Editor’s note: This is the second edition of KSR’s preseason previews for the upcoming 2020-21 Kentucky basketball season. The first featured Davion Mintz, which can be found here.
There wasn’t a defender in Kentucky capable of slowing down Pendleton County star guard Dontaie Allen at the onset of his senior campaign. Averaging an absurd 42.9 points and 14.2 rebounds per contest, including six 50-point games and 12 double-doubles in his first 13 outings, Allen was terrorizing the opposition and torching nets each time he stepped on the court.
Emerging quickly as the runaway favorite in Kentucky to earn the state’s prestigious Mr. Basketball honors, the 6-foot-6 guard was on pace to break “King” Kelly Coleman’s state scoring record of 4,337 career points and cement himself as one of the greatest players to ever come out of the Commonwealth. He had dreams of representing his hometown of Falmouth in the Sweet 16 and raising the state championship trophy at Rupp Arena before making the historic venue his permanent home in college.
And then December 22, 2018 happened.
At the time, there was optimism Allen suffered a simple knee sprain, an injury that was expected to keep him out just a week or two. Initial X-rays for an MCL tear at the UK Medical Center came back negative and the star guard could still walk, albeit with a noticeable limp. In a follow-up visit to UK, doctors declared him day-to-day after seeing “normal” MRI results.
With continued aggravation, Allen returned for further testing two weeks after the initial injury. This time, though, the results weren’t as kind for the beloved local standout, as a new MRI revealed he had suffered a torn ACL and would need season-ending surgery.
“Dear Senior Tour, you’re being cut short,” Allen announced following the news. “You brought many blessings and hardships to me that I wouldn’t trade for the world. God blessed me with talent and work ethic, but he’s not going to let me stop now. Thank you all!! I will be back and better than ever!”
He would finish his career with 3,255 total points (tenth in state history) and 1,228 rebounds (22nd in state history), but the possibility for more left a pit in the stomach of a Pendleton County community – specifically the 1,200-person, 1.3-square-mile town of Falmouth – that had embraced Allen since his local stardom began in grade school. They were short-changed the fairytale ending their native son was undoubtedly creating.
As if Allen’s shortened senior season and anticipated rehab time wasn’t brutal enough, the four-star signee also broke his collarbone in a car accident just four months later, another injury that needed surgery and would push his timeline for return back even further.
“I remember the day he got in his accident, we all rushed to the hospital not knowing how bad it was,” Allen’s uncle and trainer Joe Allen told KSR. “One more challenge he had to face and overcome. … I think he showed, to me, a kid that became a man. He learned how quickly it can all be taken away. It put him in a position to see the other end of it. He went from leading the nation in scoring to not knowing what the future holds.”
“I learned that I am very resilient,” Allen told the media Friday afternoon. “I’ve never gone through really anything like I’ve gone through the last three years.”
At the time of his commitment to Kentucky back in August of 2018, Allen anticipated joining the program and making an instant on-court impact as a true freshman. Instead, the Kentucky guard was forced to sit out and redshirt the entire 2019-20 season while simultaneously rehabbing his knee and collarbone.
“Back and better than ever,” Allen said immediately after the torn ACL. It’s a promise many athletes make after suffering devastating injuries. Some find ways to back up their word, others struggle to get back to their old selves, whether that be physically or mentally.
Publicly, the former four-star guard said all the right things and provided an optimistic outlook. Even privately, Allen put on a brave face with family and friends, never showing overwhelming doubt or worry in his long-term recovery.
Still, though, those close to the Kentucky signee knew the pain he was going through at the time and understood the difficult road ahead.
“He was always kind of downplaying the adversity,” Joe Allen said. “I think it was a challenge that he’s never faced before. It was hard to talk him through that.”
Known as a skill-heavy player with a pure knack for scoring, Allen’s family stressed the fact that he doesn’t have to worry about losing a step or not being able to out-jump his peers. He’s hard-wired to score, and that gift remains.
“His development, his psychological development through that process was definitely one of the hardest challenges our family has faced,” Allen continued. “He had to grow up fast. I told him, “You’re not Derrick Rose, you don’t rely on a 42-inch vertical. You’re a very skilled basketball player and the world is going to see your talent.”
“I think, honestly, it’s made me a stronger person. That can only carry on to the court,” the Kentucky guard said. “I think that is going to bring a lot of good things to come on and off the court. It’s kind of a blessing in disguise.”
Last December, the Kentucky basketball program traveled to Las Vegas for a two-game event against Utah and Ohio State. The very first practice upon Kentucky’s arrival was open to the media, where the Wildcats participated in full-court runs and thorough drills. “Can you go?” Calipari asked Allen after the easy walkthrough concluded and the heavy lifting of practice began. The freshman guard, nearly one year removed from his torn ACL, responded with a simple, hesitant head shake.
While the rest of the team ramped up the intensity, Allen was off to the side dribbling and getting soft shots up on the side hoops. He wasn’t ready, nor did it look like he would be, physically or mentally, anytime soon.
Less than two months later, though, Calipari turned heads by noting that Allen was slowly picking up the pace in practice and working to get in shape for a possible end-of-year return.
“Dontaie met with me. We are going to give him a little time to condition. I may start playing Dontaie,” he said following Kentucky’s home victory over Mississippi State. “He went through a workout like with our team, like doing individuals, and I had never seen him go that hard, like ever.
“I went, “That’s who you are now? Are you ready to go?” But what I don’t want to do is use his year if I don’t intend to play him. I’m not going to play him 30 seconds or a minute and use his year up. I won’t do that to the kid.”
That time nearly came for Allen, as Calipari said prior to Kentucky’s season finale at Florida that, with the Wildcats down to just seven available scholarship players, he was ready to ask the in-state prospect if he wanted to take the floor in Gainesville.
The opportunity never presented itself, as the Wildcats managed to pull off the comeback victory without Allen needing to see the floor, but it was still a development that left Calipari giddy about what is to come in 2020-21.
“Finally, the last month of the season, he started playing at a level with intensity and conditioning that he could’ve played in games,” the Kentucky head coach said after the season came to an abrupt close in late March. “But it was only the last month of the season. He was still learning plays, spacing, press attacks, zone stuff. He was still learning all that, but he would’ve been able to get in games. I’m not saying playing ten straight minutes, but he could’ve gone in the game and held his own.
“By the end of the year, [Allen] was in the best spirit to play and wanted to play. … I’m excited for him coming back, and I think he’s excited.”
Despite Allen’s desires to return and his physical readiness to do so late in the year, his family is grateful Calipari and the entire UK basketball program prioritized the 6-foot-6 guard’s long-term health and provided a plan for complete recovery they could trust.
“It was a struggle for him, but I feel like the University of Kentucky put him on a path that he might not have gotten anywhere else,” Joe Allen said. “A program like UK, the support system they have provided, they put him on the correct path to recovery. Not only physically, but psychologically.”
With a complete season of recovery, the focus now turns entirely to the comeback effort this season.
“Back and better than ever.”
13 games into his senior season at Pendleton County, Allen was on the cusp of greatness. Had he played a full season maintaining his 43-point-per-game average and led the Wildcats on a deep postseason run, Coleman’s all-time state scoring record was there for the taking. This came after a dominant junior campaign that saw Allen average 31.8 points and 11.4 rebounds per game, including 59.1 percent from the field and 39.6 percent from three.
And with every standout performance came a sellout crowd, with the bleachers packed and a line out the door every time Allen took the floor.
It was a community that rallied behind Allen’s career from start to finish not simply because he was an exciting player and filled the box score every night, but because they needed a star to hold on to through challenging times.
“Words wouldn’t describe what that community has done in showing their support for Dontaie,” Joe Allen told KSR. “He’s literally Pendleton County’s pride, he restored pride in that community after it went through some hard times with the economy, stores closing. He rejuvenated Falmouth, Kentucky.”
Allen’s efforts to make history both individually and by leading Pendleton County to a state title came up short, through no fault of his own. Knowing he would not be able to reap the fruits of his labor at the high school level, and they wouldn’t be able to enjoy it with him, the community hurt.
Now, though, the time they lost watching Allen play will be made up when he makes his official Kentucky debut at Rupp Arena this year.
“Those people are really grateful and proud that he’s a hometown kid, I know they’re eager and excited to see him out there on the floor for the first time,” Allen said. “He’s definitely held up on a pedestal in that community. The thing people need to know about Dontaie, it’s not an image. He’s a good kid and he has developed into a good man right in front of our eyes.”
That much-anticipated return to the floor is something Allen has been working toward all summer, spending long days in the gym with trainers and coaches to not get back to where he was before, but truly better. To do so, he had to develop a can’t-lose mindset and a brand new appreciation for the game.
“I had a couple of injuries obviously and went through a lot of things, but just knowing that every day you’ve got to—it’s almost like your life’s on the line,” the Kentucky guard said. “That’s kind of the mentality that I’ve got. Like, my life is on the line every day and if I don’t give that kind of effort into it, I’m not going to make it. … I think early on that was very apparent because it can be taken away. I still haven’t been able to play in any games since 2018, the end of 2018. That’s how easy it can happen.”
“This kid is the real deal. He’s going through the weeds, and he’s come out the other side stronger,” Joe Allen added. “Mentally, he’s laser-sharp when it comes to his focus. He still hasn’t shown the world who Dontaie is, but once they figure out how talented he is, he’s going to have some opportunities to play this game for a long time. That’s why he’s at Kentucky.”
Questions of health, timetables for return, and rehab are no longer necessary for the former four-star guard. Instead, Allen is now able to talk about what he brings to the table as a player and the kind of impact he’s ready to make in his do-over freshman campaign.
The same questions he answered and conversations he had when Dontaie Allen was Pendleton County superstar Dontaie Allen back in 2017 and 2018.
“I think a big thing is shooting,” Allen said. “But even that just working hard on both ends of the ball, being a good leader on and off the floor to all of the freshmen coming in because I’m a sophomore and I have a little bit of experience. … I’m so excited honestly. It’s kind of built up.”
Coaches are now able to talk about the present as opposed to the future with Allen.
“He can really shoot. Can really shoot. Can get it off quick,” UK assistant coach Bruiser Flint said of the redshirt freshman. “Playing against some really talented players, but the one thing he adds is he can shoot that ball and he gets it off quick. What Cal has really been complimenting him about it is he’s doing a good job of actually getting himself open, running to get balls to be able to shoot it. You never have enough shooters, and that’s the one thing he can do.”
Instead of watching the intense practices from afar or cautiously participating with the injury still weighing on his mind, he’s now competing with the best of them and producing the way he envisioned when he originally signed with the program.
“Props to the culture here. Every practice is like a game,” Allen said. “You’re going against five-stars. You’re going against everybody. Like, everybody is hooping. Everybody is working hard. A lot of games might be like that, but a lot of games aren’t going to be like that. These are all like high-level players and you’ve got to work hard every day in practice. I’m on my own, and because of that, I’m going to be in prime shape for the games.”
At times, he forgets he even suffered the injury in the first place.
“Honestly, I’m better than ever. I was working out last week, it’s kind of funny, I was doing squats or something. My weight trainer was like, “How’s your knee?” I was like, “What? What are you talking about?” Like I genuinely just forgot [about the injury]. That’s the space I’m in right now. I don’t even think about it.
“I’m ahead of where I was, I’m a lot better, in a much better space.”
By the time Allen takes the floor for Kentucky’s season-opener at Rupp Arena on Nov. 25, it will have been 704 days since his knee injury. With a new outlook on life and appreciation for the game of basketball, the former Pendleton County star and Falmouth native is set to follow through on the promise he made nearly two years ago.
“Back and better than ever.”