Among the various members of the Detroit Pistons’ young core, perhaps nobody is more poised to be the beneficiary of their offseason upgrades than second-year center Jalen Duren.

Cade Cunningham will return to the lineup after missing most of the year with a stress fracture in his left shin. He’s a savvy ball-screen operator who’s proven to harmonize with springy play-finishers like Duren. Selected fifth overall in June’s NBA Draft, Ausar Thompson joins the group of cornerstones as a malleable, high-level defender with perceptive passing gusto.

Despite his first-round woes (8.3% from deep against the Philadelphia 76ers), former Brooklyn Nets sharpshooter Joe Harris is now in the fold to provide more frontcourt floor-spacing behind his career 43.7% 3-point clip (42.6% a year ago).  

While Duren enjoyed an encouraging first campaign, garnering All-Rookie Second Team recognition, he was burdened by Detroit’s poorly spaced lineups and the gamut of overextended ball handlers conducting possessions for him – both of which negated much of his roll gravity.

Cunningham and Thompson are anticipatory playmakers. The majority of those (trying to) feed Duren last season were reactive playmakers. Jaden Ivey is among that group, even if he developed quite the rapport with Duren and emerged as an adept lay-down and interior passer. He still left opportunities on the table as he grew into and navigated the responsibilities accompanying primary initiators. 

The Pistons didn’t shy away from double-big lineups featuring Duren, Isaiah Stewart, James Wiseman and Marvin Bagley III in 2022-23. All of them have yet to turn 25, so I understand gauging the viability of such units and Stewart may be best-suited long-term as a stretch 4 (he made progress here last season). But the spacing was consistently wonky. 

As Detroit presumably aims to take a notable step forward in the wins department, I wonder if we may see more lineups with sharpshooting wings Bojan Bogdanovic and Isaiah Livers at the 4. Could Harris occupy significant minutes at the 3? Can Stewart elicit consistent closeouts and improve upon his 32% long-range clip to open up spread pick-and-rolls between Cunningham (or Ivey or Thompson) and Duren?

Any and all of these answers are relevant to Duren’s offensive output and impact.

These questions matter because screen-setting and off-ball movement are glimmering strengths of his skill set. He masks the angle of his picks until the last second to confuse defenders and knows when to flip the angle or re-screen.

He astutely times his dives to preserve passing windows. He’s already adept at the subtle hip checks to neutralize point-of-attack stoppers, though he could better stabilize his lower body to maximize the contact and amplify his partners’ creation ventures.

The haste with which he and Ivey established rapport as rookies could be a positive indicator of what he may accomplish alongside Cunningham, who only played 79 minutes with him last season.

Given Duren’s screening and rolling prowess, Cunningham’s methodical pacing and manipulative passing should pair well, particularly if Detroit’s spacing improves. Pistons head coach Monty Williams’ offensive scheme prioritizes conflicting and clearing low men rotations in ball screens, which should be a boon for Duren, Cunningham and the Pistons’ collective attack. 

Although Duren shot 67.4% at the rim (19th in the NBA among those 6-foot-10 and taller who played at least 1,600 minutes), I do worry about his rigidity as a roll man. He only converted 82 of his 173 non-dunks (47.4%) within 4 feet, and his 61.1% mark at the free-throw line adds further concerns (62.5% in college). The patience, footwork and flexibility are assets for his finishing, however. 

I’d love to see him develop a floater to counteract the size disadvantage inside. He could also elevate his scoring volume by being a steady mismatch scorer in the post, where those aforementioned traits are practical. I’m not sure those will emerge, yet they’re components of his offensive ceiling.

At the very least, he received runway to explore as a face-up and post scorer in the NBA Summer League, so it’ll be worth monitoring whether any of that freedom translates to the regular season.

These are all nitpicks, and not about how he becomes a good or very good player. It’s all about how he can potentially become a great player. Between his 7-foot-5 wingspan and sprightly explosiveness, his catch radius on lobs is gargantuan. I expect that to be a fruitful means of production and Detroit should not need him to be more than a complementary cog offensively. 

The scoring isn’t his sole offensive contribution either. He’s a very good passer for his role, excelling in 4-on-3s, exhibiting craft as a dribble handoff trigger man and frequently hitting cutters. His comfort spotting and threading reads through narrow windows is rare among most centers, while his processing under duress emphasizes his feel.

Former head coach Dwane Casey loved running Chicago (a set Williams spammed for Devin Booker in Phoenix) and entrusted Duren to facilitate the action. His decision-making in these spots was routinely trustworthy.

The utmost offenses can disperse playmaking responsibilities across the backcourt and frontcourt. His aptitude should enable that. 

Last season, the foremost superlative of Duren’s game was his offensive rebounding. He’s already among the NBA’s elite. Duren finished third in the league with 3.4 offensive rebounds per game last season. He also posted 19 double-doubles in 67 games, trailing Walker Kessler of the Utah Jazz by one for the most among rookies.

Among power forwards and centers with at least 100 minutes, Duren ranked 14th in offensive rebounding rate after missed field goals (13.3%) and 11th following errant free throws (9.6%). Regularly positioned in the ideal spot when shots carom off the rim, his ball tracking, vertical pop and length augment this prowess. 

He’s similar to another renowned offensive rebounder in Kevin Looney with how he proceeds once he corrals a loose ball, quickly finding an open shooter/teammate or immediately going up for a putback. There is no stagnation or stalling. Duren preserves possessions and capitalizes on the advantage created.

Cunningham’s resurgence and Thompspon’s arrival not only stand to enhance Duren’s offense, but they should similarly enhance his defense. On various occasions last season, his efforts fell to the wayside due to porous point-of-attack options, miscommunications off the ball or breakdowns squandering positive sequences. 

Both of those wings should help reduce such happenings, especially Thompson, whose defense was tantalizing in Summer League. I can’t wait to watch him and Duren defend pick-and-rolls together. 

Duren’s subtle brilliance and mastery playing drop were exquisite. His footwork, positioning and faculty to aptly extinguish 1-on-2 fires belied his rookie moniker. He played at the level of screens, sat back deeper when needed and wielded his mobility to overwhelm ball handlers.

He and Thompson are going to make offenses uncomfortable.

Detroit shrewdly diversified his duties, too. Sometimes, he’d trap, and his lateral quickness closed off the edge for ball handlers. Sometimes, he’d switch and look pretty competent doing so. Being stationed next to fellow bigs meant he assumed perimeter tasks like closeouts, containing drives and other contexts outside of the paint. The scope of his defense was tested in Year 1. 

Many rookie bigs presented such widespread and challenging chores may accrue gaudy foul numbers. Duren didn’t, averaging just 3.9 per 36 minutes. That doesn’t necessarily rival luminaries like Brook Lopez (3.1) and Evan Mobley (2.9), but it doesn’t preclude him from taking on a larger minutes load either.

His discipline against jabs, feints and fakes left folks in foolishly precarious positions. 

Duren led the Pistons with a plus-0.2 defensive DRIP. And on field goals within 6 feet of the hoop, opponents made 6% worse than their average when Duren was the primary defender. That ranked 36th among 209 players who contested at least 200 shots there. Influencing events most others cannot, he’s punctual as a rim protector and light off the ground.

Detroit lacked credible interior reinforcements beyond him, which seemed to make him more attentive because he had to rotate from unconventional spots. Odd circumstances in rebuilding teams can be a windfall for development. Duren’s rim protection may be an example.

He was constantly thrust into action all over the floor and responded well.

The downside of his pristine timing is that he had a habit of failing to fully rotate and trusting it to a fault. He’d bank on his perfect, last-second contests being effective rather than deterring a drive or finish altogether. This is a pretty minor issue and it can be eradicated. Players who dominate defensively throughout lower levels like Duren did often experience this transition. It’s merely something to note as he continues maturing and molding himself.

While he’s listed at 6-foot-10 on his NBA and Basketball-Reference profiles, he’s certainly at a deficit in contrast to plenty of traditionally sized centers. That hinders him against gifted interior scorers who cleanly fire over the top without interference. The most esteemed defensive centers have endured problems guarding premier big men scorers, so it’s not a fatal flaw, but I envision outcomes in which Duren’s stature keeps him below All-Defensive status as a result.

Again, this is probably nitpicking, yet his rookie-year tape is impressive enough to the point meticulous critiques are worth discerning. That’s a testament to him.

Do not misconstrue the Pistons’ youthful, crowded frontcourt room as hazy. Duren is the jewel of the group and their long-term answer at center. As they begin a new phase of their journey back to the playoffs, he is central to these intentions. Everything he showed last season is evidence.

How he builds upon it will help determine how soon those intentions turn into reality.

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