The Early Evolution of Jalen Duren
Examining the early evolution of Memphis freshman Jalen Duren's offensive skillset.
As the spring season rolls in and we officially put March Madness behind us, the march towards the 2022 NBA Draft has now really started. This is the time of year when we, as evaluators, start to ramp up the film study, catching up on the games we may have missed over the season. I think I’ve been pretty open with you guys about this before, but for me personally, as an amateur scout, this stretch run from April to June of endlessly studying game tape of prospects becomes overwhelming at times. The monotonous nature of watching endless hours of basketball is a mental hurdle I struggle to jump over time and time again.
However, one of my favorite parts of this gig and the thing that keeps me going in a way is when you see a promising young player start to really become more assured of themselves and their skills on the floor. When you see that proverbial switch flip with a prospect, I think it’s one of the coolest things about getting to do what we do. Watching Memphis freshman Jalen Duren and his growth over the second half of the season was a perfect example of this for me.
The endlessly talented Corey Tulaba already did a great overview of Duren as a prospect back in January here on No Ceilings, so I didn’t want to just do a general scouting report on the Memphis big man. In this piece, I want to focus instead on the strides Duren made in multiple areas of his offensive game during the latter portion of the 2021-2022 season for the Memphis Tigers. When Duren was at Montverde Academy, it was easy for the draft community to get tantalized by the incredible athleticism and physicality he possessed at 6’11” and 250 lbs. However, I think many evaluators found themselves wondering, outside of his immense physical tools, what else Duren could really bring to an NBA team and whether or not his upside is limited in a league where big men are more versatile than ever before.
Players like Nikola Jokić, Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Bam Adebayo, and Evan Mobley embody what the center position has evolved into in the modern NBA. This evolution is a big reason why I had so much difficulty deciphering what his true potential as a pro really is early on in my own evaluation process of Duren. The combination of athleticism and strength the New Castle, Delaware product possessed jumped off of the screen; however, if he wasn’t converting lobs or offensive rebounds into dunks on the offensive end of the floor, there wasn’t much else to get excited about in terms of Duren’s offensive arsenal. His touch appeared to be iffy, his shooting ability was almost non-existent, and any feel for the game he had didn’t show up on a consistent basis. If Duren couldn’t beat you with his pure power offensively, he turned from The Incredible Hulk to Bruce Banner rather quickly. As Corey put it in his piece about Duren, the major question NBA front offices could be asking themselves in June with the 2022 AAC Freshman of the Year is: “Why take Duren in the top 5 when you can get a rim running center late in the first round?”
In the last 15 games or so of the season, though, there seems to be a shift beginning in Duren’s play. He’s started hitting faceup jumpers routinely and making reads as a passer which sort of opened my eyes to the improvements to his skillset that he had already made. Now I’ll just be real with you—I’m not an enormous analytics or biomechanics guy. I’m not somebody who uses Synergy religiously to showcase what a player can do or someone who breaks down how a guy moves to determine how successful he’ll be in the NBA. I think there is value in that stuff, don’t get me wrong, but frankly, I’m not going to use that stuff just to sound smarter than everyone else. Ultimately, I value what the game film reveals and what my eyes are telling me the most (Yes, I’m old, I know).
I definitely will still utilize some stats to punctuate some of the improvements Duren unlocked in the second half of the year, but I’m mainly going to show you what the film showed me. Hopefully, you may walk away as excited about Duren’s upside as a pro as I’ve become. The first area I’d like to highlight when looking at Duren’s growth as a player is the emerging mid-range game he’s displayed. He’s shown he can become a threat to score away from the basket and not rely solely on getting buckets around the rim.
I’ve watched Duren go from looking like a fish out of water at times when isolated on an island in the post offensively to a player who confidently can hit faceup 18-foot jump shots. In his first 13 games this season at Memphis, Duren shot just 9-of-31 (29%) on his mid-range shot attempts, per Barttorvik. Subsequently, in his next 16 games, he knocked down 21-of-52 (40%) of his mid-range shots. I know that’s not an earth-shattering jump, but I believe the increases in both volume and percentage are positive signs regarding Duren’s shooting development. I’m not sure he’s ever going to develop into any sort of legitimate three-point threat, but the fact Duren can now extend the defense at all with his jump shot is really exciting when forecasting his offensive outlook as a pro.
The other area of Duren’s offensive game that has been really promising to see him expand is his capabilities as a passer. He’s become a budding post playmaker who can be a connector of sorts for an NBA offense either out of the short roll or out of the high post, and Duren can even make plays in transition as an outlet passer as well. I think most of the damage he can do as a playmaker mainly comes out of the high post, which is the area I’d look to put him in constantly to try to make plays at the next level.
While his decision-making and accuracy as a passer still need to improve immensely, what Duren has shown as a playmaker out of the high post makes me believe his feel for the game might be undervalued by the current general consensus. He’s an awesome entry passer in high-low situations, and again, he can be that connector for an offense with the hockey assists he can accumulate creating from the high post area.
Ultimately, I view Duren sort of like a big-time knockout puncher in boxing. Take former WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder for example—a man who is known for having arguably the greatest right hand in boxing history and who relied on it to a fault at times. But what if, over the course of his career, Wilder would’ve added more sophisticated footwork, an effective jab, or any sort of viable punch with his left hand to his arsenal? It would’ve made the openings for the KO punches he constantly sought after that much easier to find while also making him less predictable and more dangerous as a fighter.
Well, Duren has started to show signs of a guy who isn’t just relying on his patented right hand, so to say, to beat opposing defenders anymore. With the emergence of a solid jumper and blossoming playmaking skills, Duren now has his own set of counters to win with finesse at times when he needs to, which should only accentuate the other things he does on the hardwood with his uber-athleticism and strength.
Duren has solidified himself for me as a clear Top 10 pick in this class, and I think as an NBA GM, what would sell me on taking him that high is: what could the next layer of his development be? If he’s shown these really promising signs of early improvement already, just imagine what Duren’s skillset could look like in three to four years. I buy him growing into an Amar’e Stoudemire-Jermaine O-Neal type big man who will shine in pick and roll situations constantly. He may not encompass the new school “unicorns” we see in the NBA today, but Jalen Duren’s skills fit in the modern game more than most are giving him credit for right now.