Center of Attention: An Interview with Jalen Duren of the Detroit Pistons

Expectations are high for the Detroit Pistons’ talented young man in the middle, but Jalen Duren wears the pressure well.
Photograph by Justin Milhouse

It was June 2022. Photographers had been hired, a lofty venue had been booked, parents were gushing, and an 18-year-old was dressed in a sharp three-piece oxblood suit. For teenagers across America, this was prom night, but for Jalen Duren, it was the 2022 NBA draft, and he was about to sign a four-year, $19.5 million contract with the Detroit Pistons to become the NBA’s youngest rookie.

A year later in Livonia, inside a dimly lit J. Alexander’s restaurant, Duren looks back on draft day. Dressed in a black tracksuit and Detroit fitted cap, he’s all business, arriving with zero ruckus and declining anything to eat or drink. He can’t quite fit the legs of his 6-foot-10- inch frame under the corner table.

“It was a long day,” he recalls of draft day. “It just dragged along.” With family by his side, Duren sat anxiously through 12 picks, knowing that his place in the league wasn’t guaranteed but feeling that he was good enough to reach the next rung.

“He was someone that we had very high on our board. He was a target for us,” recalls Detroit Pistons general manager Troy Weaver. “We didn’t want to end the night without going after him.”

The Charlotte Hornets drafted Duren No. 13 overall, but the center was nabbed by the Pistons in a last-minute trade. The very next day, the 18-year-old player whom ESPN’s Malika Andrews called “the most physically gifted big man in this draft” was on a private plane to Detroit.

The last thing you want to do as an adolescent boy is stand out, and Duren was around 6 feet, 6 inches as a 13-year-old, turning heads in the hall and towering over teachers. He didn’t love the attention but credits his mom with helping him learn early to accept that people would stare and whisper and speculate — there was no way around it. Raised in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia, he was recruited by Roman Catholic High School, a boys’ school and a major player in the Philadelphia Catholic League.

“Every high school in the area — in the country, probably, at that time — wanted him because he was one of the better players in the country,” says DJ Irving, former assistant coach at Roman Catholic and current assistant coach at the University of Miami.

Photograph by Justin Milhouse

As a high school player, Duren stood out, most notably for his athleticism relative to his stature. To find a 14-year-old who is 6-foot-8 is rare, but to find one coordinated enough to be effective on the court is almost legend.

“He had great hands,” Irving says. “He could catch; he could jump and catch lobs. Athletically and physically, he was just a man amongst boys.”

Irving recalls Duren’s second-ever high school game against DeMatha Catholic and its star player, Hunter Dickinson, three years older than Duren and now a decorated 7-foot-2 University of Kansas Jayhawk.

“We ended up losing the game, but Jalen played really well. I think he had like 15 points, 12 rebounds — as a 14-year-old. That’s when I kind of realized he was the real deal,” Irving says.

Roman made it to the Philadelphia Catholic League championships Duren’s freshman year, and Irving was impressed by the teenager’s calmness and readiness for that game. The league’s Final Four games are played at The Palestra, the arena where the University of Pennsylvania plays its home games.

“It’s a college arena that holds about 10,000, and when the Catholic League Final Four happens, that place is literally sold out,” Irving says. But Duren did not flinch; he just played his game. Roman won the championship game and made it back the following year but lost to a deeper team. “His maturity in those environments at a young age stood out to me.”

For his junior year, Duren attended Montverde Academy, a private boarding school in Florida. Notable NBA players Ben Simmons of the Brooklyn Nets, D’Angelo Russell of the Los Angeles Lakers, and fellow Piston Cade Cunningham are all Montverde alumni. “Going to Montverde was really critical to the beginning of my career and who I am, and who I was going to be as a player,” Duren says.

Photograph by Justin Milhouse

He spent only a year at the academy before it was time to think about where he was going to do his “one-and-done” year at college before entering the draft. (The NBA requires that its draftees be a year removed from their high school graduation and turn 19 the same calendar year the draft is held.) Several schools were vying for Duren’s attention, including Miami, where Irving was an assistant coach.

He ended up enrolling at the University of Memphis.

“I was coming out so early — I skipped my senior year — and so I felt like I just needed somewhere where I could really develop and learn and become a man.” Duren credits a coaching staff that included head coach Penny Hardaway and Pistons royalty Larry Brown and Rasheed Wallace for drawing him to Memphis. “I felt like that was the best opportunity for me to grow and get more knowledge about the game,” he says.

But did he get to soak in the other stuff that comes with the college experience?

“I didn’t go to too many parties or anything. I didn’t really do all that, but I had one class on campus, and so I was able to walk around and be like a student. But when things started to pick up, the less and less I was able to do that.”

Though Irving was disappointed that Duren picked Memphis over Miami, their friendship, built over car rides home from high school practice, didn’t suffer. In fact, ahead of draft day, Duren spent time at Miami, during which his former coach made sure, like old times, that his player was conditioned and ready for what was to come.

For the Pistons organization, it was Duren’s physicality and athleticism, of course, but also his disposition that set him high on its must-have list.

Photograph by Justin Milhouse

“We were really intrigued and enamored with him,” Weaver says. “But the person he is — he’s a great teammate. He’s the kind of guy that will follow our great leaders, and he has the potential to be a great leader. We were very excited to leave the draft with him.”

In the fall of 2022, Duren suited up for his first game as a Detroit Pistons center. For those keeping track, within just three years, Duren had played high school, college, and professional basketball. That’s breakneck speed for someone who, before this issue went to press, was still a teenager.

“I got used to my life moving fast,” he says. “I had people around me to help guide me. I’m not doing it alone. I feel like if I was doing it by myself, it would’ve taken over. My mental would’ve been all messed up.”

Weaver says, “You draft the youngest player in the league, you really don’t know what to expect. But he came in and we worked his tail off, and he earned his way into the rotation.” Duren started in 31 of 67 appearances during his rookie season and averaged 9.1 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game and shot about 65 percent from the floor. He held his own, ranking 28th among the league’s 78 qualifying centers.

Still, the Pistons had a dismal 2022-23 season, finishing last across the league with 17 wins and 65 losses. Everyone from the pundits to the public had been excited about the scrappy young combo that included Duren, guard Cade Cunningham, and fellow rookie Jaden Ivey. Unfortunately, that combo never had a chance to gel, with Cunningham playing only 12 games due to a season-ending injury.

Heading into his second season with the Pistons, Duren says his confidence has grown significantly. Weaver predicts big things for the young center: “We expect him to be a big part of what we do, and he’s getting challenged that way every day from the coaching staff.”

Irving says Duren has barely tapped into his potential. “Right now, people see him as a defensive shot-blocker or somebody who dunks a lot, but I think now you’ll see the IQ. You’ll see his passing ability on display; you’ll see his ability to shoot the ball, extend his range — even to the 3-point line but especially from the midrange area. … His game is just continuing to grow.”

When we speak in late September, Duren is preparing for the start of the 2023-24 preseason and the Pistons’ first exhibition game against the Phoenix Suns. (The Pistons lost that game in overtime, 130-126.) He’s mostly work and very little play, rising early for muscle treatments, workouts, and practice; then it’s back home to his quiet suburban neighborhood to hang out with his puppies, a cane corso named Manman and a Labrador retriever named Mamas. But that’s how he likes it. He may turn on a podcast or Friends — it’s not just his favorite show but his comfort show, he says, which earns him a high five from his millennial interviewer.

He’s a regular at Somerset Collection, is passionate about fashion, and entertains aspirations of modeling — but only if he can figure out how to do it seriously and not be dubbed “the basketball guy playing at modeling.” He’s excited for the photo shoot that is happening the following day at a studio in Redford and later in downtown Detroit.

Duren arrives fashionably late to the first shoot with a two-person team and clothes he pulled from his own closet (per Hour Detroit’s request). Price tags notwithstanding, they are what you’d expect from a young person’s wardrobe: Amiri jeans covered waist to hem in black leather stars, white Nike Air Force 1s (size 18), a Heron Preston work shirt, and Who Decides War distressed patchwork jeans.

While a diamond-encrusted Audemars Piguet watch sparkles on his wrist, the most impressive accessory in the studio isn’t the glimmering baubles; it’s the basketball. He holds it for some shots, and like magic, it shrinks in his enormous hands. While the photographer adjusts the lighting, Duren absentmindedly dribbles and tosses the ball around. And though he exudes confidence in front of the camera, it’s obvious he’s most at home when handling the ball.

Modeling may be in his future, but right now he’s all game.

This story is from the December 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.