DENVER -- Conversations with rookie Tony Allen should come with a proceed-at-your-own-risk warning.
He talks about improving his midrange jumper and shoots imaginary 15-footers. With each flick of the wrist miming a perfect follow-through, he shouts, "Wet," preferring the playground slang for a basket. Asked how the word "wet" came into use, Allen shrugs and looks off into the distance. His mind wanders between his past growing up on the west side of Chicago, where he first learned the game, and the future he envisions at the FleetCenter with a perfected jump shot.
"I'm coming off screens and it's wet," said Allen. "Pull up, `Wet. Wet. Wet. Wet.' Once I get that J down, I think I'm going to be an All-Star, a real All-Star."
The thought of All-Stars takes Allen in a different direction, away from memories of Chicago and straight to the Pepsi Center where he will play in the Rookie Challenge tonight. But not even the prospect of sharing the national stage with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony keeps his attention. Allen remembers watching the trio in last year's contest while at college and the subject switches to Oklahoma State. There is no telling when Allen will return to the here and now.
The leaps of logic, if you can call them that, are harder to fathom than some of the dunks Allen thrills crowds with. More than his jump shot, Allen struggles with focus. One moment, he can be spectacular on the court, using his athleticism and instincts to create a path to the basket. The next moment, he can be spectacularly ordinary, committing a turnover or missing a defensive rotation. As scattered as a conversation with Allen can be, his trouble staying focused serves as a unifying theme.
"I was so unfocused in practice, I thought [coach] Doc [Rivers] was about to put me out of practice," said Allen after a short workout prior to the All-Star break. "That's the biggest key, still. Focus."
Instead of dismissing Allen from practices, Rivers yells at the rookie. Sometimes it seems like the shouting is nonstop. Sometimes it angers Allen to the point he has trouble keeping his emotions in check. But it has proven the most effective way of keeping the 23-year-old on task. Even Allen grudgingly acknowledges, "It's all love," aimed at making him a better player. He certainly cannot complain about the results 53 games and 14 starts into the season.
"He's not skilled enough and he doesn't have enough basketball knowledge to not have focus and intensity," said Rivers. "That's when his game goes up and down. He can't think his way through things yet because he's just too young. Once he gets focus, intensity, and skill, it's all over. He's going to be a hell of a player.
"I probably spend more time with Tony than anybody [in practice] because he doesn't focus half the time. For you to be a great player, you have to be a great practice player, too. Not great as far as performance, but great as far as focus. Sometimes he gets upset [when I get on him]. But my job is not to make Tony happy. My job is to make Tony a better basketball player."
With his wavering intensity and focus, it makes all Allen has accomplished this season all the more impressive and the future all the more exciting. He has emerged as the star of the Celtics' rookie crop. But in fairness to younger Delonte West and Al Jefferson, Allen's four years of college-level experience, plus his ability to stay free of major injury during the regular season, have helped him progress faster. If Jefferson had not suffered a high right ankle sprain Jan. 26 against Indiana, he probably would have been named to the rookie team instead of Allen. As it turned out, yesterday Jefferson replaced Charlotte's Emeka Okafor, who has a left ankle sprain.
Even before Jefferson went down, however, Allen was on the rise. Rivers inserted Allen into the starting lineup Jan. 22 in Atlanta and the young guard has not disappointed. He scored a career-high 20 points against the Hawks that night. He has averaged 8.6 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 21.5 minutes per game since joining the starting lineup.
Although many were skeptical when Rivers said Allen could start before the end of the season, the move was recognition of both the rookie's strengths and weaknesses. Rivers thought Allen was a better fit with Paul Pierce and Gary Payton. Again, it comes back to focus.
"I thought the more talented players he plays with will help him," said Rivers. "Sometimes, when he has a flawed night, the stars hide those flaws because no one is paying attention to what he's doing. When he was with the second unit, I thought his flaws really showed because they actually needed him to play well and to be consistent. So, I think it's actually easier for him in the starting lineup."
Before joining the starting lineup, Allen averaged 5.5 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 13.7 minutes. And that was just fine for someone who wasn't even sure he would play Division 1 basketball. Poor grades made Allen ineligible coming out of Crane High School in Chicago. Even though he averaged 16.5 points and 6.1 rebounds as a freshman with Butler County (Kansas) Community College, he wasn't recruited by a top college program.
Allen switched to Wabash Valley (Ill.) Junior College his sophomore year, averaged 14.5 points and 5.3 rebounds and lost some of his aversion to academics. He also caught the attention of Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton while leading Wabash Valley to a 32-6 record and fourth-place finish in the NJCAA championship. It was a scholarship offer from Sutton that changed Allen's life. Looking back, Allen figures, given his short attention span, it was only fitting he made three somewhat quick college stops on the way from high school to the NBA.
"I didn't expect [a Division 1] scholarship," said Allen. "I really didn't. I just thought as soon as I got the chance to play for a Division 1 school, I was going to make the best of it. I was fortunate enough that Eddie Sutton took the chance on me and went from there.
"He took a chance on me when I was a JUCO kid and had a bad reputation. I've thanked him for that ever since. I remember [before I went to Oklahoma State] I asked him, `How do you know I'm going to play here if you recruit so many kids?' He said, `If you work hard, play defense, and do what I tell you on and off the court, there's no reason you shouldn't play.' He also told me I had a chance to play at the next level if I came to his school. He's been nothing but honest with me. Everything he told me to do, I did it. It's gotten me successful so far."
Knowing the hard work and discipline it took to earn Big 12 Player of the Year honors as a senior and become the first player in Oklahoma State history to surpass the 1,000-point mark in two seasons, Allen doesn't like to be identified only with his dunks. He hopes his defense will gain notice someday, along with a reworked jump shot. For now, he views dunks as the only way he can get some offense going when playing with Pierce, Payton, and Ricky Davis.
But Allen believes, if he keeps his eye on the ball, bigger and better opportunities await.