Film Don’t Lie: Jalen Duren’s path to dominance starts with improving his defense

Detroit Bad Boys

There is absolutely no denying the impact that No. 13 overall pick Jalen Duren has made through the first 33 games of his Detroit Pistons career.

The 19-year-old is the youngest player in the NBA and has shown everyone why there were reports that Troy Weaver would have considered taking him as high as No. 5 overall if Jaden Ivey was not available.

The high upside was always apparent with Duren, maybe as high as anyone on this team outside of Cade Cunningham, but the immediate impact that Duren has made has been just as impressive.

Not only is Duren not spending time with the Pistons G-League affiliate, Motor City Cruise, he is now in the starting lineup alongside fellow big man Isaiah Stewart with no indication of ever relinquishing that starting spot to Stewart or anyone else.

There is plenty to unpack when looking at Duren’s offense as the lob connections are becoming more frequent, and the passing flashes continue to show. The offensive rebounding is already at an elite level, not for a rookie but for any big man in the NBA. Duren’s all-around offensive ceiling is as exciting as any 20 and younger player in the league.

Did you feel a but coming? There’s a but coming.

BUT … defense.

This latest look at the game film is going to focus exclusively on the defensive end of the court, and that is where Duren has shown some flashes but also shown he has plenty to learn and ways to grow. We will look at Duren in ball screen coverage, true on-ball possessions, off-ball defense, and his defensive rebounding.

It should be immediately noted that the rookie out of Memphis has been very good by rookie standards. When comparing these areas against other players of his age and experience, he would continue to stand out because while Duren struggles, so do most rookies on the defensive end of the court.

We will highlight where Duren has been good, but we will also look at areas of continued growth for the 6-foot-10 center. Again, these areas of growth will be in comparison to NBA centers in general, not just rookie big men. Because the goal is for Duren to be the best center in the NBA, not just be good for a rookie big man.

Ball Screen Defense

For this part of the breakdown, we are only looking at ball screen possessions that resulted in true drop or ice coverage. Possessions that ended up with Duren switching onto a perimeter player will be highlighted next.

This is probably the one area that it is reasonable to expect the most and quickest growth from Duren on this end of the court.

The Montverde Academy product has two areas for growth that will really improve his overall efficiency in these play types.

The first, and something that was noted in Duren’s pre-draft film study as well, is his tendency to play this coverage too high. He usually does a good job initially but then fails to continue to backpedal as his teammate recovers and does not stay below the rolling big so he can recover when the pass is made.

Duren also has a tendency to turn his hips towards the ball handler on possessions, and this leaves his back to the rolling big man. When the pass is made, he now has to completely turn around to try and get back in front of the offensive big or give any sort of contest.

A couple of smaller areas for growth that would make an immediate impact are being more active with his hands, which would result in deflections as opposed to completed passes, and being more prepared before the screen is set, which ensures he is in the correct position.

It is also VITAL to mention that the Pistons struggle with drop and ice coverage as a team overall. This type of defensive scheme requires chemistry and collective effort from all five players on the court. All too often, the guard is not navigating the screen quickly enough, and the weak side is not helping tag the roll man.

While Duren has plenty of individual growth in this play type, we will not know his true abilities until the Pistons as a collective get better defending ball screens in this way.

On-Ball Defense

There were definite flashes of switchability in Duren’s college film that were noted in the pre-draft film study. Even so, Duren being able to do this was something that was considered to be much more long-term than showing flashes before the halfway point of his rookie season.

Playing switch is not what you want Duren doing a ton but an ability to do so when necessary only adds to his long-term defensive impact.

Duren has also shown an ability to defend the occasional post isolations that come his way. Opposing big men quickly learned they must really work if they plan on backing Duren down in the paint. The rookie simply does not give ground very easily in these situations.

Help/Off-Ball Defense

While Duren’s blocked shot numbers are not overly impressive, less than one per game, his impact is still frequently felt in the paint.

It is quite impressive how good he is playing vertically at such a young age, and his sheer size, length and verticality have caused multiple errant shot attempts and passes.

Duren could be better at anticipating passes from the opposition when he does decide to contest something at the rim. This again plays into something we talked about earlier with Duren having more active hands and getting deflections on pass attempts to be disruptive.

Duren’s overall awareness does have room to grow, again every rookie does on the defensive end, but it will be very intriguing to see how much the Pistons try to utilize him in an off-the-ball, weakside rim protector-type role moving forward.

Rebounding

While some will say “analysts” were wrong about Duren’s defensive rebounding coming into the season, it is actually more of a testament to his own personal growth and improvement.

The college and summer league film showed a player who was sometimes slow to get a box out, and a motor (or possibly, conditioning) that was not always at 100%. Credit Duren for improving that by the start of the season. Although, there are still possessions where he tends to rely on his physical tools instead of getting a body on an offensive player.

Duren has been a good defensive rebounder, with numbers that are similar to Isaiah Stewart, but the rookie is not at that same elite level that we have seen on the offensive end. And that is OK, as he will likely continue to get better at corralling defensive boards.

To compare to other rookies, Duren is first in defensive rebound percentage among rookies who have played at least 10 games, just ahead of a top five that includes Walker Kessler, Jabari Smith Jr, Tari Eason and Paolo Banchero. Even more, Duren has the most contested rebounds in the rookie class. To reiterate, when compared to other rookies, Duren continues to stand out.

To emphasize one final time, Jalen Duren has been awesome for the Detroit Pistons and probably better than we could have imagined at this early stage in his career. He is doing so many things at an extremely high level for a rookie center in the NBA that barely has 30 games under his belt. Compared to other bigs at his age, you can say he has been great! The areas for growth that have been outlined are not uncommon and are already areas where we are starting to see improvement and can expect even more in the future. I said after the draft that nobody in the Pistons community was higher on his long-term upside than me, but that I was a little lower on his short-term impact. I was wrong about the short term…..but he has given me, and everyone else, plenty of reasons to believe that in the long run, he could be the best two-way center in the NBA.

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