The next time Dontaie Allen steps onto a basketball court for a real game will be, for him, a long time coming.
In reality, it has been just a little more than nine months since Allen — now a freshman at the University of Kentucky — played the sport he loves. That was Dec. 22, 2018, but everything he has been through since that day must’ve made these last nine months feel so much longer.
A couple of weeks ago, Allen was sitting in a room at the Joe Craft Center — not far from the Wildcats’ practice court — and smiling at the thought of what comes next. At one point, he talked about the genesis of his UK basketball fandom, saying it started with John Wall and the 2009-10 Wildcats, the first Kentucky team to be coached by John Calipari.
Allen smiled as he popped the white UK jersey he was wearing — No. 11, just like Wall, who made his college debut nearly 10 years ago, just a couple of weeks after Allen’s ninth birthday. Allen spoke of watching Wall and the other Wildcats that followed, of pretending to be them when he went out in the backyard, like so many Kentucky kids do.
“I just wanted to be like every guy on the court,” he said.
The next time Allen steps onto a basketball court for a real game, he will be.
“It’s always been in my heart. I didn’t think I’d have the opportunity.”
The first meeting
It was early April of last year when Allen got a special visitor at Pendleton County High School, where he had averaged 31.8 points and 11.4 rebounds per game during the season that had just ended.
The 6-foot-6 wing was preparing to go into his final summer of AAU ball. He already had a handful of scholarship offers, but more college coaches — from bigger college programs — were beginning to take notice.
“The first thing that you see is a hard-working young man that loves basketball, that has an inner drive to be special. And I think that is something that stood out to me early on,” Justus told the Herald-Leader about his first impressions. “I think that’s something that we have to identify here with the guys we recruit — they have to want to be great. You can’t come here and just want to get by. You can’t come here and just want to be a part of something, and not want to work.
“We saw a young man that has big dreams and sees a big world of basketball out there and wants to challenge himself and better himself every single day.”
Justus told Allen that day that he was good enough to play at Kentucky, but he needed to work on his conditioning. And UK’s coaching staff — including Calipari — would need to see more of him over the course of the spring and summer, and possibly his senior season of high school, before extending a coveted Kentucky scholarship offer.
Allen took that to heart, and he kept working.
The breakout summer
Allen’s travel team that summer — M.A.T.T.S. Mustangs — didn’t play on one of the top-tier shoe company circuits, and that made it more difficult for college coaches to get a look at him. Still, he excelled on the court, and his reputation as a recruit spread throughout the spring.
The July evaluation period — perhaps the busiest recruiting time of the year for college coaches — would ultimately be his best opportunity to impress major college coaches.
His Mustangs squad was scheduled to play in the Under Armour Challenge in Georgia — one of the biggest events of the summer — and their competition would include some of the best players in the country.
The first game of that event pitted Allen against five-star recruit Josiah James, who had also eschewed the major shoe company leagues to play for a local team. The chance to see two buzzworthy players in such a setting had recruiting analysts — and, more importantly, college coaches — intrigued.
“That game — I was nervous for like the whole month before that,” Allen said. “Just that whole tournament, I knew it was going to be a big tournament for me, and I wanted to get my name out there.”
In his first two games of the event, Allen caught everybody’s attention, going for a combined 54 points, 12 rebounds and 13 assists while making seven three-pointers. UK assistant coach Tony Barbee was in the stands for both games. It was the first time anyone from the Wildcats’ staff had seen him play in an actual game.
“I was kind of stunned, not knowing what to expect,” Barbee told the Herald-Leader. “He looked every bit the part of a guy that belongs at Kentucky.”
Barbee knew what had to come next.
“We had to get Cal in front of him — that was the next step,” he said. “And I think he flew in the next day to watch him play.”
Calipari left Nike’s Peach Jam — the biggest event of the summer, and the place where nearly all of UK’s top targets were playing that weekend — to see Allen, who didn’t know the Kentucky head coach would be there.
Allen’s father, Tony Thomas, was one of his AAU team’s assistants, and Thomas pulled his son aside toward the end of that game.
“He’s like, ‘Hey, you know Cal’s in the stands?’ I had no idea,” Allen said, adding that he usually didn’t scope the crowd for college coaches. This was an exception. “I looked over to make sure he wasn’t lyin’, and then I just kept going.”
Calipari liked what he saw that day, but he wanted to see a little more.
Later that month, he showed up at another AAU event in Louisville to see Allen play. The plan was to host the in-state star for a recruiting visit a few days later. By that point, he had accumulated a flurry of new scholarship offers — from Louisville, Florida, Xavier and others — and the pressure was on for Kentucky to follow suit.
The big decision
Allen arrived in Lexington on the first day of August as one of the most-talked-about high school prospects in the country. He left that day as a Kentucky commitment. That wasn’t necessarily the plan.
Along with his parents, Allen toured the team facilities, sat in on a UK practice and got some face time with the coaching staff, including Calipari, who had been out of the state on the player’s previous recruiting visit to Lexington that spring.
The trip wrapped up in Calipari’s office, where the Wildcats coach told Allen that he had a scholarship offer to play for Kentucky, his dream school growing up.
“I’m coming,” Allen told him.
He said he looked at his parents’ faces, and they were “just shocked.” The family hadn’t discussed what would happen if Calipari came through with the offer.
“It was almost instant. I would say instant,” Thomas told the Herald-Leader the next day. “I didn’t even know for myself, because we hadn’t really sat down as a family and talked about it, what it was he was going to do.
“But I believe once he got to talking to Coach Cal and Coach Justus, it was just a great fit. It was what he wanted to do.”
Allen became UK’s first in-state commitment in more than five years, but the Wildcats’ coaching staff made it clear to him that his status as a Kentucky kid had nothing to do with their scholarship offer. They simply saw a player they wanted on their roster.
“The thing that we talked about — even with Dontaie and his parents, early on — is that we weren’t recruiting him because he was from Kentucky. We were recruiting him because he was a good basketball player,” Justus said. “He was a little over an hour away. We recruit really good basketball players all over the globe, whether they’re an hour away or three connecting flights away and we have to go watch them play overseas.
“We have to find the right people. Because we have a locker room of guys in there that are all wanting to achieve special things, both individually and collectively, and you have to find those right guys.”
From good to bad to worse
Allen signed with Kentucky the following November, and his senior season began 10 days later. It couldn’t have gotten off to a better start: 52 points, 12 rebounds and nine steals in a 76-46 victory over Williamstown.
Over the next month, Allen scored more than 50 points in a game five more times. He was on pace to become Kentucky’s second all-time leading scorer — behind only the legendary “King” Kelly Coleman — and had an outside shot to surpass Coleman’s career record of 4,337 points.
A day after dropping 57 points in a win over Bryan Station, his high school career was over.
In the first half of a home game against Cooper High School on Dec. 22, Allen got the ball, drove left, and did a hop step into a fadeaway. “And my knee just went in,” he said.
Doctors didn’t know what to make of the injury at first. X-rays weren’t providing enough for a conclusive diagnosis, and Allen thought he’d be back on the floor with his teammates in a matter of days.
Every time he tried to give it a go, something didn’t feel right.
A little less than two weeks after he crumpled to the court, Allen was diagnosed with a torn ACL.
“When I finally found out — after thinking it was general soreness — of course I was sad,” he said. “Called my high school coach, and I just let him know. He talked me through it. Then I had a conversation with my family and just got some inspiration from them to keep pushing.”
Allen’s high school career was finished, but — following surgery to repair the knee injury — he was back in good spirits and thinking positively, looking ahead to the next chapter in his basketball life.
Kentucky’s coaches kept tabs on him. Justus said he was impressed with Allen’s positive outlook after such a devastating injury. His physical therapy brought him to the sports medicine clinic on UK’s campus a few times a week.
That was about a 50-mile drive for Allen, who was making the trip early one April morning — about a month after earning the state’s Mr. Basketball award — when he experienced another scare.
It was still dark outside, and his car hydroplaned.
Allen shared photos of the result a few days later on social media. His car was a mangled wreck. His collarbone was broken.
“When it happened, I was like, ‘This is crazy. I can’t catch a break,’” he said. “But the next day, I had PT scheduled for my knee, so I’m like, ‘I’m definitely going.’ I just got my mind right, and I’m not going to let it stop me.”
It has been nearly six months since that car accident, and Allen’s collarbone is fully healed, but he’s still working his way back from the knee injury. His timetable for a full return is uncertain.
“It’s getting there,” he said. “I’m not sure when I’m going to be back, but I’m working at it.”
Allen wasn’t able to fully participate in UK’s practices over the summer. He could go through shooting and dribbling drills, but for anything involving the risk of contact, the freshman had to step to the side and watch.
Early reports out of those summer practices indicate Allen will be one of the Wildcats’ best outside shooters when he does make his return to the court, whenever that time comes. He made 40% of his three-point shots over his last two seasons of high school ball and apparently carried that over to the Craft Center.
“I feel like I’ve always been a decent shooter,” Allen said, a bit of modesty.
Justus was more effusive in his praise for the player he helped recruit to Kentucky.
“He’s an offensively gifted player — has great feel for the game,” he said. “He can play on the ball, off the ball. He makes people honest, because of the way he shoots it. And he’s a guy that is a threat in different spots on the floor, so you can move him around. And he’s going to ultimately make guys better that he’s on the floor with.”
It remains to be seen when exactly UK fans will see Allen for the first time.
He said back in March that he had “no intention to redshirt” during his first season as a Wildcat, though he softened a bit on that during his interview with the Herald-Leader a couple of weeks ago.
“It hasn’t been brought up, but if it happens, it happens,” Allen said. “I’m really just worried about getting back to 100% and not trying to come back too soon. … I think that’s the reality of it. I’m going to trust in the doctors here at UK. If they say that I’m cleared and they feel like I’m ready to go, then I’m ready to go.”
When that time is finally here, Allen will face the biggest challenge of his basketball career. Those around him are looking forward to what comes then.
“He’s a kid that has worked really hard but knows that there is a lot more out there for him to achieve,” Justus said. “I think that his ceiling is slightly unknown right now. He’s going to be in an environment where he’s going to be challenged every single day, both from the coaching staff and performance staff, to his peers — he’s never once had the luxury of that. And that’s what it is: a luxury.
“When you want to be a great basketball player, there’s no better way to test yourself and to improve than to put your game to the test every single day. That’s a big part of what we articulate and sell here: ‘If you want to be special and be great, you come here and test that every single day.’”
Important upcoming dates
Sept. 25: Big Blue Madness campout begins
Sept. 27: Big Blue Madness ticket distribution
Oct. 1: Media Day
Oct. 6: Pro Day
Oct. 11: Big Blue Madness
Oct. 16: SEC Media Day
Oct. 18: Blue-White Scrimmage
Oct. 27: Exhibition opener vs. Georgetown College
Nov. 1: Exhibition vs. Kentucky State
Nov. 5: Season opener vs. Michigan State