LeBron James tipped off his 11th career NBA game in style, slamming home the first points of the game as the Cleveland Cavaliers hosted the LA Clippers in what was then called Quicken Loans Arena on the night of Nov. 18, 2003.
James, then an 18-year-old rookie, had already shown the NBA world what kind of impact he could have, averaging 16.8 points, 6.4 rebounds and 6.4 assists over his first 10 games. On that night against the Clippers, he struggled with his jump shot but still managed 14 points and 8 assists to lead the Cavs to a 103-95 win.
That same day, a little more than 430 miles away in a hospital in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania — a small borough of 5,600 people just outside of Philadelphia — Jalen Duren was born.
Duren turns 19 on Friday, the same day his Detroit Pistons face James and the Los Angeles Lakers. Duren, the No. 13 overall pick in the 2022 NBA draft, is not only the youngest active player in the NBA, he also holds the distinction of being the first NBA player who was born after James made his NBA debut.
When Duren was born, James had scored 168 career points. That total now stands at 37,311 as James, in his 20th season, approaches the all-time scoring record and faces off against a player nearly half his age.
“It’ll be like a surreal moment, you know what I mean,” Duren told ESPN. “He’s been in the league longer than I’ve been alive. So to be on the floor with him is legendary in some way. It’ll be a cool experience.”
Although Duren’s birth certificate might suggest he is a boy among men in the NBA, his 6-foot-10, 250-pound frame and the way he has asserted himself on the court early in his career suggest otherwise.
“He feels older,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said. “He acts a little older and then you kind of remember who he is [a teenager]. He carries himself in a very mature way, high character guy, so you wouldn’t know.”
Duren opened the season with a 14-point, 10-rebound performance against No. 1 pick Paolo Banchero and the Orlando Magic, becoming the second-youngest player in NBA history to record a double-double in his debut; only Dwight Howard in 2004 was younger. Although his rookie season has been slowed a bit by a sprained left ankle that cost him three games, he’s averaging 6.5 points and 7.4 rebounds in 21.4 minutes a night off the bench for Detroit. Among rookies, only Banchero is averaging more rebounds per game.
“Age doesn’t really matter to me,” Duren said this summer about entering the league as its youngest player. “Once we get in between the lines, I’m ready to hoop.”
The Pistons know Duren has a long way to go before he is finished developing, but the organization is encouraged by the early returns on a player they picked up for practically nothing in the draft.
Duren was originally selected by the Charlotte Hornets, who traded him to the New York Knicks on draft night. He ended up in Detroit as part of the deal that saw the Pistons take on Kemba Walker’s contract to help the Knicks free up cap space to sign Jalen Brunson. The pick Detroit sent to New York in the deal originally belonged to the Milwaukee Bucks and won’t convey until 2025, by which point Duren will still be just 21 years old.
“His maturity and his skill set translates to the NBA. His rebounding, shot blocking, his athleticism translates,” Casey said. “The other things he’ll pick up, his shooting, his post moves, his understanding of the nuances of the offensive end of the floor, he’ll pick that up as he gets older. But his athleticism, his physicality and size is already translating.”
In one sequence during the second quarter of that opening night victory against the Magic, Duren provided a glimpse into his immense potential.
After an errant 3-pointer from Orlando’s Franz Wagner, Duren tipped a rebound away from Magic center Mo Bamba and collected it as he ran up the floor to start a fast break. After delivering an outlet pass to Cory Joseph, Duren continued to run down the middle of the floor, sensing an opportunity. The pass was returned to him as he steamrollered towards the basket, finishing with authority with a right-handed dunk over Chuma Okeke. Duren turned towards the Detroit bench as his teammates jumped out of their seats and offered a scream and flex, while the fans at Little Caesars Arena erupted in jubilation.
“I felt like it was my ‘I’m finally here’ moment,” Duren said that night after the game.
Duren is the youngest player on one of the youngest teams in the NBA (the average age of the Pistons’ roster is 25.08), but that wasn’t always the case for him growing up. Despite being 6-foot-4 in seventh grade and towering over the other 13-year-olds, he continued to play alongside other children his age. Duren was playing for a small basketball program in Pennsylvania before Rob Brown, the director of Team Final AAU, recruited him. Most of the players on that team would try to emulate pros like James or Kevin Durant, but Brown would send Duren clips of big men with comparable skill sets, players like Chris Webber or Amar’e Stoudemire, against whom James competed at the start of his career.
“Everybody was a fan of LeBron, especially during his prime years, watching what he did, going to the Finals as much as he did,” Duren told ESPN.
While in high school, Duren began to model his game after James’ current teammate Anthony Davis, eventually earning the top spot in the ESPN 100 recruiting rankings for the Class of 2022. But rather than playing out his high school career as scheduled, Duren took advantage of online class opportunities while stuck in hotels during AAU tournaments to complete his senior year requirements and reclassify to the Class of 2021, joining the Memphis Tigers at 17 years old. Although Duren was only 18 at the time of the 2022 NBA draft, he was eligible to be drafted because he was one year removed from his high school graduation and turns 19 before the end of the calendar year.
Duren’s youth made him a perfect option for Detroit, as the Pistons look to rebuild around a young core featuring last season’s No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham plus this year’s No. 5 pick Jaden Ivey. Duren, Cunningham and Ivey are among six Pistons players currently on first-round rookie scale contracts.
The Pistons know with such a young squad, there will be growing pains — this season’s 3-11 start is evidence of that. Still, Duren’s teammates and coaches cite his maturity as part of the reason his transition to the NBA has gone smoothly so far.
“I followed him in high school,” Pistons center Isaiah Stewart told ESPN. “It stood out just how physically imposing he was. Just how athletic he was. Athletic freak.
“He doesn’t feel 18. He’s not built like he’s 18. He’s built like a grown man. He’s very mature for his age.”
ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk contributed to this story.