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Duren's recovery key for La Salle

For Tyreek Duren, playing basketball with plantar fasciitis - a ligament strain affecting his right heel - has been like walking with a rock in his shoe.

La Salle's Tyreek Duren. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
La Salle's Tyreek Duren. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)Read more

For Tyreek Duren, playing basketball with plantar fasciitis - a ligament strain affecting his right heel - has been like walking with a rock in his shoe.

And the La Salle point guard doesn't walk too much during basketball games. His ability to move on the court was a big reason Duren was widely considered the top guard in the city going into this season, and why hopes were reasonably high for a repeat of La Salle's 2013 NCAA trip.

The Explorers were picked third in a preseason Atlantic Ten Conference media poll but have been ordinary this season, 7-6 going into Thursday's A-10 opener against George Washington.

Right now, Duren feels close to pain-free, and Explorers coach John Giannini believes that the senior guard has been back to his old self in the last few games. However, the injury was so much of an issue early this season that La Salle seriously considered redshirting Duren.

Given the improved state of their on-court leader, it will be interesting to see whether the Explorers now have the rock out of their shoe, and whether there's still a chance to create some momentum.

As the season began, every step Duren took was an attempt to avoid that rock. He found himself walking and running an entirely different way, he said.

"The first couple of games, I was OK," Duren said. "I didn't know when it was going to hurt. . . . Say for the first 10 minutes, I was fine. Then I didn't know. Then I'd come down on it awkwardly."

It slowed him down?

"I think it slowed me down a lot," Duren said. "One play I could go fast, then I'd pay for it the next couple of possessions. Going for a layup, I'd always come down hard. The next couple of plays on defense, I'd go, 'I've got to take it easy.' "

All this came to a head when La Salle went to the Virgin Islands for a tournament right before Thanksgiving.

"Tyrone ratted him out," Giannini said, referring to Explorers guard Tyrone Garland, Duren's roommate on the road. "He kept saying, 'I'm fine.' Tyrone told one of the assistants it hurt so bad he can't even sleep at night, literally."

It's not as if Duren was terrible. The former Neumann-Goretti star was just . . . ordinary. For him, that meant scoring at least 15 points in each of La Salle's first six games. But you could see a difference. La Salle's achievements the last couple of seasons were heavily based on creating mismatches with its guards. All of a sudden, a central figure in that wasn't such a mismatch, which impacted the rest of the court.

The last game in the Virgin Islands, when La Salle lost to Northern Iowa, 65-50, Duren scored three points on 1-of-9 shooting.

"He hasn't been Tyreek Duren," Giannini noted after the early-season travails.

There's no question that affected the bottom line for La Salle.

"Listen, Ramon Galloway was an extremely special player and person," Giannini said, referring to the lone lost starter from last season's Sweet 16 team. "I just had an NBA person tell me, 'Ramon was terrific, but there's no way you lose one player and you go from being a borderline top-25 team to a .500 team.' That's what we've been telling our guys."

Giannini completed the puzzle.

"If you think, 'OK, last year's team lost Ramon and Tyreek, now you would take a step back," La Salle's coach said. "And that's kind of what we've been like up until the last two or three games."

This ailment didn't just pop up. After last season's NCAA run, Duren had about a month off, then began playing pickup. Out of nowhere, he said, his heel began hurting. He told his coaches about it.

"I couldn't even really walk off the court," Duren said, explaining that he flinched as a doctor pressed on his foot. Giannini shut him down for the summer session.

"We knew about this in May," Giannini said. "Frankly, we controlled it right. It's when he got away from us. I just think he's a highly motivated kid, and he really wants to work and he really wants to get better. And the bottom line is, when he came back in September, we still had to manage the foot."

Duren works out locally every summer in sessions led by Orlando Magic point guard Jameer Nelson.

"I kind of got used to it, I could tolerate it," Duren said. "I'm the type of guy, I didn't want to back out of any workouts. In reality, I probably shouldn't have been doing it."

Giannini limited his practice reps and, according to Duren, talked seriously to his point guard about redshirting him. Duren said he couldn't walk away from the other seniors on the team.

"In my eyes, it's my team," Duren said of this year's group. "I didn't want to let my team down."

It was obvious Saturday at the Palestra that Duren has more spring in his step. He's an expert at using screens, and at getting defenders off-balance. One sign of a new comfort zone: He's made at least three three-pointers in La Salle's last three games after making just 8 of 39 in the 10 previous games.

"The only time it really hurts now is when I first wake up," Duren said. "I stretch it, then it feels perfectly fine."

All this makes sense when you look at La Salle's rocky start. Other Explorers guards also began the year with nagging injuries. But the one that wasn't talked about turned out to be the most crucial.

"I wasn't even going to tell my coaches that it was getting worse," Duren said of the early-season pain. "I was kind of scared. I thought they were going to sit me out. I made the decision to play through it."

And who could blame him? It was a no-win scenario, as La Salle soon found out.