LAS VEGAS — The Detroit Pistons are far more athletic than they were a month ago. That was clear Thursday night during the Summer League opener in the high desert, when the team’s two lottery picks made their debut.
It took less than 15 seconds for Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren to show what the future might look like — soon.
Ivey, a 6-foot-4 combo guard and the team’s No. 5 draft pick, took a pass as he curled around the elbow and darted into the lane. Duren, meanwhile, cut toward the rim from the right baseline. He gave Ivey a nod. Ivey gave him the ball, a soft toss high above the rim, and Duren rocketed to grab it and it dunk it.
Not bad for a couple of players that had spent no time together on the practice court; the trade to acquire Duren on draft night wasn’t officially sanctioned by the league until earlier in the day.
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But then with Ivey’s speed and Duren’s power … and speed, and explosiveness, and height (he’s listed at 6-11), who needs to practice a lob?
“He’s got great feet,” Ivey said of his teammate. “He moves well. Whenever I get an opportunity to throw a lob he’s gonna make a play.”
There’s a wide catch radius and then there’s what Duren showed in 11 minutes and 56 seconds of play in Thursday’s 81-78 win over the Trail Blazers — his minutes were restricted because of a lack of practice time. Pistons coach Dwane Casey compared Duren to former All-Star Shawn Kemp at the rookies’ introductory news conference two weeks ago.
And while that’s a lofty comp, watching Duren rise toward the top of the square on the backboard to vacuum lob passes in his Summer League debut makes Casey’s statement — hope? — more plausible.
“His athleticism is next level,” said Jordan Brink, the Pistons’ Summer League coach. “We just told him to go out there and have fun. Show off your athleticism, show off your skill. I thought he did a really good job. Tons of stuff to clean up, but that’s why we have practice tomorrow.”
Duren is 18. He was the youngest player in the draft. And even in a game in which the center position isn’t the fulcrum it once was, save for a couple of uniquely skilled outliers in Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, Duren’s debut revealed the promise of a game-changing force.
The Boston Celtics made the NBA Finals in part because of Robert Williams, a 6-9 shot blocker and rim protector who anchored the best defense in the league the last half of the season. Duren could be similar, with more lob radius, and better offensive footwork overall.
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At the least, he showed why Troy Weaver traded for him on draft night. The Pistons general manager loves athleticism. He it worked for the last franchise he helped build in Oklahoma City.
Now, he’s got work to do. He’s raw. But there is skill there, too. Not just lob-catching gifts but actual basketball skill.
Duren showed decent touch on a turnaround, kicked a pass out to an open shooter, tried to thread a bounce pass to a teammate he thought was about to cut back door. His teammate did n’t. Duren’s pass went out of bounds.
Still, he saw the angle open up. More revealing is that he anticipated the possibility.
Those are instincts Casey and his staff can work with. Just as they can work with Ivey’s otherworldly burst.
He, too, has much to work on. And he’ll have plenty of nights this season that look like his debut, where he opens the throttle and damn near pulls G-force on his way into the lane and ends up with no good place to go.
Or on the floor, watching the ball he just lost roll away. Young players with such gifts need time to understand what to do with them.
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And as Ivey said after the game, he hasn’t played much basketball in his life where he couldn’t just race past anyone he wanted. As quick as he is, full-out won’t always work in the NBA. His advantage in quickness and explosiveness is n’t on the same margin as it was at Purdue.
Yet he will have many moments where even the best players in the league have no chance at staying with him. He showed those moments Thursday, especially in the second half, when he slowed down and began to feel the speed and pace of the game and hit the afterburners after surveying from a point of calm.
Like he did on his final bucket, late in the game, when he took a pass and took a couple of dribbles before darting around and between defenders and gliding to the rim to for the dagger layup. He skip-hopped back down the court, veering to the edge of the court to dap up Cade Cunningham and Saddiq Bey, who are here to practice with the rookies and build chemistry.
“My job was trying to slow down,” Ivey said. “Once I got into a rhythm the game opened up.”
Ivey scored 20 points on 14 shots and made his free throws in the clutch. He was more excited about his six assists. Many of them came after he’d blitzed into the lane and whipped the ball out to his shooters.
“I was finding teammates,” he said, “that’s the best feeling.”
This is where Ivey will live as a rookie when he’s at his best: the paint. Either to finish himself — he had a couple of slick finishes against Portland — or to find his guys.
Speed does that. Controlling and using that speed to manipulate the court will do even more.
“In college, I would go 100% fast all the time,” he said. “In this league, you’ve got to change speed.”
It will take him a while to get there. As it will Duren. But both had the kind of moments that justified the buzz their arrival generated on draft night.
They are young. And they are talented. And while it’s only Summer League, the season can’t get here fast enough.
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.