Detroit Pistons’ Jalen Duren/James Wiseman combo gets first big test vs. Denver Nuggets

Detroit Free Press

Last month’s trade for James Wiseman created several interesting questions that the Detroit Pistons need to answer.

One of the most glaring: Can Wiseman fit with Jalen Duren, the Pistons’ promising rookie big? The organization has now invested into two young players most comfortable at the center position. Wiseman is 7 feet tall, and Duren is 6-10. They’re both most effective in the paint, though Wiseman also takes a significant amount of midrange jumpers. Neither player takes, or makes, many 3-pointers.

But the Pistons are banking that the two can help form a formidable rotation of bigs that will eventually allow them to match up against contending teams with equally big frontcourts, such as the Milwaukee Bucks’ combo of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez, or the Boston Celtics’ mix of Al Horford, Grant Williams and Robert Williams III. For Duren and Wiseman to thrive together, one — or both —will have to grow comfortable with playing further away from the basket, on both ends of the floor.

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They took a step toward figuring out their fit during Thursday’s 119-100 loss to the Denver Nuggets at home. Detroit, despite the return of Jaden Ivey from the NBA’s health and safety protocols, was stlll missing significant talent, and Wiseman and Duren were the only healthy bigs on the roster. Duren came off of the bench, but Pistons coach Dwane Case played him alongside Wiseman after Eugene Omoruyi picked up his fourth foul early in the third quarter.

The two only shared the floor for 5:51 while showcasing surprising chemistry. But their time also highlighted some of the problems that the Pistons will have to solve to make the pairing work.

Both players had healthy stat lines. Duren finished with 15 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and three steals; Wiseman tallied 14 points and nine rebounds. The rookie has shown passing skills this season, and Thursday was one of his better games with the ball. He connected with Wiseman on consecutive lobs to give Detroit an 80-77 lead.

The first alley-oop was on a set play that featured Wiseman rolling to the rim after setting a pick for Killian Hayes, who then passed the ball to Duren on the left block. The second came from Duren lofting the ball over the top of Denver’s defense as ex-Piston Kentavious Caldwell-Pope fronted Wiseman in the paint. Duren can be sloppy with the ball, and his four assists were offset by three turnovers. But when he’s settled, he’s adept at reading the defense and making the right pass.

“We joke about him in practice, sometimes he can throw some wild ones,” Ivey said of Duren after the game. “I think he’s progressed really well throughout the season, even as a passer. He’s reading the low man, making the right reads to James, he’s making the kickouts. That’s something you need as a big, being able to read that low-man defender if he’s committing to the big and find those outside shooters. I think he’s done a great job of that.”

The Pistons alleviated the potential troubles from two bigs with good ball movement, and outscored Denver, 12-9, when Duren and Wiseman shared the floor. But it wasn’t enough to overcome all the spacing issues — exacerbated by sharpshooters Bojan Bogdanovic, Alec Burks and Isaiah Livers being on the injury report. Rodney McGruder had a hot night outside the arc, knocking down six of 10 3s during a 20-point night. Cory Joseph (3-for-4 from 3) and Ivey (2-for-5) also shot well.

But Denver found success packing the paint. Soon after Duren checked in for the first time, Aaron Gordon ignored hom in the right corner, and Hayes was met with two defenders when trying to penetrate. The possession ended with Hayes airballing a stepback 3.

Although that possession was an outlier — Detroit shot 5-for-10 with the duo on the floor — it highlighted that the guards have to work harder when lanes are closed due to poor spacing. Ivey was able to break through Denver’s defense with his lightning-quick first step to feed Duren for a layup, but most guards lack his speed. Over longer stretches, Detroit could struggle generating shots in the paint through a sea of defenders.

The Pistons, internally, believe in Wiseman’s ability to space the floor. He hasn’t shown it, but his development from outside could ease those spacing woes longterm. Due to injuries sapping the Pistons of their shooters, it’s tough to decide on the viability of playing Wiseman and Duren together. The team is also missing its all-around best playmaker in Cade Cunningham. But Thursday teased the lineup’s potential, thanks to Duren’s passing.

“It was an opportunity to experiment with it,” Casey said. “Our spacing’s gotta be better. I thought we couldn’t generate offense in that stretch. Have to find some ways to make sure we keep the scoreboard moving with those two bigs in there.”

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