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Delaware native Jalen Duren fulfilling promise as the 'next big thing'

04/25/2021, 10:45pm EDT
By Josh Verlin

Jalen Duren (above) is coming off an All-American junior season at Montverde Academy (Fla.) (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

It was well before he stepped on the court at Roman Catholic that the buzz around Jalen Duren had started circulating: best Philly-area post prospect since Rasheed Wallace. The Next Big Thing. Future Pro. A young man from Delaware with all the potential in the world.

They were expectations about as high as you could get for a 14-year-old center. Three years later, Duren has become everything everybody thought he could be. And he’s still only just beginning.

“I know I’ve got to keep working all the time,” Duren said last Sunday, April 18 after playing for Team Final at the Nike-backed organization’s annual set of high-level spring warm-ups. “I know I haven’t done nothing yet.”

Since his freshman year at Roman, when he stood 6-foot-8 and averaged 13.3 ppg for the Catholic League champions, earning first team All-Catholic honors in the process, Duren has been the area’s must-see prospect. 

A tremendous physical specimen of a post player, Duren has effortless athleticism, vise grips for hands and a strong basketball IQ, seeing the floor and passing out of the post when a good shot isn’t there. He also knows how to score around the bucket: slam dunks are his speciality — emphasis on the word slam — but Duren also has a reliable hook shot and improving face-up game, including a nifty little baseline fadeaway move he likes to employ.

“Basketball in Philadelphia has forever been defined by tremendous guard play. Jalen changes the conversation,” said one Division I coach from the region. “When I saw him for the first time, I was like ‘oh, here’s somebody that lives up to the ‘hype.’' And then the second reaction is, ‘I’ve not seen many 14-year-olds that look like that, physically.”

As a sophomore, Duren upped his scoring average to 17 ppg, surpassing the 30-point mark twice during Catholic League play for the PCL runner-ups. Now most of the way to his current 6-foot-10, 240-pound frame, Duren was a force unmatched by any team in the state, one of the reasons the Cahillites were one of the favorites to win the PIAA 6A title before COVID ended this prematurely.

He spent this past year at Montverde Academy (Fla.), one of the most highly-regarded athletic specialty prep school academies, where he helped guide Kevin Boyle’s squad to a GEICO High School National Championship earlier this month. MaxPreps anointed Duren — who averaged 14.3 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.2 blocked shots per game — its National Junior of the Year and he was also their only junior named First Team All-American.

“Coach Boyle and his staff down there, they’ve got a great staff, of course they know what they’re doing, they send a lot of guys to the league,” Duren said. “You’ve got to play hard all the time, it takes hard work [...] You’ve got to compete, honestly, it’s all about competing, all about wanting it more than the other man.”

Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL

Watching Duren do his thing in Wilmington last weekend at the Team Final Scrimmages, it’s hard to imagine there’s a post player in high school hoops with the impact he has on both ends of the floor.

Moves and dunks that would draw the crowds out of their seats if they were performed by any other player were regarded as almost ho-hum: the easy alley-oops thrown by just about every guard on Team Final, all knowing they just have to put the ball somewhere near and above the rim for Duren to slam it home with ease; his ability to grab a rebound, get up the court in a few dribbles and long strides, then drop off a pinpoint pass to a teammate on the break for an easy layup; authoritative blocks of both jumpers and layoff attempts. 

“In a year when a lot of people took a step back or didn’t get better, I think he’s gotten a lot better,” one NBA scout told CoBL. “I think where he stands out specifically is on the defensive end. His ability to rim protect, his ability to rebound at a high level, the way he moves and he should be able to guard multiple positions, switchability, all that stuff matters a ton.

“On the offensive end, he’s obviously someone who can be a high-level finisher, he’s got good hands, he’s got high-level post moves he’s working on, he’s starting to shoot.”

Duren is the latest in a long line of NBA-level talent that’s come through Team Final over the decade-plus that Rob Brown has run the Nike-backed program. Most recently were Cameron Reddish (the No. 10 pick in 2019), Donte Divincenzo (No. 17 in 2018) and Lonnie Walker IV (No. 18 in 2018); Lamar Stevens, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Dion Waiters, Tyreke Evans and others all donned the Final uniform and went on to substantial and/or ongoing NBA careers.

He’s not the only potential future pro on Final’s current 17U group, arguably the best travel team in the country this summer: 7-1 center Dereck Lively II teams up with Duren to make up a frontcourt that would intimidate many college lineups, while top-100 guards Corey Floyd (UConn commit), Jameel Brown (Haverford School, Pa.) and Duren’s longtime teammate Justice Williams (Montverde Academy, Fla.) provide a ton of scoring punch on the perimeter.

“At this point it’s probably what is the most fun is watching a kid develop from your middle school program and turn into high-level players,” Brown said. “We’ve done a pretty good job of identifying talent at young ages, and it’s just cool to see those guys go through that evolution.”

Duren (above) is the No. 2 prospect in the 2022 class. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

The consensus No. 2 prospect in the 2022 class behind Michigan wing Emoni Bates, it’s hard not to draw the line from Duren’s current spot to a place in the top hoops league in the world in the not-too-distant future. The five-star designation is one that’s been foisted upon him since before he even got to high school, and one he’s continued to earn in almost every game since.

For all watching from the outside since he got to Roman, it seems like the obvious trajectory for a player who’s been nothing but dominant the entire time he’s been in the local public eye. But for Duren, who was a football-first player until he began to take hoops more seriously as a 6-5 seventh grader, it still feels like a meteoric rise towards national recognition. 

“I’m honored, it’s amazing for people to even think that of me [...]  to see some guys put me at that level of Rasheed Wallace, it’s amazing,” Duren said. “Sometimes it does get overwhelming, but I have a circle and of course my mom keeps me sane, she’s like my backbone, everything runs through my mom and she keeps me going.”

Of course, at only 17 years old, Duren is a ways away from being a surefire NBA player. There’s a senior year at Montverde to get through first, and then the NBA’s entry rules state he has to go at least one more season of hoops before he can enter his name in the NBA draft. 

“You never want to say ‘obvious’ because a lot can happen,” the NBA scout said, “[but] I think he’s headed in the right direction to being a lottery pick.”

This weekend, Duren revealed via Instagram the 11 places that could be his destination next year: nine colleges (Villanova, Michigan, Kentucky, UCLA, Miami (Fl.), Auburn, Alabama, Penn State, Memphis) and two professional leagues, Australia’s NBL and the NBA G League. 

The NBA G League ‘Ignite’ team, which launched last year, is the developmental league’s alternate to college hoops, with players forgoing their amateur eligibility for contracts of up to $500,000 to play for a team that’s unaffiliated with any of the NBA’s franchises. It’s a tempting offer, and several of the country’s top prospects have taken this route each of the last two years; if Duren wants to start his pro career, nobody’s going to second-guess the choice.

“Right now, I take it one step at a time, honestly,” he said. “I don’t look too far in the future, all my options are open. So I’m looking at everywhere, talking to everybody, seeing what’s best for me.”

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