Detroit – You learn something new every day, particularly when you’re a teenager on an NBA roster.
So for Jalen Duren, arguably the most important lesson early on in his rookie indoctrination with the Pistons had to do with processing all that new information.
“He saw I’ve got a big notebook that I carry around,” laughed Isaiah Stewart, the Pistons’ third-year big man, “and he asked what it’s for.”
But now he knows. After only a few months as a pro, and just a few weeks into his first NBA training camp, the league’s youngest player – Duren won’t turn 19 until Nov. 18 – has started to take note of all that this new job requires.
His binder isn’t nearly as full as the one former Pistons assistant Sean Sweeney handed Stewart back in 2020 when he, too, was a rookie first-round pick only a year removed from high school. But Duren, the Memphis standout who went 13th overall to the Charlotte Hornets before getting flipped to New York on his way to Detroit on a wild draft night. is quickly learning just how much goes into every NBA game.
“It’s gonna take some time,” Duren said Wednesday after practice. “No matter how good you think you are, you’ve got to adjust to this level. I’ve always been a student of the game. I’ve always watched NBA games. But being here now, I can see it from a totally different perspective.”
And what you see is what you get, ready or not.
“Obviously, when you’re a rook, the game moves pretty fast,” Stewart said, nodding, after the Pistons’ exhibition loss to Oklahoma City on Tuesday night. “But at some point, the game is gonna slow down for him.”
Yet if you ask Stewart when exactly that happened for him, he smiles.
“Probably right now,” he said. “Going into my third year, I think the game is finally starting to slow down.”
So in the meantime, his advice to Duren is fairly straightforward: “Go 100 miles per hour. And if you make a mistake, just make sure it’s a hard mistake.”
The injury-riddled Pistons have made a ton of mistakes thus far in a winless preseason, and Tuesday’s game was no different as the Thunder shot 52.3 percent from the field and ran away with a 115-99 win at Little Caesars Arena.
Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey committed silly turnovers trying to attack and split defenders in the lane. And the Pistons’ attempts at switching defensively on the perimeter at all five positions were, to put it nicely, an adventure. On consecutive possessions midway through the first quarter, Duren lost his man on a slip screen while switching with Saddiq Bey and then Bey got beat while switching with Cunningham.
But that’s the thing about youth in this league, as head coach Dwane Casey says, “It tells on you if you’re not careful.”
So that was part of the message Wednesday in a lengthy film session for the Pistons. Casey and the coaches talked again about limiting the unforced errors on offense. They talked about the need for better communication at both ends of the floor. And on defense, they talked about getting down in a proper stance, staying ready to switch at any point as opponents run through various actions.
“All young guys, not just (Duren), have gotten away with their speed and quickness for so long that they feel, ‘OK, I don’t have to be down and ready,’” Casey said. “But this league is so quick.”
And particularly for the Pistons’ two rookies, Jaden Ivey and Duren, the sooner they pick up on that, the better. Because it seems likely now that both will be on the floor for next week’s regular-season home opener against the Orlando Magic.
Ivey will be a starter in the backcourt alongside Cunningham, as expected. But Duren, a player some thought might be ticketed for G-League seasoning this fall, now seems destined for a spot in the rotation out of the gate, especially after Marvin Bagley suffered an MCL sprain and bone bruise Tuesday night and is expected to miss at least 3-4 weeks.
That injury leaves Stewart, who’d been playing mostly at the four this fall, along with veteran Nerlens Noel, who is working his way back from plantar fasciitis, and Duren as the big-man rotation for now. (Braxton Key, who is still on a two-way contract, also is available.)
Duren replaced Bagley early in the first quarter Tuesday, with Noel inactive. And while the rookie got into foul trouble almost immediately, he did finish with 10 rebounds (seven offensive) in 25 minutes for the night, his second double-digit rebound game in as many outings. (Duren pulled down 14 in only 24 minutes against the Knicks last week.)
“Just doing what I know I can do best,” he shrugged.
Even at his age, that might be enough for now. At 6-foot-11 and a chiseled 250 pounds, Duren is an explosive athlete blessed with a 7-foot-5 wingspan and a 42-inch vertical leap. In time, the Pistons think he’ll be the ideal rim-running complement to Cunningham and Ivey at the dunker spot. And the front office and coaches aren’t the only ones impressed with Duren’s character and work ethic thus far, beginning in the Vegas summer league and extending through informal workouts and now preseason camp.
“He really has a great head on his shoulders,” Bey said.
And a pretty healthy perspective for an 18-year-old, it seems. Duren says he’s getting some one-on-one mentoring now from new assistant Rashard Lewis, whose own 17-year NBA playing career started at age 18 with the Seattle SuperSonics, where Casey was on the staff. And he’s listening and learning to some of his veteran teammates, obviously. But Duren’s maturity was a big part of what sold Weaver and the Pistons on him prior to the draft, and it figures to serve him well once the bright lights hit next week.
“I know there’s been a lot of speculation about where I’m gonna play,” Duren said. “But I’m ready for anything. If they need me here, if they want me (in the G-League), wherever they feel is best for me, I’m 100 percent with it. … It’s hard to see Marv go down like that, and we all know what type of talent he is. But if my name is called, I’m just gonna do my best to hold it down and play my role and try to help the team.”
And for what it’s worth, Stewart doesn’t bother checking his notes when you ask him if Duren’s ready to do just that.
“He’s a big-ass 18-year-old,” Stewart said, laughing again. “You can’t tell me he can’t play in the NBA already. He definitely can.”