Pistons want Jalen Duren to become their version of Miami’s Bam Adebayo, and he knows it

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Pistons are believers in Jalen Duren’s future.

He was targeted by general manager Troy Weaver leading into last year’s draft, and his play this season as a rookie has justified the organization’s decision to trade for him on draft night.

He tallied 15 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and three steals in a loss Thursday against the Denver Nuggets, his team-leading 15th double-double this season, and fifth straight game with at least five offensive rebounds.

Duren, averaging 8.8 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, quickly found a role as a strong rebounder and lob threat with the tools to make stands defensively. The NBA’s youngest player makes the game look easy, and it’s why coach Dwane Casey is making a point to be a tough critic.

When asked about Duren’s improving footwork last week, Casey noted he wants to see the 19-year-old run the floor harder. After Duren’s double-double against the Nuggets, Casey acknowledged Duren’s energy off the bench but saw room for improvement.

“He can be better,” Casey said Thursday. “I’m going to keep pushing, because he can be better. With two bigs in there, we got outrebounded tonight 47-37. That’s why they’re there.”

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For the Pistons’ rebuild to eventually create a contending team, they need Duren to continue take a big leap. The current version is a productive player, not a game-changing one, which is what they believe he can become.

Beyond his rebounding and dunking, Duren shows flashes of skills that could eventually help him make the transition from rotation player to star. A player who has sharpened those skills — Miami’s Bam Adebayo — visits Little Caesars Arena on Sunday. He’s averaging 21 points on 54.3% shooting, 9.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists and two stocks (combined blocks and steals).

Adebayo, in his sixth season, has become one of the game’s most versatile defenders and sharpest passers at center, and has rounded out his offensive game to become a go-to scorer for Miami. His resume is highlighted by two All-Star and three All-Defensive Second Team selections.

Adabayo, 25, has far exceeded his draft position of 14th in 2017, which was considered a reach by many draft pundits at the time. He averaged 13 points, eight rebounds and 1.5 blocks during his lone season at Kentucky — healthy numbers, but evaluators weren’t wowed by his defense or offense. He was projected to be a second-round pick by The Ringer, and as a late first by Bleacher Report and Sports Illustrated.

He’s a player Duren shares shades of his game with, and one Duren has watched closely: The Pistons’ coaching staff has tasked Duren with watching Adebayo film.

“I was watching Bam even before I was in the league,” Duren said Saturday. “One of the guys I pay attention to being a big guy who does a lot. You can talk about the skill factor, but I look at it from the standpoint of just affecting the game in more ways than one. Some guys just affect the game scoring, some guys affect it on the defensive end, which isn’t bad. But I feel like Bam is a guy who affects it all around in just terms of his hustle, his IQ, his defensive mindset, he can score it, his ability to connect the floor. That’s what I try to be. I just like to play basketball, like to win and I like to play basketball the right way.”

Similar to Duren, Adebayo entered the NBA as a raw, bouncy center with the tools to become more. What separates Adebayo from many centers — beyond his all-around skill as a playmaker — is his hustle. He’s a strong and willing screener and is regularly among the leaders in deflections and loose balls recovered at his position.

Casey sees Adebayo as a model for Duren.

“He’s a rookie and locked and learning, understanding the level of intensity he plays with,” Casey said. “No disrespect to anybody else but I showed him some videos of Bam, how Bam runs. I don’t like to give opposing players that much credit, but Bam is one of the best in the league at running the floor, playing with intensity every possession. That’s how he’s gotta run. Sounds trite, but if he puts his running game to high gear, his skill level will go up, his contributions will be much higher the way I know he can run every time down the floor.”

Adebayo is capable of starting transition opportunities and finishing them, thanks to his hard-running, vision and leaping ability. Duren has also shown promise as a passer, and agrees running harder would help him on both ends of the floor. Defensively, it would allow the team to organize itself faster and put less pressure on the guards to pick up the opposing big man in the paint.

“I talk to coach a lot about that,” Duren said. “I know he believes in me a lot, and in my athletic ability especially. I trust in that, too. It’s definitely another level I can get to as far as getting up and down at a faster rate. I feel like it does help the team a lot more. If I’m coming down the lane with a full head of steam, I feel like somebody has to come get me or I’m going to finish. That’s absolutely right. I’ve been working on it just like I’ve been working on every other aspect of my game. Just keep getting better.”

Beyond their similar athletic gifts, the most obvious parallel between the two is their knack for passing.

Adebayo had a positive assist rate as a rookie, and is effective both in the high and low post. He’s comfortable pushing the ball off defensive rebounds, and can find open shooters.

We’ve seen intriguing passing touch from Duren too. He had a pair of alley-oop lobs to James Wiseman in the third quarter vs. the Nuggets, and he can find open shooters.

He has a long way to go as a playmaker, with more turnovers than assists thus far. But he sees the floor well, and it’s an area of the game the Pistons believe he’ll grow significantly.

Duren has already eclipsed most of the NBA in one category — offensive rebounding. His 6.6 offensive boards per 100 possessions rank seventh overall (minimum 45 games played), and his 5.9 second-chance points per game rank 10th.

There’s even room for improvement there, as Casey notes he can protect the ball better by sticking his elbows out as he comes down with the rebound. But it speaks to his high floor, and why Casey sees Adebayo’s growth as a reference point for what Duren can become.

“I know how I can affect the game and that’s just using my body and my God given talents to my best ability,” Duren said. “I can try to go every time. It’s a hard job, but I take pride in it. I go out, and coaches know I’m going to try to go after every offensive rebound, every defensive rebound and try to get my hands on it. I don’t look too much at the numbers and everything, but I’m definitely going to try to keep it up.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa.

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