MEMPHIS, Tenn. — If you dropped into all this cold, hadn’t seen or heard how the season had been going for the University of Memphis, only knew that Jalen Duren, basketball prodigy, was supposed to help take this city on a ride … Here it was. Duren done for the evening, raising his arms, asking the FedEx Forum crowd for more, the crowd happily obliging.
“Just straight emotions, being happy,” Duren said later about all that. “I love when the team comes out and shows what we can do.”
That night, Duren had taken seven shots in 27 minutes against Tulane, made six. (A couple of eye-popping dunks, mandatory.) Duren had 12 rebounds, six at each end. One second-half step toward the hoop before a dunk had Tulane coach Ron Hunter yelling at his own big man about cutting off the angle.
“Ron, you can’t guard that,” yelled a hoops expert in the second row.
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Yeah, this is how it was supposed to be, back when Memphis was ranked 12th nationally in the preseason, but undisputed first in attention. Not just the 6-foot-11 Duren showing up, but Emoni Bates. When one wasn’t ranked first in his class, it was the other. Except that was the high school class of 2022. Both decided to move up the clock and skip their senior seasons, head to college.
Penny Hardaway had the whole country watching all this. Never mind that Memphis had been an NIT team in 2020-21. Watch for liftoff …
It did not happen.
A theory: If it had just been Duren showing up, it might have been fine from the start. It’s sort of like when two celebrities start dating. Doesn’t matter who they are, paparazzi show up. The basketball version of that, right here. Two stars turn a recruiting development into a happening.
Memphis already had veterans. Hardaway later admitted that he should have focused on the vets, let the new guys work their way in.
For Duren, it kind of worked out that way anyway. Five early wins followed by four straight losses when the schedule got harder proved this wasn’t going to be a fairy tale. But liftoff eventually was achieved — that Tulane game was no fluke. Memphis went to Houston next and knocked off the Cougars, with 14 points and 11 rebounds from Duren. Going into Thursday’s Temple game, the Tigers are 15-9.
(If this were an Emoni Bates story, it would be an entirely different tale. Bates, who became friendly with Duren when he joined Team Final in AAU ball last year, was sidelined last month with a back problem, hasn’t gotten back, and missed the liftoff.)
You ask Duren about the stresses of this season, he’ll tell you, “I wouldn’t call it stresses. It was just learning experiences, honestly — for the team and for me. I’m learning what college is every game. That’s all it is.”
“He’s ready for the physicality of the game,” Hardaway said of Duren after that Tulane game, an 80-69 Memphis victory. “He understands now, after going through one cycle of playing these teams, he’s more mentally ready for the game. He knows he’s going to play them physical. He’s already ready for it.”
Duren kind of said the same thing.
“I don’t shy away from that,” Duren said about physical play. “I’m going to bring it if they don’t bring it.”
Doesn’t matter that Duren has moved ahead of the normal hoops clock.
“Theoretically, he could be a senior at Roman,” said former Roman Catholic coach Matt Griffin, now a college assistant himself, at Albany.
Each big move Duren has made, each step of his progression, has indicated his ambition, his unwillingness to settle for being best on his block. His family had moved from Sharon Hill in Delaware County to Delaware and Duren could have found the best local competition … Instead, he went to Roman. His mom worked in the city, so she could get him to Broad and Vine in the morning. (He still lists Sharon Hill as home on his Memphis bio, said that’s where he considers himself from.)
If you saw those loaded Roman teams in his freshman and sophomore years, you saw how Duren fit in with Seth Lundy and Justice Williams and Lynn Greer III and the rest. It wasn’t always smooth on the court, but it came together in the end. In 2020, Duren transferred to Montverde Academy in Florida. Another step up to the top high school competition this country offers.
A normal modern-day progression. Then the decision was made to skip the last season, get to college. For most players, that kind of step could be dangerous. Maturity is required or there could be setbacks. In his case …
“Going to college early worked,” said one NBA personnel chief. “He’s a lottery pick. Gets to his second contract earlier.”
That’s the thing, the NBA rookie contract is capped. You’re going to make that level of money whenever you get to the league. But if you’re good enough to be a longtime pro, you’re adding money on later, larger contracts. (If you think Duren is thinking about a second year of college, you’re not paying attention to the progression.)
“He’s physically gifted,” added the personnel chief, a college scout. “Needs to refine his skills.”
Since he’s 18, that will happen, the scout then said. (Duren just turned 18 in November.) “Has to make some shots,” and improve his free-throw shooting, which is at 56.5%. “Does pass it a little, which is encouraging. His ultimate value may be rebounding, defending, blocking shots. He has good feet, so defending [pick and rolls] could be a strength. Has upside if he can become a capable shooter. Doesn’t need to make threes. Elbow and short corner.”
That progression, Griffin has seen it start already.
“His freshman year, he made one 12-foot jumper, at Father Judge,” Griffin said. “I have a highlight of it. Sophomore year, he made 23 of them.”
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You ask his Memphis frontcourt partner, DeAndre Williams, for a progress report on the young guy, and also if it ever hits him that Williams is seven years older than Duren. (True fact.)
“Oh, man, he’s amazing,” Williams said.
Williams used the word amazing four times in his answer — amazing talent, amazing presence, amazing being able to play with the older guys.
Duren has Rasheed Wallace for an assistant coach, except Wallace is away from the team now. According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Hardaway has indicated Wallace’s absence is due to health and safety protocols related to COVID-19. Duren has stayed in touch with him, he said, and Wallace stays on him about staying focused. Former 76ers coach Larry Brown, also on this staff, has a similar message about staying locked in, Duren said. (Wallace didn’t return a message, Brown did but suggested Hardaway was speaking for all the coaches.)
“He’s a pro who is going to be developing for the next four, five years,” Jon Crispin said while analyzing a recent Memphis game on ESPN, adding that he’d seen Duren grow “exponentially” just during this season, as Memphis finally got its act together recently, putting itself on the right side of the NCAA bubble.
“In many ways, this opportunity has challenged him,” Griffin said. “He’s been so under the microscope.”
Griffin didn’t just mean this season.
“People were literally watching his every move from a young age,” Griffin said.
Asked about that spotlight, Duren’s Team Final coach Aaron Burt said, “Broadway lights.”
Does Duren like those lights?
“You know what, if he played in a shoebox or played in an arena, you’re going to get the same Jalen,” Burt said.
The first time you saw Duren, you probably widened your eyes. Burt and Team Final head honcho Rob Brown did, Burt said, at a tournament in Reading, Duren in seventh grade. If they could get him to play for them, they told each other, he could be the best Team Final kid ever.
They got him, and remember a workout during the summer before Duren went into eighth grade. Cam Reddish and some other older Team Final guys were dunking. Duren decided to join them.
“He dunked it, but he didn’t know how to land,” Burt said “He broke his wrist.”
From there, he just kept adding bits to his game, mentally as much as physically.
“To me, he doesn’t really have to add much,” Burt said. “To be consistent with his jump hooks over his left and right shoulder. Drop steps with both feet. Everything will come. If he’ll work on the right things, he’ll be a dominant NBA player. The good thing, he’s grounded.”
His floor is high — he’ll be in the NBA as long as he’s physically able to play. His ceiling is the question. How good could Duren get?
“Most people don’t know how good of a passer he is,” Burt said. “He can dribble through traffic and throw a no-look pass. And I’ve seen him guard point guards. The dunks — I’ve seen him almost break down breakdowns, but the rest of it …”
“His game translates,” Griffin said. “If you could put him on any team in the country, he would be a difference-maker.”
His foot speed is, in fact, impressive. The rest of it will determine Duren’s upside. If he doesn’t keep adding to his game, the ceiling starts coming down. (Ask Nerlens Noel.) But if you drop into it cold, you already see which player out there has the highest floor — it’s not close, any college game Duren has played. The most physically gifted is the same man who could be a senior right now at Roman Catholic High School. Prodigies come in all shapes and sizes.