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Pacers' faith in older-than-usual rookie Chris Duarte pays off

Indiana's 24-year-old rookie is proving his worth and silencing his pre-Draft doubters.

So far this season, Chris Duarte is averaging 18.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.8 apg for Indiana.

Chris Duarte was born on June 13, 1997.

The most recent NBA Draft, the one in which Duarte was on a bunch of teams’ boards, was held on July 29, 2021.

There was an inherent tension between those dates, one that loomed over so many of Duarte’s scouting reports and individual workouts. Duarte was angling to become a 24-year-old NBA rookie, in a league where so many GMs and executives like to snag the 19 and 20 year olds.

A congenial and, as his age might suggest, mature fellow, Duarte shrugged it off again and again. Until one day at a pre-Draft camp, when that same old refrain from scouts and coaches finally got the better of him.

“I got mad one time,” Duarte said Thursday from his hotel room in New York, where the Indiana Pacers were awaiting their game Friday against the Nets in Brooklyn (7:30 ET, NBA League Pass). “I was like, OK guys, everybody keeps talking about this age thing. ‘The age, the age. You’re old, Chris.’

Chris Duarte set a Pacers record with 27 points in his NBA debut vs. the Hornets.

“I got mad and said, ‘Hey man, I don’t want to hear nothing about my age anymore. If you want to win games, get me. If you want to win in four years, go ahead and draft a 19-year-old kid. Then you can develop him and make him a superstar in three, four or five years. But you don’t know if he’s going to be a superstar — you don’t know, who knows?

“So you know what you’re getting now. You don’t know what you’re going to get in the future. You’re guessing. You’re hoping.”

The Pacers opted for now, selecting Duarte with the No. 13 pick in the Draft. They liked and wanted what they had seen during the 6-foot-6 wing’s senior year at Oregon and in his workouts afterward.

Duarte’s ‘poise’ takes page out of Brogdon’s book

Kevin Pritchard, Indiana’s team president, valued Duarte’s competitiveness as well as his ability to create and make shots off the dribble. General manager Chad Buchanan has talked of the late-lottery pick’s versatility and court awareness.

Then there’s coach Rick Carlisle, who so appreciates Duarte’s work at both ends of the floor that — with injuries to Caris LeVert and T.J. Warren upsetting the Pacers’ rotation before the 2021-22 season even began — that he has started the rookie through the first five games.

“He plays with a lot of maturity, plays with a lot of poise,” Carlisle said this week after Duarte scored 18 points with five rebounds against defending-champion Milwaukee. “For the most part, he doesn’t get sped up by the NBA game. … Those are great qualities for a rookie.

“That’s one of the things we liked about him as a 24-year-old Draft prospect. He was more experienced in a lot of areas. In his life, too. Those things contribute to a guy like him playing with a little more poise than some of the other rookies.” writer Steve Aschburner breaks down the first Kia Rookie Ladder of the 2021-22 season.

Duarte ranked atop the league’s other newcomers in’s Kia Rookie Ladder for the first week due to his fast start, prominent role and notable stats — 18.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.8 apg — after one official week on the job. Carlisle threw him into the deep end of the pool, with Duarte averaging 37 minutes and 16.6 field-goal attempts per game. He emerged plus-6.3 points while Indiana overall was minus-1 in its first four games.

Anybody fretting over his age at this point? Hardly.

“I don’t understand why teams don’t draft more mature rookies in general,” backcourt mate Malcolm Brogdon said. “You see, the ones drafted always come in and do really well.”

Brogdon faced some of the same stigma in 2016. After spending four years at Virginia, he was 23 when he was drafted — sliding all the way to No. 36 — and turned 24 seven weeks into his rookie season with Milwaukee. He also wound up winning the 2017 Rookie of the Year award out of the second round.

Brogdon seized opportunities with the Bucks, played his way into the starting lineup and displayed leadership traits that came with his maturity and experience. By his third season he joined the NBA’s exclusive 50/40/90 club, shooting 50.5% overall, 42.6% on 3s and 92.8% from the foul line.

In the summer of 2019, as a restricted free agent, Brogdon landed a four-year, $85 million contract in a sign-and-trade deal with Indiana. Age didn’t hold him back at all. The Pacers have had their share of teenaged and 20-year-old players, but they’re more comfortable than some other teams with guys who are quick contributors.

“I was the epitome of that,” Brogdon said. “Chris is the epitome of that. Draymond Green, other guys. Teams really need to start looking at that. These guys can come in and have an immediate impact on your team.”

Long-held dream realized by making it to NBA

Back in the day, when four years in college was the norm, players such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Reggie Miller and Tim Duncan were 22 as NBA rookies. Generally, guys who arrive at 24 (and older) have played professionally overseas for a while.

Duarte’s backstory is a hybrid of that. He was raised in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, hardly a hoops hotbed. He got to basketball late, immersed in the national sport of baseball until after he turned 13. He ultimately had to travel to the U.S. to complete his final two years of high school, enrolling and playing at Redemption Christian Academy’s campus in Northfield, Mass. Raptors rookie Dalano Banton is another alumnus there, though he grew up in Toronto and was the No. 46 pick in July at age 21.

Chris Duarte basks in the moment after being picked No. 13 overall in the 2021 Draft.

Duarte had traveled to Miami at age 16 to participate in a basketball camp as a 5-foot-10, “super skinny” guard who spoke almost no English. He returned home, then had a growth spurt that changed his game and his so-called ceiling.

“I wanted to come here for a better opportunity and to chase my dream,” Duarte said. “And my dream was playing in the NBA. So I came here by myself.”

Tristan Wilchcombe, Redemption’s coach, grew up in the Bahamas, so he understood Duarte’s transition. “Like with Buddy Hield, it sometimes take a little longer,” Wilchcombe said, mentioning the Sacramento Kings wing who was raised in Freeport, Bahamas. Hield, like Brogdon, was drafted at age 23 in 2016.

“But I’m not surprised by Chris because of the way he worked and the tremendous discipline he had. He learned English so fast, about three months once he was here.”

Duarte looked to be headed to Western Kentucky, but due to academics veered to junior college for two years at Northwest Florida State in the panhandle city of Niceville. From there, it was out to Oregon. He had toyed with the notion of submitting for the NBA Draft after his junior season — he and longtime girlfriend Sylvia Velazquez already had a son, Chris Jr. — but a coach at the school convinced him to wait. Duarte played through a broken finger that season and his stats suffered. As a senior, he averaged 17.1 points, shot 42.4% from the arc and was named a third-team AP All-American.

“The people around me said, ‘Chris, give it one more year,’” he said. “One of them sat me down and said, ‘You’ve got eight more months, buddy. You either grind it out and go for the millions or you just be a regular player and play for $300K overseas.’ That was great advice.”

As the No. 13 pick, Duarte was signed to a four-year contract worth $17.7 million, the first two seasons guaranteed at $7.6 million.

“I knew I was going to be a lottery pick because of the season I had and the things I can do on the court,” he said. “And I’m a great guy off the court. I don’t get in trouble, I don’t go to [the] wrong places.”

Duarte’s confidence shows itself in the aggressiveness he displays in games. He’s a pest defensively and he’s not at all shy offensively. Through five games, he had launched more shots (83) than proven NBA scorers such as Khris Middleton (81), Collin Sexton (79), James Harden (78) and Joel Embiid (73).

Have Carlisle, the other Pacers coaches or teammates encouraged that? “Yes and no,” Duarte said. “That’s kind of how I play. I’m always in attack mode, trying to make something happen. Defensively and offensively. Yes, my teammates always talk to me, telling me, ‘Stay aggressive.’”

Rookie Chris Duarte (right) has found a comfortable place on the veteran-laden Pacers.

Brogdon’s strained hamstring probably will keep the Pacers leaning on Duarte, even as LeVert gets closer to returning. It’s coming in a whirlwind but Duarte is thriving, learning and enjoy it. Most of it, anyway.

After his two years at Oregon were limited by the virus lockdowns, he’s getting his first dose of NBA travel, with stops already in Charlotte, Washington, Toronto and now Brooklyn. He is learning to handle the time he’s away from his little family.

“Especially with my son. I love him and he loves me,” Duarte said of the 19 month old. “When I get home, the first thing he does, he hugs me and gives me kisses. Lays down with me, plays with me. He don’t know how to play video games but we will get it so he can sit beside me and watch me play.

“So when I’m on the road, I miss those moments. I miss my girl, Sylvia. Just like I miss my mom and dad and my brothers [Michael, 26, and Felipe, 28, now live in Toronto]. But you’ve got to do it. I’ve got to do it so I can have a better life and I can give them a better life too.”

For that, Duarte wasn’t too old at all. He is right on time.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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