As a freshman, Kadeem Allen was at a level of college basketball he didn’t seek, playing a role he didn’t know and in a place he didn’t really like.
A year later, the incoming Arizona Wildcats guard from Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College turned himself into the junior college player of the year.
You could say it worked out pretty well.
“This was the best decision I could have made,” said Allen, after receiving the NJCAA honor Monday. “They developed me. I’m more of a leader on the court, more mature and I developed a shot.”
One glance at the Hutchinson stat sheet is proof enough. Despite having a sore wrist much of the season, Allen played in 33 of 34 games, averaging 25.9 points, 7.2 rebounds and 5.9 assists. He had 13 games of 30 or more points and three triple-doubles.
“He played through his injury and was the same all year,” Hutchinson coach Steven Eck said. “Thank goodness he did.”
Ravaged with other injuries, Hutchinson didn’t make the national juco tournament but did finish 26-8 thanks in large part to Allen’s contributions.
While Allen was also an NJCAA all-American as a freshman and sophomore, there were times during his freshman season when it wasn’t clear he would ever earn such an award. Because there was no telling if he would stick around.
A 6-foot-3-inch combo guard from Wilmington, N.C., Allen defaulted to the junior college route because he was short of academically qualifying for a four-year school, and turned away a chance to go the prep school route.
Not long after he arrived, Allen wondered if he was doing the right thing.
“When I first got here, I was ready to go home the first week,” Allen said. “You have to really be disciplined. It’s boring. I was seriously thinking about leaving but called my mom and she told me to stick it out.”
He did, but Hutchinson assistant coach Jay Cyriac said Allen had a case of homesickness that extended well into his freshman season. He was still a threat to leave.
“There was a time I thought he was going to go home for good,” Cyriac said. “But his grandpa (his mother’s father) and his mom were so strong that they helped him grow up a little bit. He was crying once and his grandpa told him,‘You’re not coming home.’ ”
On the court, the adjustment wasn’t easy, either. Allen was forced to play point guard for much of his freshman year because of an injury to the Blue Dragons’ starter. While he had played the point in high school, this was different.
“He was really used to playing without the ball,” Cyriac said. “But he embraced it, the shifting to running a team. Instead of scoring, he learned to pass the ball better, and he developed a shot. When he first got here, I thought we’d have to buy a new backboard because he shot so hard.”
Ultimately, what carried Allen through it all on and off the court was a deep love of the game. Cyriac said that much was clear in the way Allen works out on his own and in the way he studies the game.
He’s a coach on — and off — the floor.
Once, in a game at Butler County (Kan.) during the 2012-13 season, Cyriac said Allen suggested a halftime adjustment that paid off in the Blue Dragons’ victory.
“He took the marker out of coach Eck’s hand,” Cyriac said. “He had a great idea for spacing when they were packing the zone on us. I sat there and was like, ‘Yeah, that makes sense.’ ”
Eck said he didn’t recall that specific instance but that Allen always had an acute awareness of what was going on.
“I don’t have to coach him too much,” Eck said. “He’s going to be a good coach someday. I know he knows the game.”
As a sophomore, Allen continued to grow by moving back to a full-time scoring role, but having to do so while defenses threw box-and-ones and other tricks designed to stop him or deny him the ball.
He scored anyway. And, while shooting was a weakness as a freshman, he improved to a 30.5-percent three-point shooter as a sophomore.
“In some games it was frustrating, but it was also a challenge,” Allen said. “I became a better player because I had to start moving without the ball. Shooting became a big part of my game.
“Defenses were so used to backing off me and letting me shoot. When they backed off, I shot the jumper. My confidence got better and better.”
Especially with the expected loss of Nick Johnson, the Wildcats will need Allen’s scoring help next season.
But the strongest part of his game is driving to the basket, scoring and attracting fouls, meaning he could need more than the 180 pounds or so on his lanky frame.
Cyraic said Allen excelled with his style at Hutch despite his frame because of his toughness and body control, but he added life in the Pac-12 will be a bit different.
“A lot of it depends on how hard he works this summer,” Cyriac said. “We don’t have training tables (for meals). It’s a junior college, so there’s only so much we can do. Kadeem should put on 15-20 pounds. He’s gotta do it.”
But chances are pretty good he will do what’s necessary. That is, if you consider the combination of UA’s intensive offseason conditioning program with Allen’s passion for what’s ahead.
“I think everybody is going to be happy,” Cyriac said. “He’s a good kid. He won’t get into trouble. He realizes basketball is his future. He’s excited about Arizona. It’s going to be fun for him, and for Arizona.”