Rarely do you see someone reclassify up in high school and dominate the college game physically. Yet, there was Jalen Duren last season, a shade over 18 years old, manhandling anyone and everyone. It would’ve been preposterous if he’d played another year of high school basketball. Hell, he was a man among boys, while playing other men.
This has always been one of the great conundrums when evaluating Duren’s potential as an NBA prospect. He’s looked physically ready for the league since he was about, oh, 15 or so. But like all other physical specimens, he was relegated to playing among his own age for a time.
But now Duren, who doesn’t turn 19 until November, is off to Detroit Pistons in a league he’s belonged in for a long time. He was selected 13th.
There were times not too long ago, when many saw Duren as a potential top-three overall pick. He was the No. 1 player in the 2022 recruiting class as a high school junior before deciding to reclassify to 2021, moving up a grade, and promptly becoming a top-five recruit in that class.
Duren chose Penny Hardaway and Memphis after considering a handful of colleges along with offers from G League Ignite and Australia’s National Basketball League. As a freshman, he was an All-AAC First Team selection and named conference Freshman of the Year. He started 29 games, averaging 25 minutes per outing, and posted 12.0 points and an AAC-best 8.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. Everything Duren was billed to be was as-advertised and on full display. A little raw? Sure. Inconsistent? Yes. But his athleticism and size — 6-foot-11, 250 pounds and a 7-foot-5 wingspan — was remarkable.
The reputation goes back years.
Duren is from Philadelphia. He became one of the best big man prospects in the country while at fabled Roman Catholic High School, one of the city’s historical basketball powers. As a high school underclassman, Duren was commuting to Roman from his mother’s house in Delaware. While the education was good for his game, the lifestyle was untenable. A daily commute from Delaware to Center City Philly is no small task. In time, he opted to transfer to Montverde (Fla.) High School, one of the premier prep schools in the country.
In reclassifying and committing to Memphis, Duren went for the buzz, but possibly not the best fit for his single season of college development. Memphis had talent, but spent the entire year with a glaring hole at the point guard position. Considering Duren’s obvious offensive skill set as a natural roll man, it was never an ideal scenario in scheme, let alone everything else. As you might have heard, portions of the season at Memphis amounted to a spectacle. Those who were inside the program have described constant melodrama.
Duren was there, in part, to work alongside assistant coach Rasheed Wallace. He got less than a half-season of instruction before the former NBA All-Star opted out of the coaching staff, though.
So Duren had no point guard, and no big man coach. The year ended with the Tigers underperforming, in regards to some grandiose expectations, but still managing a No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They put a second-round scare into Gonzaga before losing 82-78. It was arguably Duren’s worst performance of the season — seven points, 3-of-11 FGs, five rebounds, one block, four fouls, 19 minutes.
Despite all that, Duren maintained his lottery stock.
It’s all about the upside. And many still see Duren’s upside as Bam Adebayo-ish. Or maybe DeAndre Jordan-ish.
Skill-wise, yes, Duren is somewhat limited. This is not the ultra-modern unicorn big man. Per hoop-math, about 73 percent of Duren’s field goals came at the rim, and 35 percent came via (mostly short) jumpers. Of those shots at the rim, 20 percent were put-back attempts. He averaged 3.0 offensive boards per game and shot 61 percent on put-backs.
In the NBA, especially early, Duren’s production is most likely to come as a rim-runner, a roll man, and on put-backs and lobs.
What probably goes unnoticed or undervalued, though, is Duren’s ability as a passer. Some scouts say he’s far better than anything seen at Memphis. If that’s the case, he’s not exactly as one-dimensional as some might have you believe.
Defensively, Duren carries loads of value. He can switch multiple positions, is a legitimate rim protector from Day One and is only going to get better with time.
And, it’s worth remembering, he has plenty of that. Duren has always been a talent who looks and feels older than he is. Watch him walk across the stage of the draft and he looks like a man who’s a finished product. In reality, he’s only scratching the surface. Duren’s physical gifts give him a starting point unlike any other player in this draft. Now he’s got growing up to do.
(Photo: Soobum Im / USA Today)