Word started to spread in spring 2017 that a 6-foot-5 seventh-grade basketball player was effortlessly toppling competition in New Castle, Del.

Jalen Duren was playing for a local travel team and making infrequent appearances at tournaments and showcase events. Often, he was the biggest kid in the gym for his age group.

Rob Brown vividly remembers the first time he saw Duren play. It was against Team Final at a HoopGroup Tournament in Exeter, and Duren’s physical attributes stood out. Brown’s eyes lit up watching the 13-year-old forward’s passing ability and feel for the game.

“Right then and there, I was like we got to get in touch with his family,” said Brown, Team Final’s program director. “He knew that he needed a step up onto a bigger stage. … A week or two later, he was at our practice playing with Team Final.”

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Within weeks, Eric Hampford of MADE Hoops pegged him as a potential generational talent, at least from a local standpoint, according to Ari Rosenfeld, owner and scouting director of Elite High School Scouting. Rosenfeld said it didn’t take long for the eye test to match what he was hearing.

Duren’s development hasn’t followed a linear path. But he always has had a quiet confidence about him. His journey doesn’t begin with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announcing his name at Thursday’s NBA draft at the Barclays Center, possibly as high as a lottery pick.

It starts with a kid who takes refuge in his Philly-area roots — he’ll tell you Sharon Hill, specifically. A kid who blossomed from an oversized middle schooler to an 18-year-old on the precipice of competing against the top players in the world.

Duren chooses Roman

Matt Griffin, who was Roman Catholic’s coach at the time, stumbled on an internet writeup after an AAU tournament in September 2017. It read, ”Jalen Duren out of New Castle, plays for Team Final,” before describing his long-term potential.

“That seemed far away from Roman, but I just reached out,” Griffin said. “Jalen had just moved to Delaware at that point, during his seventh-grade year. But what I learned was that his mother [Aneisea Hudgins] was working in Philadelphia and comes into Philly every day.”

Recruiting is competitive, even for Roman Catholic, with other Philly high school basketball powerhouses like Westtown and Neumann Goretti, but Griffin was ahead of the curve. He brought Duren in for a March visit and the eighth-grader showed up at Broad and Vine Streets carrying only his sneakers.

A few Cahillites were present for the visit — former Roman greats Marc Jackson and Jim O’Brien, along with guard Allen Betrand, who now plays at Rhode Island. So Griffin threw him into the fire with his team, which had won the Class 6A state title mere weeks later.

“Jalen got right in there and was battling with these guys,” Griffin said. “They weren’t taking it easy on him, and he was holding his own as a 14-year-old kid. I was really impressed by his ability at such a young age to almost dominate.”

Come the fall of 2018, Duren was enrolled at Roman. He spent two years there, winning one Philly Catholic League Championship (2019) and becoming the first freshman in PCL history to be named first-team All-Catholic.

‘Like a big brother’

Griffin’s phone rang soon after news of Duren’s decision became public. It was his former Boston University teammate, DJ Irving.

“One of my friends told me who’s big in high school basketball, he knows every kid,” said Irving, now an assistant coach at Miami. “He told me about these two freshmen Roman had coming in. One was Jalen, and the other was Justice Williams. As soon as I saw a video, I called Matt, like, ‘Yo, who you got coming in!? You got some studs coming.’”

Irving, an Archbishop Carroll alumnus, had just played in Cadiz, Spain. He was home training in Chester and figuring out his next move at the moment, but none of the offers that crossed his desk were appealing enough to sign. Irving said he wasn’t in a great mental space and was in need of some soul searching.

By October, Griffin brought him onto Roman’s staff as a freshman coach and varsity assistant. Irving previously served as a graduate assistant at Penn State (2014-15) then as an assistant at Boston University (2016-17) before going overseas.

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Irving frequently drove Duren home to his stepdad’s house in Chester after practice. Those 30-minute car rides were a safe haven, a place where they could crack jokes, confront adversity, and learn from one another.

“He was one of those kids who tried to be tough all the time. Boys at that age are taught to be a man. You gotta be strong, you gotta be tough,” Irving said. “I would tell him it’s OK to be vulnerable; it’s OK to cry sometimes. That doesn’t make you any less of a man.”

Scouts fawned over Duren’s long-term potential, but he was never boastful about the hype. He had someone to keep him grounded.

Irving was the first person to tell him he wasn’t that good at basketball. It wasn’t something he handled particularly well.

“He just kind of brought purpose to me,” Irving said. “At that time, I didn’t know what was going on with my life. ‘Who am I?’ I always identified as a basketball player, so what do I do next? When I went to Roman, I sensed that this kid needed some guidance. So I kind of found purpose in him.”

Duren admitted he had never worked out before. The No. 2 freshman in the country had never trained beyond team-facilitated practices and games.

Starting in the summer of 2019, Irving dragged him to an LA Fitness for a series of early mornings started at the gym. It didn’t take long before Duren was the one yearning for gym time. Now, Irving and Mike Terry, who played at North Catholic then Boston University, run Duren’s pre-draft workouts in Miami.

Duren was physically dominant at a young age, meaning he didn’t always have to put in extra work. Rosenfeld said that learning what it means to consistently play his hardest has been his biggest step forward. Irving was the catalyst for finding that extra gear.

“I met DJ early on in my career, my freshman year,” Duren said. “He just became like a big brother and mentor — of course, the guy I train with now. But definitely someone who has been a significant part of my journey.”

Philly was home

There has been some spirited discourse about when Duren had his coming-out party in the Catholic League.

Griffin would say it came against DeMatha in Roman’s second game of the season as he faced Michigan forward Hunter Dickinson and Villanova’s Justin Moore. Rosenfeld argues it was two games later against Imhotep.

Both arguments carry some weight.

Against DeMatha, Duren posted 19 points and 13 rebounds, according to Griffin. At that point, Dickinson and Moore were both four-star seniors. Duren was playing in only his second high school game.

“I was like, this kid is special. That was the first time I knew,” Griffin said. “I would say I had an inkling before he got to Roman. ... But, for me, that was like, ‘Wow.’ ”

A week later, Roman played Imhotep, facing off against senior Donta Scott (Maryland) and Dahmir Bishop (St. Joseph’s). Roman had Seth Lundy (Penn State) and Hakim Hart (Maryland).

“There were 12 or 13 Division I players out there,” Rosenfeld said. “And this is a freshman where it was so clear that he belonged. Not just belonged but, by the end, almost dominating the game.”

Duren transferred in April 2020 to Montverde Academy in Florida.

He likely would have stayed in Philly had it not been for the pandemic. While the PCL dealt with uncertainty, Florida stayed open and dodged cancellations for COVID-19.

“Jalen appreciates work and appreciates a grind, but when you can’t get into gyms in your surrounding area, you have to find places to get better,” Brown said. “He wasn’t delaying or pausing for COVID or anything. That was not part of his plan.”

Duren spent his junior year at Montverde and played what would have been his senior year as a 17-year-old freshman at Memphis. There, he earned American Athletic Conference freshman of the year and All-AAC first-team honors.

“Jalen is an All-NBA, All-Star level player,” Irving said of the draft prospect, who is now 6-11. “It’s just a matter of how much work he puts in. I think the sky’s the limit.”