Detroit — A little more than two seasons ago, Isaiah Stewart was in the same position that Jalen Duren is now.
Stewart, the 6-foot-9 big man from Rochester, New York was a rookie trying to transition to a faster and more physical game. As he enters his third season, Stewart is embracing a leadership role to help the 18-year-old Duren navigate the newness of the NBA as much as he can.
“It is kind of crazy but time flies,” Stewart said after practice Tuesday. “Like I said, I’m grateful for the opportunity and I’m thankful I get to help the young guys out because I was in their shoes coming into the league.”
After each practice, Duren and Stewart can be found on a court together. Sometimes they’re shooting 3-pointers, one after another. Other times, they’re working on their post moves with Pistons player development coaches Rashard Lewis and Andrew Jones.
There’s also the rare occasion when reporters get a glimpse of the two going at each other during a game of one-on-one.
Stewart had moments when he got the best of Duren, who’s fresh off one season at the University of Memphis, on both ends of the floor. But Duren also showed that he’s not to be taken lightly, as he was able to block Stewart’s layup attempt during their matchup.
When Duren was drafted, the team had five centers on its roster, all with more than three years of experience. Kelly Olynyk went to the Utah Jazz in the deal for Bojan Bogdanovic. Marvin Bagley III is out for the next three to four weeks because of a knee injury. And Nerlens Noel is easing his way back from plantar fasciitis.
Having Duren spend time in the G League with the Motor City Cruise was a question probed to Duren and Pistons coach Dwane Casey during the early portion of training camp, but that may seem far-fetched, given Detroit’s need for frontcourt depth.
“I haven’t heard too much about (the G League), but obviously, whatever they need,” Duren said during media day. “I’m here to develop and grow as a player to be the best player I can be, so whatever route they feel will help me best, I’m all for the taking.”
Also, Duren is a rebounding machine. He grabbed 14 rebounds in his preseason debut against the Knicks. He followed that up with 10 rebounds against the Thunder and 12 rebounds against the Grizzlies. He’s still developing his offensive game and has a tendency to wander into foul trouble, but those are rookie woes that eventually fade over time.
“That’s the key with him. He has all the athleticism in the world,” Casey said. “The key is not fouling. Not reaching out to steal the ball or put himself in harm’s way with bad body position. All those things are Achilles heel for him right now. He has to make sure he gets his hands back and not go for the ball when he knows he has an opportunity to get it.”
Duren should have ample opportunity to prove that he belongs, not only in the NBA, but as a regular in the Pistons’ rotation.
Stewart has seen the work that Duren puts in up close, and thinks he’s up for the challenge.
“He’s ready,” Stewart said. “I think by him playing minutes, it’s going to help him continue to be ready and develop much faster. I work out with him every day after practice or before practice, and he has the body of an NBA player at 18. He’s ready to go out there and most definitely hold his own.”
The Pistons and Magic finished 14th and 15th, respectively, in the Eastern Conference standings last season.
Both teams are beaming with youth, and they possess the last two No. 1 overall draft selections in Cade Cunningham and Paolo Banchero.
When asked how similar the two teams are, Magic coach Jamahl Mosley looked to how both franchises are building their rosters, primarily through the draft.
“They’ve got great young talent,” Mosley said. “They’ve done a great job through the draft and developing their guys to become great young players. Similar to us, they’ve got great young talent. These guys are bonding and coming together, which is a wonderful thing to see.”