The story of the 2022-23 Detroit Pistons is a complicated one, but it’s easy to pinpoint its most disappointing aspect: Cade Cunningham, after a dynamic close to his rookie season, logged all of 12 games before injury and subsequent surgery ended year two.
At the other end of the spectrum, the most pleasant development is just as obvious: Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren are on the cusp of ending rookie seasons with the most optimistic forecasts for them as draft prospects still intact.
That’s not to say they’re already there, but don’t underestimate the importance of that whole bit. Draft classes always look much different in retrospect and usually for the worse. As time goes on, flaws reveal themselves to deflate the world of possibilities, prospect by prospect.
That hasn’t happened with Ivey or Duren. Not even close. Everything that was projected for their vast potential – they were widely considered the 2022 draft’s two most athletic prospects – is still in play.
Ivey has made remarkable strides in both learning how to optimize his elite speed by using it selectively and flashing as a playmaker with vision and passing flair. His 3-point shot is on track to get where it needs to be, already inching toward NBA average – no small feat for a rookie who takes them at high volume while also having the onus of running his team’s offense dropped on his shoulders with Cunningham’s absence. Ivey, in fact, has made at least two triples in eight straight games and, after hitting 5 of 8 in Wednesday’s game at Oklahoma City, sits at 34.2 percent.
Duren, the NBA’s youngest player at 19 and 4 months, already ranks as a rebounding force. He leads all rookies in rebounds, offensive rebounds and dunks. He’s second in double-doubles, third in shooting at an eye-popping 64 percent. After hitting a lull from the effects of spraining each ankle, Duren has returned from a six-game absence and flashed maturing footwork and the toolkit to be a valuable facilitator.
Earlier this week, they were the Pistons two best players in a battle with Milwaukee, Ivey splurging for a career-best 32 points to go with eight rebounds and eight assists and Duren coming off the bench to put up 18 points on 8 of 11 shooting, 10 boards and three assists.
Now they’ve got six games and a little more than a week to put a cherry atop rookie seasons that – along with Cunningham’s return at full health – have the Pistons well positioned for a significant leap forward in 2023-24.
“It means everything,” Duren said of closing strong. “We’re competing for next year at this point. We’re still learning and growing and getting better. It’s not time to go on vacation until the buzzer hits on the court in Chicago (April 9). I’m just locked in and focused on keep growing and getting better until the season is over.”
“Very important,” Dwane Casey said of Ivey and Duren running through the tape on their rookie seasons. “We gave them certain areas we want them to improve in, not just about scoring. It’s about defensive techniques, schemes, communication. All those things are just as important as seeing the ball go through the hoop. That helps, but it’s the other little things those two young guys are doing. It’s very important we continue that these last (six) games.”
In the heat of Monday’s hotly contested game against a Bucks team driving to secure the No. 1 seed, Ivey took over decisively in the third quarter with 14 points, three rebounds and three assists while hitting 4 of 6 shots and all six free throws.
“I saw the light come on, like, ‘I’m going to take everyone on my shoulders’ – in a good way,” Casey said. “Not in a selfish way. He was making the right decisions, he was moving the ball when he was covered. He was taking over the game in the right way with confidence and not against chopped liver. Jevon Carter is one of the best pick-and-roll defenders in the league. That’s what is very encouraging.”
Something else that encourages the Pistons where the futures of Ivey and Duren are concerned: They’ve both shown the maturity to remain focused on the process and not be distracted by success, failure or the trappings of sudden notoriety and means. Nobody beats Ivey to the gym and then he has to be chased out. Duren is always among the final group still getting individual drill work done after practice. And they’ve not only bonded as teammates but displayed chemistry as pick-and-roll partners.
“It’s been great,” Ivey said. “Just trying to learn from each other every single day in practice, working on getting better, getting our skills right. It’s a long season. Everybody has to do their part and he does his part, for sure. He gets in the gym, works on his game. We’ve got a couple of more games left. Off-season, get everyone on this team together and try to get better.”
Duren has been coming off the bench since sitting out six games to let his barking ankles calm down, but more or less splitting center minutes equally with another young big man with high-end potential, James Wiseman. From his bench perspective, Duren sensed Ivey was about to go off early in Monday’s game.
“I think J.I. hit the first two or three shots and I just say in my head, he’s going to have himself a game. You could just tell when a guy’s feeling it. But I’ve felt that about J.I. a lot over the course of the year. Having a guard like that to come in with, along with what we already have, I feel was huge for me, has helped my development a lot in terms of growing and playing and just learning how to play with a guy with his speed and talent. It's been great for both of us.”
Pick-and-roll partners have to become synchronized like dance partners and Ivey and Duren began to anticipate each other’s thoughts around mid-season. Ivey is mastering the art of pinning a defender on his hip to buy time while Duren plots his angle of attack.
“It’s been big,” Ivey said of their burgeoning chemistry. “The biggest thing is repetition in practice. I feel like with my speed I’m able to create opportunities for other people. I kind of just feed off him and what I can get. If I can get to the bucket, I’m going to take that. But putting those guys in position so we as a team can be better.”
Wherever their careers take them, that much seems pretty well established. The Pistons as a team are better for having Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren as central parts of their future.