Jarrett Allen stood outside a Key Food Supermarket in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn and handed 25 local children a grocery list and a calculator. Their task was to use math, and a calculator imprinted with Allen’s name and Nets jersey number, to fill their grocery carts and stay within the $100 budget he gave them.
Plenty of N.B.A. stars have their own shoe, clothing, underwear and eyewear lines — often vanity projects for oversize fashionistas. Allen is different. And not just because his name is stretched across a calculator instead of kicks.
“Math is the future,” he said.
“He’s so different from everyone usually in the N.B.A.,” said Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie, his closest friend on the team. “Everybody else is like, ‘Wow, he’s weird.’ When everyone was referencing him as weird, or just kind of different, I was like, ‘Man, that’s my guy.’ He’s extremely smart. I love having conversations with him on that level.”
In the N.B.A., one man’s weird just might be another man’s love of STEM. “It started with destroying stuff,” Allen said. “I would break things apart, then put them together. Then my dad gave us one of his super-old computers, and I’ve really been on that track since I was probably around 5.”
In high school, he built his own computer, which he still uses today. Like most 20-year-olds in the N.B.A., he loves gaming, particularly Overwatch, but he doesn’t play the ubiquitous NBA 2K. “I don’t play sports video games,” he said. “My whole life revolves around sports.”
After finishing his freshman year at Texas and declaring for the draft, N.B.A. teams had questions about his commitment. Did he love the game enough? Or did he play just because he’s tall? (He’s listed at 6-foot-11, but he’s more like 7-foot-3 with hair included.) Some N.B.A. talent evaluators would prefer their prospects have a singular interest, a life spinning on the axis of an orange ball.
Though Allen professed his love for the game during predraft interviews, he made it clear he was more than just a basketball player. The Nets saw the big picture, selected him 22nd over all in 2017, and hoped he, at center, would become the cornerstone of their rebuilding project.
Allen opened this season with back-to-back double-doubles, and added another, plus several near-misses, before sitting out two games because of an illness. In his first three games back, he averaged 17.7 points, 12.3 rebounds and nearly two blocks a game.
“He has everything you want. He’s athletic, he can run the floor, space the floor vertically, shoot, finish with both hands and protect the rim,” Dinwiddie said. “Right now, the only thing you can knock him for is not being physically imposing, but he’s only 20 years old, and all of that is going to come with time. If that’s all you’re missing in your game, you’re doing really well.”
Allen’s father, Leonard, was a standout center for San Diego State from 1981 to 1985 and held a school blocked-shot record that was broken in 2015. The Dallas Mavericks picked Leonard Allen 50th over all in the 1985 draft, but he didn’t catch on with a team. After playing in Europe, he returned home to Texas and transitioned into a career at Dell computers.
“Basketball wasn’t the main focus,” Jarrett Allen said of his childhood. “For my dad, he played his whole life. His life revolved around it. He just wanted us to be normal kids.”
Growing up in Round Rock, Tex., Allen was blissfully unaware of the intensity of elite youth basketball. “I didn’t know about that whole crazy A.A.U. scene,” he said.
Allen and his older brother Leonard played basketball in church and community rec center leagues for fun. “We were clueless about organized basketball, at least on an elite level,” said his mother, Cheryl. “We didn’t even know it existed, and I’m glad we were oblivious to that world.”
Free from the demands of travel team sports, Allen pursued other interests. “Jarrett from an early age has always had an interest and curiosity about the world around him,” Cheryl Allen said. “That is why his transition to Brooklyn has been an easy one. I’d like to think that not starting elite basketball so young helped. He was able to be a kid as long as possible before becoming consumed by it, which unfortunately happens.”
At the end of Allen’s sophomore year in high school, it became clear that college basketball might be an option. “I didn’t know the college scene was that big. I didn’t know the N.B.A. was that big,” he said.
On some nights after games at Barclays Center, Allen walks home, which usually takes 25 minutes. “It’s nice to just enjoy the night,” he said.
Nicknamed the Fro, his hairstyle isn’t some tribute to Dr. J and the A.B.A. of decades past. “I’m not trying to show it off, show that I can make it round,” Allen said. “I’m not even wearing it because it’s old school. It’s just how it is. I’m just wearing it because it’s my hair. I’ve had it for five years. I’m in too deep now.”
His hair was one of many topics that came up when he did an “Ask Me Anything” online chat on Reddit (he considers himself a Redditor) just before the season started. He was asked questions such as: “What is the coolest celebrity experience you’ve had since getting to the NBA/New York?”
Answer: “I got a free slice of cake for dessert at a restaurant one time.”
And: “How do you achieve that amazing Afro? How much time do you spend on it a day?” Answer: “45 seconds every morning.” Shampoo? “Herbal Essence.”
Allen continues to field questions from the intrigued, though most recently the askers were the children he had given calculators for a pre-Thanksgiving shopping trip and math lesson.
During the nearly two hours in the grocery store for his event, Allen shopped for his own groceries, helped the children with their calculations, grabbed the occasional box of penne off the top shelf for customers and answered no-filter questions.
“Can you cross Allen Iverson?” an 8-year-old boy asked.
“Given he’s about 50 years old, yes,” Allen said.
“Can you dunk on LeBron?”
“I’ve never tried,” he said.
After locating some hard-to-find items — “Where’s the crescent rolls?” — Allen checked out $40 under budget.
The feat seems to be more reflective of a lifestyle than one good day at the grocery store.
“He doesn’t have a car,” Nets forward Jared Dudley said. “He doesn’t care about materialistic things. He cares about playing basketball, family and doing what he loves to do.”
However varied that may be. So far, Allen has splurged on just one big purchase. “A part for my computer,” he said.