Debuts to dream on: Ivey, Duren and a Pistons draft for the ages

Jaden Ivey wore his grandfather’s Lions jersey, No. 28, to his first NBA game. Said he had a chat with him, “who’s up in heaven,” before the game to calm his nerves. To get to the higher plane on which James “Hound Dog” Hunter exists, my guess is Ivey merely jumped to look his grandfather eye to eye.

It seemed that’s where his rookie teammate, Jalen Duren, was headed when he took off from the right wing and put Orlando’s poor Chuma Okeke on an everlasting poster in a first-half dunk.

There are going to be nights Ivey and Duren look like what they are – a 20-year-old and an 18-year-old playing in a grown man’s world. But the rest of the NBA better take advantage of those nights when they come. Because there are going to be an increasing number of nights into the foreseeable future and beyond when Ivey and Duren carry the Pistons to the preposterous heights that they often inhabit.

“Both of those young kids,” Dwane Casey exhaled after the 113-109 win over Orlando before as enthusiastic and entertained a Little Caesars Arena crowd has been in the six seasons since the Pistons have called it home, “are going to be our future.”

The future, indeed. Along with Cade Cunningham, who made the game-clinching pass, and Isaiah Stewart, who drained the game-clinching triple, old men at 21 apiece. And Saddiq Bey, 23, and Killian Hayes, 21, and the handful of other precocious Pistons among their 10 players 24 or younger who make up one of the NBA’s top-three young cores according to the recent NBA.com survey of general managers.

“It’s amazing. We need them,” said Cunningham, suddenly a veteran leader in his second season, of the two lottery picks Troy Weaver somehow corralled in a draft night for the ages. “I’m super excited to play a full season with them and get to be around talent like that. I think they’re going to help us a whole lot.”

Ivey is blessed with the top gear of a Lamborghini but had to abide by a strict 55 mph speed limit during his college days at Purdue amid the rough-and-tumble Big Ten. In the NBA – with shooters like veteran Bojan Bogdanovic and Bey at his side to create driving lanes – he suddenly finds himself liberated on the autobahn.

“I just try to every night use my burst,” he said after scoring 19 points, 10 in a third quarter that helped the Pistons surge into a lead, to go with four assists and three steals. “I feel like I can get past some of the quickest guys. Once I beat the defender, I’ve got to start looking for some other guys. It’s going to take some games to get used to that, but I feel I used my speed to the best of my ability tonight.”

Ivey and Duren bring a different element to the Pistons, the quality Weaver felt was most lacking in his first two tries at roster building. For as athletic as Ivey is at 6-foot-4, even he’s awestruck by what he sees when he looks at his teammate, the NBA’s only 18-year-old.

“He’s a freak,” Ivey said. “Just a strong build, very athletic. He played with great poise tonight, played comfortable, played to his strengths.”

Those strengths: The ability to translate his athleticism and strength into rebounding, shot-blocking and dunking. The thing is, Casey and Weaver are sure there’s more to Duren – a lot more – that will be unleased over time. But the Duren who put up 14 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks – never mind all the shots affected or altogether dissuaded by his intimidating presence – proved in his NBA debut that he’s already a force who affects winning.

It was a major win for the future of the franchise that Duren played so well that Casey left him on the floor long after he’d waved all of his other starters back into the game amid a taut fourth quarter. Twelve straight minutes he rolled with Duren, who finished with the best plus/minus of any Piston for the game and became the youngest player in franchise history to record a double-double.

Did the rookie ever take a minute to step outside of himself and feel the vibe from an electric home audience? Did he appreciate the improbable odds of not just donning an NBA uniform as an 18-year-old but actually playing a starring role in his very first game?

“I was just locked in on trying to go pull out the win,” he said with the same level of purpose he applied to his 22 minutes. “I try to do anything I can. If coach needs me in the game, I’m going to be in the game. If I’m on the sideline, I’m going to be the biggest cheerleader.”

Based on what Weaver has accomplished in his two-plus years on the job, the Pistons are going to play to many such electric crowds in their future. Based on Duren’s body of work to date – yep, one game – he’s not going to be on the sidelines often in the biggest moments of those games.

Now, time for the caveat. It’s not as easy for kids to make an impact or affect winning as Ivey and Duren made it look in their debuts and there are going to be nights – and quite possibly as soon as this weekend, when the kids face their first back to back – they look like, well, 18- and 20-year-olds.

But they were debuts to dream on. You don’t have to squint to see a future where Cunningham, Stewart, Bey, Ivey, Duren and pals are leading the Pistons on playoff runs and Little Caesars Arena becomes the “hot gym” Casey foresees invigorating Detroit.

“That was a big win for our fan base and the organization as a whole,” Cunningham said. “We’ve been saying we want to protect home court, protect Detroit and make this a tough place to play. To start off playing against a good Magic team and be able to fight back into the game and then go win it in front of a big crowd, it was a great win for us.”