LAS VEGAS — Jalen Duren was the youngest player in the 2022 draft, and will likely be the youngest player in the NBA on opening night this season. He won’t turn 19 years old until November. He hasn’t given it much thought.
“Nah, it don’t really matter to me,” Duren said after the Detroit Pistons’ practice at Cox Pavillion on Friday. Once we get in between the lines, I’m ready to hoop. I’m all for it.”
“Ready to hoop” is a good descriptor for Duren’s Summer League performance thus far, as he has been exactly the player the Pistons drafted him to be, thriving as a lob finisher and shot-blocker with the occasional nice pass. After tallying nine points and two blocks in just 12 minutes during Thursday’s win over the Portland Trail Blazers, he posted 13 points, six rebounds and a block during Saturday’s victory over the Washington Wizards. Despite his youth, he has been one of Detroit’s best players.
SATURDAY’S VICTORY: Pistons banged up as Isaiah Livers leads Summer League squad to 105-99 win
SHAWN WINDSOR: Forget the gambling, clubs and buffets, Pistons are building away from Vegas strip
What’s more encouraging for the Pistons is that Duren has thrived while playing alongside another big, Isaiah Stewart (Detroit’s starting center last season). General manager Troy Weaver expressed confidence on draft night that the two big men would fit next to each other. It has required Stewart to shift to power forward, but he’s embracing the challenge; the duo have been a bright spot in Las Vegas so far.
“(Duren is) bigger, his presence is more pronounced,” Weaver said. “Isaiah has shown to be able to play out on the floor shooting the 3. They can play together easily. (Al) Horford and Robert Williams played together (for the Boston Celtics) and they have two big kids in Cleveland playing together. I don’t see it as a challenge either way. Two different players, but both guys bring hard hats and that’s what we’re looking for.”
Stewart said on Thursday that he hadnever played the four full-time before, but he has power forward skills. Last season, he was Detroit’s most versatile defender and was able to hold his own switching onto smaller forwards and guards. He also knocked down 11 of 18 3-point attempts during the Pistons’ final eight games. His touch from outside has carried into Summer League, going 4-for-6 through two games.
He and Duren have been a suffocating defensive pairing in Las Vegas at times, and they’re both fans of each other’s games.
“I feel like it’s going to be great because I feel like honestly, I think Isaiah was top three among bigs in isolation one-on-ones, the way he can move his feet really well,” Duren said. “I take pride in my defense as well, too, so I feel we’re going to be great together just being able to switch one through five. ‘Zay’ being able to shoot the ball and me being able to pass the ball, him being able to pass the ball, it’s going to be great. We’re going to be able to feed off each other really well.”
When asked about Duren after Thursday’s win, Stewart didn’t censor his thoughts.
“Shit,” he said. “That’s what I think when I see Duren. He’s just a massive guy and on top of that, he’s only 18 years old. He reminds me of a bigger version of myself when I was 18, just being destructive, blocking everything, being very physical. It’s good.”
Stewart was a sound defensive center last season, but Duren brings an athleticism Stewart lacks. At times, Detroit’s guards have simply tossed the ball up near the rim and trusted that Duren would catch it. More often than not, he has. But Stewart may have superior lateral mobility, enabling him to defend smaller players. Duren is confident he can also switch onto smaller players, but hasn’t had many opportunities to do so in Las Vegas yet.
It remains to be seen how Detroit’s center rotation will shake out next season. Kelly Olynyk, Nerlens Noel and Marvin Bagley III can all play center, and Saddiq Bey could see minutes at power forward. But Stewart (No. 16 overall, 2020) and Duren (No. 13, 2022) are recent first-round picks and players the Pistons are banking on leading them to a future playoff run.
If their performance during Summer League carries over to the season, the Pistons should be in good shape.
“I came in just with the mentality that I want to do whatever I can to help us win,” Duren said. “Coach Casey just tells me to have fun, do what I do best, and that’s what I try to do.”
Contact Omari Sankofa II at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.