In the spring of 2013, newly appointed Longwood head coach Jayson Gee was hastily pulling together his first recruiting class. He had already locked in Ohio forward Damarion Geter and Maryland guard Leron Fisher, and alongside associate head coach Jake Luhn, was working on rounding out the group with another athletic, defensive-minded guard.
To fill that spot, Gee had his sights set on a on a wiry, 6-2 slasher out of Florida 7A powerhouse Blanche Ely. His name was Darrion Allen, a high school senior who, much to his own disappointment – and conversely, to Gee’s excitement – was still unsigned.
That a player of Allen’s talent was still looking for a Division I roster spot hinged on the fact that he wasn’t even the best player on his high school team, which had just won its second straight Florida 7A State Championship. Allen, a defensive specialist playing out of position as an undersized forward, played a vital, but complementary role on a squad that featured five eventual Division I players, including Stephen F. Austin commit Dallas Cameron and Rider commit Kahlil Thomas.
So overshadowed by his more high-profile teammates was Allen that he had received only sparse interest from Division I programs and even fewer offers. At the end of his senior season, he was still unsigned, stubbornly holding on to his hope of becoming a Division I player.
Gee saw potential in the versatile, but overlooked guard and decided to take a chance. Allen saw similar potential in a fledging Longwood program and took a chance of his own.
“At the end of the day it came down to Longwood and Stephen F. Austin, and Longwood, coach Gee and the staff really pursued me,” Allen said. “They gave me a vision of myself, and I went with Coach Gee.”
More than 1,000 points and 80 starts later, the once-overlooked Allen has fulfilled that vision and will bookend his once-unlikely Division I basketball career this Saturday against Charleston Southern at 2 p.m. in his final home game in Willett Hall.
Allen’s rise from lightly recruited high school player to cornerstone of Longwood’s program is a case study in player development. He has nearly tripled his scoring output from his sophomore year and this season ranks among the Big South’s most versatile guards, leading the conference in minutes and ranking among the top 10 in scoring, blocks and free throw percentage.
Allen’s fellow signees Fisher, Geter and fellow senior Isaac Belton, all blossomed in their own right, but Allen has emerged as the jewel of that first class, a do-it-all wing who is Longwood’s sixth player in Division I history to score 1,000 points and also ranks second all-time in free throw percentage.
But Allen’s on-court maturation has been about much more than the improvements he’s made as a shooter, a ball-handler or a defender. As much as Allen has developed as a basketball player, it’s his growth without the ball in his hands that has allowed him to blossom as a player, and as a person.
“There are three ways that we as a staff impact our guys’ player development,” Gee said. “Number one is player-coach relationship and developing that love relationship with each of our guys. Coach Luhn, particularly, in DJ’s first years spent an awful lot of time with him. You couldn’t walk past coach Luhn’s office without DJ being in there for mentoring and encouragement.
“Second, we put our players through our life skills, mentoring and success class programs. For DJ, that led up to this past summer when we sent him and Geter to the AIA Captains Academy. That was really the exclamation point to his education and in helping him become all that he’s become. Lastly, it’s skill development and putting players in positions to be successful. We did a lot with DJ to develop his ball-handling, shooting, passing and catching, and obviously improving his natural defensive abilities.”
That bond between Allen and his coaching staff provided the foundation for his development and an understanding that any criticism he received, no matter how raw, was meant to make him better. It’s what finally allowed him to break out of his comfort zone as a “defensive specialist” and add “scorer,” “shooter,” “finisher,” and eventually “leader” to his resume.
“Once you see that someone has your best interest at heart, it’s easy to open up to them and receive anything they have to say to you,” Allen said. “They won’t tell you what you want to hear, but what you need to hear. We learn how to take criticism constructively.”
That process took hold in a big way prior to Allen’s junior season. That was when Gee felt it was time to bring the combo guard out of his comfort zone as a defensive specialist and push him to become more. The result was a breakout junior campaign in which he started all 33 games, averaged 10.4 points and 3.2 rebounds, led all Big South guards with 21 blocks and scored in double figures in eight of his final 10 games.
That growth continued into his senior season where he is now averaging a career-high 14.2 points and 3.6 rebounds per game and has become the bedrock of a Longwood team decimated by an uncommon rash of injuries.
“When we’re recruiting, we can certainly use DJ as a blueprint,” Gee said. “You can talk about Shaq [Johnson], Quincy [Taylor] and Lotanna [Nwogbo], but DJ becomes that four-year guy whose long-term development speaks volumes for an incoming class. He’s a great model, not just from a basketball standpoint, but academically and just his growth as a person. He came from an inner city school and maybe wasn’t quite up to par academically, but his work ethic, attitude and willingness to do extra has served him well, and it will continue to serve him well after he graduates.”
Allen is on pace to graduate from Longwood in May, nearly four years to the day when he salvaged his Division I dreams by committing to play in Farmville. His degree will be in criminal justice, and his next long-term goal to fulfill will be becoming a law enforcement officer, perhaps eventually a detective, in his native Florida.
That’s yet another dream for Allen to pursue, but chasing and achieving goals is nothing new for him. He’s already done it once, in a Longwood jersey.