Detroit Pistons assistant general manager George David was a regular at Memphis Tigers practices last season. The Tigers had multiple prospects with NBA upside, including Ypsilanti native and former five-star recruit Emoni Bates.
But Larry Brown had an inkling that Jalen Duren was high on the Pistons’ wish list. His hunch proved to be correct.
Brown, who coached the Pistons to their third championship in 2004 and last Finals appearance in 2005, was hired as an assistant coach for Memphis last July. It was at Memphis that Duren, the top-ranked recruit of the 2022 class before reclassifying to 2021, solidified his case as a lottery pick in last week’s draft.
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Duren averaged 12 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game, was named the AAC Freshman of the Year and a first-team All-AAC honoree, even though he should have been a high school senior. Duren will be the youngest player in the NBA next season, and won’t turn 19 until November.
Troy Weaver is a big fan of Duren’s game, and the Pistons traded to acquire him last Thursday after he was drafted 13th overall by the Charlotte Hornets. Detroit is the perfect landing spot for Duren, Brown told the Free Press during a phone interview. And he’s excited to see how his game continues to grow.
“He’s an unbelievably great kid,” Brown said Monday morning. “Comes from a really, really good family. He’s about all the right things. He wants to get better. He’s a really good teammate. He’s by no means a finished product, but he’s just 18 years old.
“I’d think with his work ethic and his character, he’ll continue to get better because the things he can do, you can’t teach. He’s really gifted athletically. His body, obviously, if you look at him you don’t understand he’s just 18 years old.”
Duren checks many of the boxes you’d want in a modern NBA center. Standing 6 feet 11 with a 7-5 wingspan, he’s a gifted rim protector who moves and recovers well. He’s also a strong rim-runner and can catch lobs thrown well above the rim. There will always be a place in the league for centers with Duren’s skillset, but his ceiling will be defined by the extent he develops the auxiliary parts of his game.
There’s still plenty of room for Duren’s game to grow, and he’s now on a Pistons roster that could help him maximize his skillset. Duren posted good numbers for a Memphis team that lacked a point guard. Rim-running centers are only as good as the playmaking around them, and the Tigers didn’t get Duren the ball inside as much as head coach Penny Hardaway would’ve liked.
Duren never complained and continued to play despite not being properly utilized. But Brown believes there’s a correlation between the effort a team puts into feeding their big men on offense, and the effort big men then put into playing defense. Unlike Memphis, the Pistons have several guards who can utilize Duren’s athletic gifts. Cade Cunningham and Killian Hayes both thrived from the vertical spacing Marvin Bagley III provided after his arrival at the trade deadline last season, and they willingly and regularly fed him scoring opportunities.
Brown is deeply familiar with Cunningham’s playmaking, as Brown coached Cade’s older brother, Cannen, at SMU and has known Cade since he was nine-years-old. With Jaden Ivey also in tow, Duren should have ample opportunity to punish the rim. It should help his game on both sides of the court.
“Those guys will find him and I think it’s like all big guys — when you reward big guys on the offensive end and expect so much out of them on the defensive end, it fills them up,” Brown said. “I always look at Ben Wallace. When I was around then, the more you got him involved on the offensive end, the better and better he became at rebounding and defending and blocking shots. It’s just a great way of rewarding guys for doing so.
“The fact that you’ll reward him on the offensive end when he sets good screens, when he does roll hard to the basket, when you penetrate and throw a lob, that’s gonna only increase his enthusiasm to go down on the other end and do the things we know he’s capable of doing,” Brown continued. “I never saw him complain when he didn’t get the ball. It didn’t stop him from trying to help us win.”
Immobile centers are hard to build around in today’s NBA, even if they’re good at protecting the rim. Smart offenses will draw centers out of the paint and force them to defend in space. Big men who can stay in front of guards and quick forwards have immense value in the playoffs. Big men who can’t stay in front of smaller players are often played off of the floor.
Duren’s upside as a switchable rim protector was a key reason why he was considered a potential top-10 pick. He will have to continue to get better, but Brown likes what he saw from him in that area last season.
“I see people switch so much in the NBA now. And with so many ball screens now and so many isolation plays on defense, you have to be able to move your feet and stand in front of guards and quick players,” Brown said. “He has the ability. That’s one area that’s unbelievably hard to teach. But he can stay in front of people.
“Penny (Hardaway, Memphis head coach) has the mindset like an NBA coach, so he prepares these kids to play later on. But we switch ball screens and he’s very capable staying in front of people. He can really run. He runs from endline to endline as fast as any big kid. He can catch, he can pass the ball. He sometimes will make a pass that’s not exactly perfect, but the fact that he recognizes somebody is open, you can’t teach that.”
Shooting and passing the ball are also growth areas for Duren, he only attempted one 3-pointer and shot 62.5% at the free-throw line. But Duren showed potential as a passer, keeping his head up and locating open shooters. It’s an immensely valuable skill in short roll situations. Bigs who can protect the rim, move the ball and defend in space, like Bam Adebayo and Draymond Green, carry star upside.
“They get him on a short roll, he can make a play when he catches the ball,” Brown said. “He’s good enough to do that. The biggest thing is they just have to figure out how they want to use him, and he’s smart enough in my mind to do whatever is asked of him.”
Brown compared Duren to Adebayo, an All-Star in 2020 and a three-time NBA All-Defensive second team selection, was considered a reach when the Heat drafted him 14th overall out of Kentucky in 2017. He was branded as an energy player in college, but Brown pointed to his work ethic and fit within Miami’s system as reasons why he’s become one of the NBA’s best bigs.
If everything breaks right for Duren, he could end up in a similar stratosphere. The Pistons have to develop him and be patient, but Brown is confident that Duren landed with the right team to help him live up to his immense gifts.
“I just think he’s in a perfect situation,” Brown said. “Sometimes you get drafted and you’re a young player and you go to a bad team, there’s a reason they’re bad. Maybe it’s bad coaching, maybe it’s management, maybe it’s bad locker room or culture. It can be a problem for you. The top draft picks usually go to teams that are struggling. But he’s going to a team that maybe didn’t win a lot of games, but you’ve got great character pieces with young kids around him, and I think a really good coach and a really good culture there. That’s gonna help Jalen.
“I think they’ll bring things out in Jalen’s game that we’ll all be surprised and positive about. He’s in a really, really good place and I’m excited for him.”
Next up: Summer League
What: NBA Las Vegas Summer League.
Tipoff: July 7-17; Cox Pavilion and Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas.
Pistons’ schedule: Trail Blazers, midnight July 7; Wizards, 6 p.m. July 9; Pacers, 9 p.m. July 12l Cavaliers, 5:30 p.m. July 14.