Ambidextrous Tavon Allen turning heads at Drexel

Ambidextrous Tavon Allen turning heads at Drexel
March 8, 2013, 10:45 am
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Fans and coaches were so perplexed, it was as if Tavon Allen was performing some sort of magic trick.

The current Drexel Dragon was playing high school basketball like any other teenager, except Allen possessed a unique trait that left spectators rubbing their eyes and watching even closer.

And after games, it became routine for bewildered witnesses to question what they had just seen.

“They would come and ask me, ‘Wow, is [Allen] left-handed or right-handed?’” said Kermit Carolina, Allen’s coach at James Hillhouse High School in New Haven, Conn. “I’d say, ‘Both,’ and their jaw would kind of drop like, ‘Huh?’”

That’s because Allen would fire away jumpers with both his left and right hand. The redshirt freshman at Drexel is a rare, but true ambidextrous basketball player.

“Every time somebody watches him, ‘Yo, he just shot that with his left hand, but he just shot that one with his right hand,’” Drexel coach Bruiser Flint said with a laugh. “But it was going in — you don’t complain when it’s going in.”

The willowy, 6-foot-7 Allen predominantly shoots three-pointers with his left hand, but once he steps inside the arc, he switches to his right. Sometimes, he’ll do the opposite.

Oftentimes, Allen even confounds himself.

“I’m weird, I can write with my right hand, I don’t like writing with my left hand. I can throw with either hand,” said Allen, whose Dragons play George Mason in the first round of the CAA Tournament in Richmond Saturday afternoon (see story). “I get confused sometimes with what hand to use with all that stuff, but I pick up on it as I go.”

Honing his skill at Hillhouse
It all began in Allen’s early high school days at Hillhouse. Allen was a long and lithe kid who was constantly playing basketball. The more he played, the more both hands developed. Before he even recognized it, Allen’s ambidexterity became second nature.

“One time during high school during practice, I noticed I started doing it a lot and it was working, so I was like, ‘I’m just gonna keep doing it,’” Allen said. “It kind of started when I was younger. I kind of just picked up on it as I was playing a lot. In high school, I really grew into it and started to use it a lot to my advantage.”

Carolina remembers when he was just like those puzzled onlookers. Carolina was sitting in the bleachers while Allen, a sophomore at the time, was playing against crosstown rival Wilbur Cross in a junior-varsity game.

“I noticed he was pulling up with his right hand, and shooting the three-ball with his left hand,” Carolina said. “It was amazing to see, and I think that was the first thing that intrigued me about him was his touch with both the left and right hand. Very few kids have that skill set and certainly he’s one of the few that have it.”

However, not everyone was amazed. As Allen grew stronger shooting with each hand, some were opposed.

“Actually, some people told me to stop using both hands and just stick to one hand,” Allen said. “I found it more comfortable to use both hands rather than just one.”

Carolina was not one of those who disapproved. He thought the more proficient with both hands, the better.

“I was in full support,” Carolina said. “You have to have an answer for every situation that you can possibly be in. And having that skill set allows him to have an answer for every defensive situation he can encounter.”

Allen turned into a matchup nightmare. When his senior year rolled around, Allen was a 6-foot-6, 175-pound swingman who could drain the three, score off the dribble and of course, shoot with either hand.

“He gave opposing teams fits,” Carolina said. “They can’t force him left or right without having to pay the price. He can pull up with either hand, drive to the basket with either hand, or shoot the long ball with either hand.”

As a senior, Allen averaged a double-double (13.6 points, 10 rebounds), was named to the second team all-state and steered Hillhouse to a 25-3 record and an appearance in the CIAC Class LL state championship game. It was a contest in which the Bulldogs led late in the fourth quarter before eventually falling to Bridgeport Central, Connecticut’s top-ranked team, 78-66.

“Going into his senior year, that summer, he started getting a lot of attention and people started to notice him,” Carolina said. “I think he kind of arrived and people gained even more respect for him throughout the tournament his senior year.”

Developing as a Dragon
At first, Flint thought it was just a one-time thing. While watching Allen on the recruiting trail, Flint saw the skinny shooter use both hands, but not often enough to believe it was his consistent approach.

“Then as you start to go and watch and you start saying, ‘Oh, he really does this when he gets inside the three, he shoots with his right hand,’” Flint said. “So I was like, ‘OK.’”

After one year of prep school at Worcester Academy, Allen signed with Flint’s Drexel Dragons. But this wasn’t a first for Flint. As an assistant coach at UMass, Flint recruited a player by the name of Ganon Baker, an ambidextrous shooter similar to Allen, who now makes skill-development tapes on the art of shooting.

“His difference was, he shot with his right hand from the right side, and his left hand from his left side,” Flint said. “Tavon shoots threes with his left hand, but inside the three, he shoots with his right. So, I’ve seen it before.”

Fellow coaches confessed to Flint that a player of their own who shot with both hands would “drive [them] absolutely crazy.” However, that’s no problem for Flint.

“You know what, I don’t worry about him shooting righty or lefty. The kid doesn’t play any defense,” Flint said with a laugh. “That’s what drives me crazy.

“He’s really comfortable with it. I mean, by telling him to do something different would probably kill the kid.”

Allen’s uncommon skill has benefited him and the Dragons in a variety of ways. Earlier in the season, Allen banged up his right wrist, but that didn’t keep him from practicing. Instead, he simply played the entire practice using his left hand.

It’s also sure to make life difficult on opposing defenses.

“I think [defenders] get confused, too,” Flint said. “I’m sure in the scouting report, the guy says, ‘Shoots threes lefty, shoots inside righty,’ but what type of adjustment do you make?”

A stress fracture in Allen’s foot forced the eager freshman to redshirt the 2011-12 campaign. After failing to log any minutes in Drexel’s first two games this season, Allen finally made his debut when his team was in dire need of a boost.

In a tight November game against Penn, Allen saw his first college action when senior Chris Fouch went down with a season-ending ankle injury. The jittery yet excited Allen scored 15 second-half points to help lift the Dragons to a 61-59 win, their first of the season after a surprising 0-2 start.

“It felt great to finally be on the court and finally play my first college game,” Allen said. “I was real nervous at first, but once I got used to the flow of the game it was all right.”

Allen’s now a fixture in the Dragons’ lineup. In Drexel’s season full of expectation, he’s made seven starts and has appeared in every game since his opening act against Penn. The two-way shooter has played well (6.8 points, 37 percent from three-point range) when his number has been called (15.2 minutes).

After being selected as CAA preseason favorites, the Dragons have fought injuries and inconsistency en route to a 13-17 record and a 9-9 league mark. Now, Allen hopes to help Drexel salvage its season with a run in the CAA Tournament.

“Now he’s thrown into the fire a little bit,” Flint said. “It’s been a little bit of an adjustment to him. The one thing he can do is he can score. The other thing, too, he has to realize he has to do other things on the floor. That’s the one thing that he has to work on, doing some of the other things, the little things on the floor, but I think the kid has a pretty good chance at being a really good player for us.”

Making home proud
The bar was crowded and all eyes were glued to the television. A birthday was being celebrated at one of the local clubs in New Haven, but people were fixated on the TV propped above the bar.

A college basketball game was being played — it was Allen and the Dragons.

“Everyone stopped just to watch him,” Carolina said. “He was at the free throw line about to take some shots, and I think it was exciting for people to watch one of their very own from the city on television making some significant contributions to his team.”

They watched proudly as Allen attempted his foul shots — left-handed — while representing his friends and family on the Division I stage.

“He’s one of the most respectful, humble and hard-working kids that I’ve had the pleasure of coaching,” Carolina said. “He comes from a mom who I have a great deal of respect for. His mother (Stacey Allen) has done a great job of raising him to be the man he is today.

“He has a huge fan base here in the city — people are pulling for him.”

Carolina says Allen’s drawn comparisons to NBA star Kevin Durant, in terms of style of play. The two share the same wiry frame and similar offensive repertoires.

“Their games are very identical,” Carolina said.

The difference?

“The one thing Durant doesn’t have that he does,” Carolina said, “is he can shoot with the left and right.”

It’s no longer a shock to Allen’s hometown when he remarkably changes hands to hoist jumpers. Drexel knows now, too.

Allen has goals of taking his ambidexterity to the professional ranks once he closes the curtain on his college experience.

“I know it’s going to take a lot of work,” Allen said.

And so does shooting a basketball with both hands.