WASHINGTON — It’s easy to forget that Jalen Duren, the NBA’s youngest player, is only 18.
His first three NBA games have been dotted by highlight plays — poster dunks, ferocious blocks and transition alley-oops. He has quickly established himself as the Detroit Pistons’ resident energy player, using his athleticism to generate momentum and excitement.
Duren’s impact hasn’t just been limited to highlights. He has consistently been good on defense, contesting shots at the rim without fouling and moving in space well when he’s forced to leave the paint. He’s already solid at defending with verticality in the paint.
Behind-the-scenes, the coaching staff has been impressed with how he’s handled himself, and the speed he’s been able to learn the game.
And at 6-foot-10 with an imposing frame, he doesn’t look like a teenager, either.
MORE ON THAT BENICH:Dwane Casey trying to find balance between Pistons’ first and second units
“To me, he’s like 28 because he’s so mature for his age,” Dwane Casey said after practice Monday.
The Memphis alumnus has been exactly as advertised, and his presence has been important for a Pistons team that has been battered by injuries. It wasn’t initially expected he would be the first big man off of the bench this early into the season. But Marvin Bagley III is still several weeks away from returning from a sprained MCL and bone bruise in his right knee, and it’s unclear when Nerlens Noel will make his season debut after missing preseason and most of training camp with plantar fasciitis.
Casey expects big things from Duren, and thus far, he’s been up to the challenge. Through three games, he’s averaging 9.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in just under 21 minutes per. He won’t turn 19 until Nov. 18.
“He’s been great,” Casey said. “Like everything else, there’s a lot of little things. From a physical standpoint, I said at the beginning of the season his rebounding has shocked a lot of people, and his defending is going to translate to this level. The other stuff’s gonna come — the jump hook, the free throws, the passing, all those things will come. But what he’s doing right now, I expected that big time.”
His debut against the Orlando Magic on Wednesday provided plenty of examples of why the Pistons believed him to be one of the best prospects in the draft. He had 14 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks, becoming the second-youngest player in NBA history to post a double-double in his debut after Dwight Howard, according to Basketball Reference.
THE OTHER ROOKIE:Jaden Ivey already exceeding expectations early in Pistons career
Duren checked several boxes for a Pistons team that has missed Bagley’s presence as an athletic lob threat, and has needed a second rim protector after Stewart.
“That’s what this year is about, for him to grow, also with (Jaden) Ivey,’ Casey said last Wednesday. “Both of those young kids are going to be our future and I thought tonight they showed it. His verticality at the rim was huge for us and that’s what translates with him. All his toughness, rebounding, screening and rolling, and lob threat are all things that translate right now.”
The challenge for the Pistons this season will be finding the balance between giving him opportunities to prove himself, and still holding him accountable for mistakes. Thus far, they haven’t had the depth to do so. He picked up two fouls in 90 seconds against the New York Knicks in the first quarter, forcing Casey to substitute Isaiah Stewart back into the game almost immediately after subbing him out.
There have been moments where he settled for hook shots instead of attacking space. Some of his defensive rotations have been mistimed or ill-advised. He has occasionally taken himself out of good defensive position while going for blocks.
“He had some of those with his honest energy, he’s trying to go block everything,” Casey said. “Some of them you’re not going to get, and now you’re leaving (Pacers center) Goga (Bitadze) open for a tip. A lot of those, you gotta play cat and mouse and those things he’ll learn as he progresses.
They’re expected mistakes from any rookie, and particularly from one young enough to be a freshman in college. The veteran savvy will come, with time. The Pistons will continue to try to be smart with his minutes and put him in positions to succeed, especially when two of their veteran big men return from injury.
Thus far, Duren has shown that the front office was justified in trading for him on draft night. His impact isn’t showing up in Detroit’s win-loss record, but his development now will pay off.
“Usually those guys are in the G League, and now you have them here at this level,” Casey said. “It’s only gonna benefit our organization down the road. It hurts right now because we’re not getting rewarded for it. But down the road, all this we’re going through right now is going to pay off.”
Contact Omari Sankofa II at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa.
Next up: Wizards
Matchup: Pistons (1-2) at Washington (2-1).
Tipoff: 7 p.m. Tuesday; Capital One Arena, Washington.
TV/radio: Bally Sports Detroit Extra; WWJ-AM (950).