are just three games behind the two seeds, 2.5 behind the three seeds and 1.5 behind the four seeds. Hosting a playoff this spring is a legitimate possibility.

Driving this possibility is the three-headed, star-charged core of Allen, Garland, and Mobley. At least one of them is expected to join next month’s festivities as an All-Star. Maybe two of them even get the invitation to stay in Cleveland during the break. If there’s only one, though, Allen is the guy. He is an elite defender and finisher. He honed his defensive versatility and individual scoring.

Only a handful of big men have been better this season, and they’re all locked in for the 2022 All-Star Game – a recognition that Allen’s game and development also warrant.

Nothing less undersells it.


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Data modeling by Matt Scott. Design by Matt Sisneros.

Elizabeth J. Harless