If you were one of the few fans sticking around to the bitter end to this disappointing Detroit Pistons season, you were treated to the Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren show. While this season has been a bitter, miserable slog, the two Pistons rookies have been an unequivocal bright spot this season, and they are flashing the kind of elite potential that can get even the most miserable Pistons fan excited about the future.
While the 118-105 defeat was the 10th loss in a row and the 21st in the past 22 games for Detroit, it also managed to be one of the most fun games to watch this season. The Heat might not be an elite team, but they do have some special talent, and they were trying their hardest to get a victory. They find themselves in the thick of the playoff race and needing to win in order to secure themselves a spot in the playoffs in the safe sixth seed instead of the vulnerable seventh seed they find themselves in now.
And Detroit made them earn it. While I don’t believe in moral victories, it was nice to see the Pistons put in a solid effort, and it was especially nice for them to be led by the two true building blocks still healthy on this roster.
Ivey and Duren combined for 50 points on 78% shooting from the floor. Duren was a beast on the boards, corralling 14, including several contested rebounds. Ivey looks more and more comfortable in the role of floor general and dangerous shooter. He made four of his six three-pointers, and dished seven assists.
He’s comfortable orchestrating a set, is understanding better how to exploit mismatches and manipulate defenders to open up driving lanes for himself and teammates, and he’s getting better at dishing the ball into small windows as defenders come out to deter him.
Just as important, his shot is looking silky smooth and outright dangerous. He had several nice three-point attempts as defenders got lost or went under on screens, and he also shot off movement, including a couple beautiful baseline jumpers as Heat defenders attempted to seal off the lane.
It was Ivey’s third game of at least 24 points in his past five and fifth in six games with at least seven assists. It was also his third game of at least 30 points this season. The only other rookie with at least three such games is Paolo Banchero (six).
Ivey is also one of four rookies to score 30 while shooting at least 65% from the floor. He’s done it twice and is the only player to do that other than Jalen Williams. The other rookies to hit 30 that efficiently? Big men Walker Kessler and ... Jalen Duren.
Ivey also is one of just three rookies this season to notch at least 10 assists in a game. He has done it four times, while ANdrew Nembhard of the Pacers has done it five and Jalen Williams for the Thunder has done it twice.
While most people have carved Bennedict Mathurin’s name in stone as a lock for First-Team All-Rookie, Ivey is showing how effective he can be in a featured role, and is scoring, distributing and even defending at a level right now that far exceeds where Ivey was at the beginning of the season, but also at a level that Mathurin hasn’t showcased.
Duren, meanwhile, is averaging a solid 11 points and 7.6 rebounds over his past eight contests while shooting 73.2% from the floor. He leads all rookies in rebounds per game, and plays a physical style of play that has seen him earn more than 150 trips to the free-throw line — just one of five rookies to hit that mark.
Most exciting for Duren is simply how comfortable he looks on the floor. He’s much more able to pick and find his spots and facilitate quality offense. He’s growing even more dangerous as a passer. Having a bruising big man who can score on the interior, create second-chance opportunities, work as a vertical threat, and can move the ball on the perimeter or in the short-roll is everything you ask for in a modern big.
Duren is also developing chemistry as both a roll man with players like Ivey and Killian Hayes, and also as a ball mover with fellow big men when he shares the floor with a James Wiseman or a Marvin Bagley.
Crucially, it is becoming increasingly clear how much their respective games will fit with Cade Cunningham next year once the former No. 1 overall pick is healthy. Ivey takes a lot of that creation and ball-handling burden away from Cade, and they can share that load which makes them both more dangerous and also preserves energy.
Duren, meanwhile, can work as a primary big man at center or play off another big man — if that big man is skilled enough to do some things on the floor. I’m not sure that complementary big is Wiseman or Bagley, but I could see him playing well off a healthy Isaiah Stewart (especially if the three-ball continues to develop) or ... that Victor guy.
There hasn’t been a ton to root for in Pistons land for a good long while, but Ivey and Duren have been consistent bright spots, and they are shining brightest as the season winds down.
That has to feel good for the rookies, for the coaching staff, for executive Troy Weaver as he enters a crucial offseason, and for us fans. Who just want something to cheer for.