Jalen Duren, Blue Chip or Penny Stock?
Jalen Duren has all the physical tools to one day become an elite NBA big man, but does he have the basketball skills to reach the lofty expectations evaluators have set for him?
Perhaps the least shocking development of the 2022 draft cycle early on is the Draft community almost unanimously turning on Jalen Duren. The degradation of centers who can’t stretch the floor has led to a collective shrug for “old school” centers like Duren. Why take Duren in the top 5 when you can get a rim running center late in the first round?
There is some merit to this line of thinking. You don’t want to be the team that drafts Jahlil Okafor or Marvin Bagley too early just because that’s what the mocks said to do.
I understand the hesitancy with committing to Duren too early. When I went to scout him in person earlier this season against Virginia Tech, the most impressive thing I saw from him were some cool dunks in warm ups. Despite Duren’s tantalizing physical gifts, he’s far from a can’t miss prospect. The motor seems to run hot and cold, he’s attempted just one three point shot the entire season, and he’s averaged more turnovers than assists. Not exactly the center cocktail you're looking for in 2022.
But I’m not ready to sell my Jalen Duren stock. Sometimes as evaluators we get so caught up in what a prospect can’t do, that we overlook what they can do, and more importantly what they can do in the future.
What Can Duren Do Right Now?
I’m not one to fall in love with what I call PF Flyer prospects. You know, dudes that just run fast and jump high. Feel and skill is the name of the game in the modern era. However, sometimes a prospect has outlier physical tools that makes up for some of the nuance they may lack on the surface. Duren is one of those guys. Duren is a physical marvel. At 6’11” 250 with a 7’5.5” wingspan it’s easy to see why he came into the cycle with so much hype. What makes Duren’s size all the more impressive is that he should still be in the midst of his senior year of high school.
As much as skill and feel plays a role in the success of a modern day big, physical tools do have to be taken into consideration. Despite being one of the youngest players in the class, Duren is already a grown ass man. Every player (sans Evan Mobley apparently) struggles with the speed of the game as a rookie, but Duren’s size and strength will allow him to not be completely overwhelmed when he steps onto an NBA floor.
Duren’s length and athleticism has made him a force near the rim on both ends. The Memphis big man is averaging 2.6 blocks per game in just 24.5 minutes per game with a block percentage of 12.1%. Duren can step in right away as a shot eraser, making plays with his length and athleticism. While Duren may be at his best cleaning up shots near the rim functioning as weak side rim protector, he’s also shown the mobility to guard in multiple schemes and still be able to make a play on the ball.
In the first clip below Duren hard hedges to the guard out on the perimeter, the weakside low man does his job and is in great position to help on the roll, which allows Duren to get back in the play and swat the shot. Freeze frame that bad boy and look at the extension.
Shot blocking is important for a prospect like Duren but it isn’t the end all be all of what makes him valuable as a last line of defense. Duren has also shown the ability to get vertical and contest without fouling. Duren’s strength will allow him to absorb contact and still be in position to force the shooter into a low percentage shot.
Rim protection is an uber important big man skill but what separates the cream of the crop is scheme-versatility. In a playoff setting can your big stay on the floor when smart teams start forcing switches? Duren has shown himself capable of guarding out on the perimeter. In the first clip Duren gets switched onto a guard and stays with him all the way to the rim until he swats his shit off the backboard. But what impresses me the most about this possession is Duren’s footwork while he’s out on an island. He gets low and wide, switches his stance, and still is able to stay hip to hip. In the second clip Duren is one on one with projected lottery pick JD Davison and he’s able to beat the speedster to the spot, forcing him into help, which leads to a non penetrating pass back out to the logo.
Offensively, Duren finishes everything around the rim. Duren is 41-49 on close two’s this season, including 27 dunks. He hasn’t necessarily shown a deep bag of post moves and he hasn’t been consistent in creating his own offense on a night to night basis, but what he does do, he does well. He’ll get more opportunities with legit NBA PG play. The PG situation in Memphis has quite frankly been a disaster. Emoni Bates has looked more like Lil Penny than Penny Hardaway and the Tigers don’t have a single guard that can make a post entry pass or consistently hit the roller. It’s a tough watch. But try to picture Duren next to a guy like Josh Giddey in OKC. Pairing Duren with legitimate NBA playmaking that allows him to just focus on diving to the rim and finishing is really exciting.
The domino effect of Duren being such a powerful finisher near the hoop, is that defenses have to foul him. It’s seemingly the best defense when he catches the ball anywhere close to the rim. Converting those FTs at a higher percentage is definitely something Duren will need to get better at, but drawing fouls at the rate he does is still a positive for Duren going forward.
What Can Duren Do In The Future?
I mentioned earlier that Duren averages more turnovers than assists and he doesn’t exactly project to be an offensive hub, but I do think he’s made progress making reads as the season has gone on. He’s not yet making Draymond-esque weakside reads out of the short roll, but he is making encouraging reads out of the short roll. If he is going to be an elite dive man at the next level, its imperative that Duren shows that he can make teams pay when they overhelp and force him to give the ball up. He’s getting there.
I’ve talked so much about Duren as an at the rim finisher right now because that’s what he does best, but I wouldn’t give up on an elbow jumper. Duren is shooting a surprising 38% on far twos and has had some real flashes of confidently shooting the rock from the midrange. In high school Duren even flashed a Jermaine O’Neal-esque turn around jumper. The midrange shot won’t be something he’ll spam at the next level but it is a shot that he can use to counter when teams stay home on shooters and the help is waiting at the rim.
When evaluating prospects it can be easy to play power rankings and not projection. If Duren goes top 5 (maybe even top 10) there’s a very real chance that there are some guys drafted after him that come out of the gates hot and make you question whether or not Duren was the right pick. Drafting a prospect like Duren means you’re committing to the long game. You can probably get a guy like Keegan Murray in free agency, but it isn’t every day that guys like Duren come around. I’ve seen enough flashes of skill that the physical tools don’t feel hollow. I’m not ready to hop off the bandwagon.