Kadeem Allen transferred to New Hanover HS in Wilmington, NC prior to his senior year, as a skinny 160-pound guard who had flashed talent on the basketball court but was lagging behind in the classroom.
More than four years later he’s a sturdily built 6-foot-3, 200-pound starter for an elite college basketball program.
Allen has the second-best defensive rating in the Pac 12 (90.8) and is averaging 9.0 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.7 assists for the Wildcats, who are 16-4 entering tonight’s game against Oregon. He's hit 40 percent of 3-pointers and is top 10 in the conference in steals.
“I just see my role as doing what I need to do to help the team win,” Allen said. “More on the defensive side, coach (Sean) Miller gave me that role to be the defensive stopper on this team and I’ve taken on the challenge.”
His journey from home to playing for Sean Miller at Arizona - via a community college in Kansas - is improbable to say the least. It exceeds any dreams Allen had, even as he led New Hanover to the 4A state title in the winter of his senior year, defeating a West Charlotte team led by star center Kennedy Meeks, who had already committed to North Carolina.
His MVP performance in the championship game drew attention from Division I coaches. Allen’s transcript forced him to seek alternative routes. He followed the suggestion of his high school coach, Kirk Angel, and headed to Hutchinson, Kansas to play in the ultra competitive Jayhawk Conference.
The first month away from home was rough on Allen. He called Angel often, wanting to return home and attend the local junior college. Angel encouraged him to stay. Not everyone is blessed with a lethal first step, a 6-9 wingspan and can finish at the rim, he told Allen. Stick it out at Hutchinson and opportunities will arise, the coach said.
Once basketball season started, Allen settled in. He starred on the court, led Hutchinson to a conference title and was named a first-team NJCAA All-American. In October, prior to his sophomore season, he visited Arizona and committed. Allen validated that decision by averaging 25.9 points per game as a sophomore to not only become a first-team All-American, but also the NJCAA National Player of the Year. In two seasons at Hutchinson, he scored 1,425 points.
Last season, Arizona had a loaded backcourt led by savvy senior point guard T.J. McConnell (now of the Philadelphia 76ers) and one-and-done wing Stanley Johnson, so Allen redshirted.
"Off the court, Kadeem's goal coming here was to graduate from the University of Arizona, and that would be a huge step considering where he's come from," Miller told SB Nation Arizona Desert Swarm in the preseason. "He really learned, and how to be a better student, and he has a year under his belt where he's clearly moved in the right direction towards graduating. It's very difficult to leave junior college, hit the ground running, and then in two quick years, get the degree."
Allen traveled with the Wildcats to games and teamed with fellow transfer Ryan Anderson to run the Wildcats’ scout team, he took a heavy load in the classroom and excelled. He also hit the weight room for the first time in his life, adding 20 pounds of muscle that allows him to handle the physicality of the Pac 12.
The redshirt year enabled Allen to gain valuable insight he’s used this season, while playing both point guard and shooting guard.
“It was a great experience to learn the offense and what coach Miller wanted from his players,” he said.
Miller told Angel recently that Allen could leave Tuscon as the best defender in program history. That’s quite the compliment considering Arizona had 13 players on NBA rosters on opening day this season.
Allen knows he wouldn’t have made it this far without Angel. The two remain in constant contact. Angel is thrilled that his former player was named Arizona’s Student-Athlete of the Month in December. Allen often texts his high school coach after games, asking what he can do to improve or how he can help the team reach its goals, such as a Pac-12 Championship and Final Four appearance.
Through all the changes, that part of Allen has remained the same. The team comes first.
“I talk to Coach Angel about a lot of things,” Allen said. “He’s helped me tremendously, walked me through steps and helped me keep my head on right. With him in my corner and talking to him every day, it’s made things easier for me.”