Detroit Pistons’ rookie Jalen Duren: ‘I felt like I could hold my own at this level’

Detroit Free Press

From the outside, it may appear that Jalen Duren is ahead of schedule.

The 6-foot-11 big man became the youngest player in the NBA when the Detroit Pistons traded for the 13th overall pick and the rights to Duren during the 2022 draft. Less than 30 games into his career, he’s already a full-time starter. The coaching staff inserted him with the first unit Dec. 9, and his play over the last 10 days has justified the decision to let the teenager go head-to-head against the league’s best big men.

Friday’s 15-point, 14-rebound performance against the Sacramento Kings was Duren’s fifth-straight game with at least 12 rebounds and his third double-double in five games. According to ESPN Stats & Info, he and Dwight Howard are the only teenagers in NBA history to grab at least 12 rebounds in five consecutive games. Everything else for Duren — the shot contests, defensive rotations, his lob catches and even the occasional post hook — have improved week-by-week.

But for Duren, who turned 19 years old in November, none of this is a surprise.

He’s never questioned his readiness to play, at any level. In August 2021, the then-17-year-old committed to Memphis and immediately reclassified to join the program that fall. He was a standout, earning unanimous American Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year honors even though he wasn’t a legal adult until his fourth regular season game.

Now he’s making his case as one of the best rookies in the NBA, despite being at least a year younger than the rest of his class. He doesn’t like that his age shaped expectations for him coming into his rookie season. His teammates sometimes forget how young he is, and that’s because he doesn’t carry himself like a young player.

“I set goals for myself, and I’m the type of guy who, it’s a good and a bad thing, but I take a lot of things personally,” Duren told the Free Press in a one-on-one interview Saturday. “Guys are like, ‘He’s young, he might have to go into the G League, he might have to develop first,’ which is cool, which I understood, but I know who I am and I know the work I put in. I felt like I could hold my own at this level.

“What I’m saying is, where I am now isn’t a surprise to me or the people around me. I know where I’m supposed to be and where I see myself being.”

Pistons head coach Dwane Casey acknowledges that Duren’s path thus far has been atypical. His first two months of the season have been dotted by thunderous dunks and blocks, sky-high rebounds and the expected rookie moments. Duren was high on Detroit’s draft board, and he has illustrated why the team thought so highly of him and is thrilled for what will come next.

“It’s just a lot of self-confidence, a lot of people around me believing in me and knowing how much work I put in,” Duren said. “I left school a year early and went to college. All that stuff was a big transition for me. Early on you’re dealing with a lot of adversity, even early on in this season. I feel like now I’m starting to catch my stride, like I knew I would.”

A quick learner

Month-by-month, Duren’s feel for the NBA game has improved. He’s averaging 10 rebounds per game in December after grabbing 6.7 in October and 7.3 in November. It’s a dramatic improvement compared to summer league, when he averaged just 3.3 rebounds through three games.

The coaching staff has been impressed by how quickly Duren has picked things up, and it’s a significant reason why Casey is comfortable with him in the starting lineup.

“To his credit, he’s improved quicker than we ever thought, and he’s a quick learner, he’s a quick lesson,” Casey said on Dec. 10. “He picks up things quickly. He’s still not a finished product. He can get tricked by those older vet bigs. He’s learning through experience.”

Even though all of Duren’s athletic gifts didn’t immediately translate during summer league, Casey had a hunch that his learning curve could be faster than it is for many rookies. Duren is already one of the NBA’s most athletic bigs. And he has a distinguished role as a screen-setter on offense and paint prowler on defense. As he’s gotten more comfortable, he’s been able to showcase his various strengths.

Casey has been impressed with Duren’s screening. It’s not an intuitive skill for most bigs, as all ball-handlers have different preferences on how they like their screens to be set. Duren is one of Detroit’s best lob threats, and those lobs are often preceded by sturdy screens that allow the ball-handler the space they need.

“He’s one of our best screeners we have, his slip and screen,” Casey said. “It’s usually guys’ fault, they’re taking off too soon and setting illegal screens. He’s got to learn to tell a guy to wait, or be like Gary Payton and cuss him out when he goes. Those things are really unseen little nuances that he’s picked up as a rookie, the screening and screening angles. He’s done an excellent job of that and just has to continue to do it.”

Keep in mind, Duren has made an emphasis to show that none of this is beyond his capability. But he’s been helped by having other players — namely Isaiah Stewart and Marvin Bagley — and player development coaches Rashard Lewis and Andrew Jones to help him acclimate. After practices, he and Stewart usually engage in shooting competitions against each other and in one-on-one post-scoring contests against Lewis and Jones. Lewis, who entered the NBA at 18 years old, made two All-Star games and won a championship during his 17-year career, has been in Duren’s ear all season.

“They all have different perspectives on where they were at in their time,” Duren said. “Of course Rashard is retired now, but he came in young like me. To have someone like him working with me, a guy who was an All-Star who made a whole lot of money playing this game, for me it’s a blessing to have that and to get a lot of information from them to help me grow.

“Being one of the younger guys, I never wanted to be a step behind,” Duren added. “I wanted to keep up with everything that’s going on. I don’t want it to be like, ‘we gotta slow-walk Jalen.’ Nah, I always pride myself on being ready to go when my time comes.”

An expanded role

Coming into the season, the Pistons didn’t expect to give Duren consistent minutes early in the season. But injuries forced Duren into the rotation. Nerlens Noel missed training camp, preseason and the start of the regular season due to reconditioning and plantar fasciitis. An MCL sprain during preseason forced Bagley to miss Detroit’s first 13 games. And Stewart missed seven games with a sprained toe on his right foot.

As a result, Duren has played more games than any of Detroit’s big men. An ankle injury caused him to miss two games, but he’s otherwise been one of the healthiest players on the roster this season. As Casey likes to say, the best ability is availability. His availability gave him a leg up early.

“He’s not a typical 19-year-old, he’s very mature for his age,” Casey said. “His growth has been quick. It’s been helped by having an opportunity. He may not have had the same opportunity if Marvin had started out healthy, Nerlens started out healthy. But opportunity comes in a lot of different ways. You have to be ready for it, and he was ready to take advantage of the situation.”

Duren has also been helped by his fit alongside Isaiah Stewart, who has emerged as one of Detroit’s best shooters in his first season as a power forward. Duren plays exclusively in the paint on offense, which has given both players clearly defined roles offensively and has helped them thrive together.

Long term, the Pistons are banking on the duo anchoring Detroit’s frontcourt. Duren has embraced the traditional big man responsibilities — rebounding, screening, running in transition and catching lobs. It’s been the key to his success thus far, and he intends to keep his momentum going.

“I understand who I am, understand what I can do and I try to use my strengths and abilities,” Duren said. “It’s a mentality thing. When you want to do something, you do it. When you’re locked into something, you do it. That’s what I try to do every game. I try to keep my mind on trying to dominate.”

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