The Pistons and an uncomfortable conversation about Jalen Duren

Mar 18, 2024; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Celtics guard Derrick White (9) drives the ball against Jalen Duren
Mar 18, 2024; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Celtics guard Derrick White (9) drives the ball against Jalen Duren / David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

In many ways, Jalen Duren is ahead of schedule in his second season for the Detroit Pistons. 

He's averaging 13.8 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game while shooting 62 percent from the field and a greatly improved 77.6 percent from the 3-point line. 

Did I mention he's 20 years old? Any criticism of Duren has to be contextualized by his age, as there is a very good chance he will improve and become one of the top centers in the NBA. 

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But there are some issues that the Detroit Pistons need to discuss as they try to build a more coherent roster. It's uncomfortable to have a conversation about a 20-year-old who is already a walking double double, but it needs to happen. 

Will Jalen Duren evolve into a modern center? 

An athletic center who can grab rebounds, dunks but has no perimeter game and is below average defensively? If that description sounds familiar, it's because right now, Duren is Andre Drummond 2.0, who put up almost identical numbers in his second season while also doubling Duren's per game block rate. 

So right now, Duren is Andre Drummond with less rim protection, which is not a description of a max center in the modern NBA, where skilled bigs who can shoot and protect the rim are the ideal.  This is a not a diss on Drummond, who was a multiple All-Star with the Pistons, but the game has changed a lot since then.

A dominant rebounder who provides little else can still thrive in the NBA but is not a guy you want to give a huge deal to, as these are skills that can be cheaply replaced. Just ask Drummond, who went from a max to minimum guy before he was 30 and has now been correctly identified as a great backup center, but not your primary guy due to his limitations. 

If you think Duren will get there as a rim protector and/or shooting threat, then great, but if not, the Detroit Pistons may have to explore other options unless they want history to repeat itself. 

Should the Pistons trade Duren and sign a cheaper free agent? 

As a 20-year-old who has already shown he can dominate certain areas of the game, Duren would have trade value this summer and there are some interesting possible replacements in free agency. 

Laugh all you want, but Andre Drummond is putting up better per-36 numbers than Duren and is on a minimum deal. Isaiah Hartenstein is not as good as Duren offensively, nor does he have his potential, but he’s a better defender, a good rebounder and will be much cheaper than Duren’s second contract, which he will start negotiating after next season. 

If the Pistons wanted to splash out more money, Nic Claxton is blocking over two shots per game and is only 24 years old. 

I’m not saying Duren can’t work, or that he won’t improve, only that the Pistons can replace his current production for cheaper or go for players who better fit the rest of their core. 

What if the Pistons land the number one pick in the 2024 NBA Draft?

If the Pistons get the #1 pick and they think Alex Sarr is a better fit or has a higher ceiling, what does that mean for Duren? It's hard to watch these clips and say that Duren has more upside in the modern NBA, especially when you factor in Sarr's defense and potential as a long-range shooter:

The James Wiseman/Jalen Duren conundrum 

Duren is better than Wiseman, but how much better? Since Wiseman has gotten more minutes, he’s been putting up similar numbers and can likely be had on a minimum deal this summer. In the last 10 games Wiseman is averaging 11.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.6 assists, shooting a higher percentage from the field and bocking more shots per game than Duren.

The Pistons have invested heavily in the center position over the last two seasons and have painfully little to show for it. Can they really afford to double down on two project centers who can’t shoot and aren’t great rim protectors? And if not, should they just pick the cheaper one and move on from the other? 

As the Pistons try to retool their roster this summer, they have to decide what kind of center they need and how much they want to invest in a position where similar players are cheap and plentiful. If Duren can become an elite defender, there is no limit on his potential, but if he can't, the Pistons may be stuck overpaying for a rebounder, which is a strategy that has failed them in the past.