Setting a range of expectations for Jalen Duren’s rookie season when the Pistons drafted him in June – still 5 months from his 19thbirthday – was almost an impossible task.
Soaking up minutes in the G League seemed at least as reasonable a projection as Duren cracking Dwane Casey’s rotation – especially once Marvin Bagley III did the expected and re-signed with the Pistons and they traded for Nerlens Noel to go with holdover big man Isaiah Stewart, whose place at the center of Troy Weaver’s restoration of the Pistons was secure.
A Duren good enough to finish road games against NBA contenders and spearhead Pistons wins was most definitely not along the spectrum of reasonable expectations.
Yet when the Pistons pulled off the astounding feat of winning back-to-back games at Denver and Utah in late November, that’s exactly what happened. Casey brought Duren into the games late in the third quarter each night and never took him out.
“For coach Casey to trust in me, and the coaching staff, to do that,” Duren said, “was a huge compliment for me.”
It wasn’t a case of Casey testing Duren amid a season where pushing the development of players like him and fellow rookie Jaden Ivey, to name just two of the five key Pistons 21 or younger on the roster, is front and center on franchise objectives. It was Casey using the five players he thought best provided the opportunity to win. Indeed, in the Denver game Ivey and Killian Hayes were pulled for the final minutes when the Nuggets turned up the heat in favor of veterans Cory Joseph and Alec Burks.
“Young guys are going to learn. They’re going to have a lot of years to learn,” Casey said. “But we needed to finish with our older guys tonight to get that needed win.”
Duren didn’t score a point in that fourth quarter, but he greatly affected Denver’s ability to score at the other end. It wasn’t misleading that Duren finished with the team’s best plus/minus number that night at plus 14. He finished with four points, seven rebounds and a steal in 26 minutes, playing the last 16 minutes straight against a team that was 10-6 and tied for second in the West and getting Nikola Jokic, Jamaal Murray and Aaron Gordon all back in the lineup.
The Utah game was an even more remarkable win. Against a team that was tied for first in the West at 12-7 – and in a city where the Pistons sported a 6-36 record since the Jazz relocated from New Orleans in 1979 – Duren again played the final 16 minutes and again finished with seven points and four rebounds, plus two blocks and two steals. Duren finished a plus six that night, trailing only second-unit teammates Burks and Kevin Knox.
To celebrate, he turned 19 two days later.
Duren has impressed the Pistons with his humility and his maturity since the day he was drafted, when he spoke of making Detroit his first predraft stop and immediately informing his agent it’s where he wanted to be. It seemed very unlikely that would come to pass at the time. The Pistons held the fifth pick but no other first-round choice and didn’t seem to have the ammunition to wrangle the pick necessary to land Duren, projected as a mid- to late lottery prospect.
That humility and maturity did not induce Duren to dial back personal expectations for what his rookie year might entail, though.
“I expect greatness out of myself,” he said. “I work hard every day. For me, it’s all about winning. If me on the floor is going to help us win, then cool. And if me on the bench is going to help us win, then that’s cool, too.”
More evidence of Duren’s maturity: Blessed with the bounty of a guaranteed NBA contract at 19 and with a new world to explore at every stop, Duren’s takeaway from his first two months in the league is the importance of a good night’s rest.
“Honestly, sleeping more,” he said about adjusting to a schedule with 82 games. “Got to sleep. Just got to stay rested, stay hydrated and come in ready to work. We’re (25) games in. College season is like 30 games and then you’ve got the tournament, but, still, it’s nothing like the NBA. I would say my biggest thing has just been resting.”
Since Duren’s first tour of the NBA West, Stewart has returned from the toe injury that cost him six games and Bagley is rounding into form after missing a month with a preseason knee injury. That means Casey has wider latitude to play two big men at a time, abetted by his growing trust in Duren to handle whatever the NBA throws at him.
Casey cites Duren’s “defensive presence” as the appeal of playing the precocious rookie at winning time. Bagley and Stewart both qualify as athletic big men, but Duren’s athleticism is of another magnitude.
“I told each one of them,” Casey said, “whoever is getting it done that night is probably going to be the one closing that game.”
That Jalen Duren had elevated himself to being a logical candidate as a closer before turning 19 seemed beyond anyone’s expectations just a few weeks ago – well, anyone but his.