Out of the gates: Jalen Duren vs. Chet Holmgren
Two drastically different big men are putting their stamp on the college season early. Which should be more exciting for draft pundits?
Early in this scouting season, a narrative is already developing: Chet Holmgren from Gonzaga and Paolo Banchero from Duke are the two best prospects in college basketball. Both were highly-touted guys in high school, had the preseason hype in this draft class and haven’t disappointed thus far.
Before we place Holmgren in this top tier, let’s take a step backward and look a little more critically at his game, what he does well, his trajectory moving forward and how he compares to other bigs in this draft class. After all, in order for Holmgren to be in a tier of top guys, he has to be a tier above any other big men.
Enter Jalen Duren, the freshman who just turned 18 that’s dominating at Memphis as a true big man. The gap between Duren and Holmgren may not be that great: Duren is 18 months younger than Chet, has a clearer projection to the NBA thanks to the stricter adherence to his role and produces at incredibly high levels. So before we start talking about who does or doesn’t belong at the top of the board, let’s dive into the games of the two clear-cut best big men in this draft class.
Physically overpowering guys 3 or 4 years older when you should be in calculus class or semiformal dances doesn’t happen often. The 6’11” big man has imposed his monstrous physique and strong leaping ability to start the season, showing very little learning curve to college after his reclassification to join the Memphis Tigers a year early. Through four games, Duren is averaging 15.0 points, 10.8 rebounds and 4.8 blocks while shooting 75% from the field. He has two double-doubles and three games with five or more rejections.
Duren came out of the gates strong with a fantastic 15 point, 6 rebound, 5 block performance against Tennessee Tech:
What stood out most from the debut was the rim protection and shot-blocking prowess. Duren is not the quickest leaper we’ve ever seen, but he makes up for it with natural length (a 7’5” wingspan measured at Memphis pro day) and instinctual timing on his jumps. He isn’t the fastest off the floor with second jumps either but he leaps with everything he’s got and has very good off-ball awareness. At 6’11” with a 7’5” wingspan, you don’t have to be a 40-inch leaper to get above the rim and be functionally strong on either end.
The debut against Tennessee Tech showed a great ability by Duren to switch on ball screens and keep smaller guards in front. He’ll need more reps against more reputable teams in better athletes, but the ability to do so late-clock checks off one of our vital boxes for lottery big man prospects: thrive in multiple pick-and-roll schemes so one offensive attack and the need for versatility doesn’t play you off the floor.
While Duren is mundane vertically, he’s exceptional in his ground coverage. He takes long strides to recover when he must and has quick, nimble feet in tighter spaces. It’s ideal for guarding in isolation against face-up scorers. The long arms add to his defensive acumen.
Offensively, the lack of elite burst shows when Duren has to change directions. He’s a pretty square and powerful leaper and struggles to get up after avoiding contact. Clear path to the rim? No problem. Place a defender inside and he handicaps his own vertical burst:
These early-season teams on the Tigers’ schedule are going to be undersized in the post. As they face foes with bigger bodies that can bang one-on-one, double teams will be less frequent. Duren’s passing popped early, with assists early in the season when mid or low-major opponents would send doubles to the post. Now, as the teams he plays get larger and longer, his post passing gets exposed a bit. Duren isn’t very accurate when kicking it out of the post across the court.
That Western Kentucky game presented the greatest amount of length he’s gone against. Duren was incredibly successful: 22 points (on 8-12 shooting), 19 points, 5 blocks, 2 assists and 2 steals. It isn’t that Duren can’t be as effective against length: his strength ensures that he can. Instead, Duren’s skill and playmaking chops get challenged more, leading him to fully embrace his role as a finisher/ rebounder at the basket and little else.
We had the opportunity to see Duren play this Spring with Team Final, where he teamed with Derreck Lively, another big-time post player, against 2023 lottery projected prospect Kyle Filipowski, headed to Duke. Duren wasn’t dominant by any means in comparison to the other two, and seemingly coasted through the weekend until there were highlights to be had or the games were on the line.
Duren looks like he’s rejuvenated by the greater level of competition daily in college. His motor is very high, he’s a fantastic rebounder and has the physical strength that allows him to play his style of game as a power big man. We came into the season with Duren being at the bottom end of our top-ten, and he’s gaining some traction to rise.
He rarely takes shots outside his range or comfort zone, and the jumper lacks a great deal of touch. We need to see a lot more touch to feel comfortable projecting him as someone who can use that shot.
In order to draft a big in the lottery, we look at four boxes and believe that either all four must be checked, or three of them checked with a dominant and projectable trajectory in one. Those four boxes:
Protect the paint & rebound
Finish off the pick & roll
Be deployable in multiple PNR coverages
Possess long-term shooting upside
Duren does not check the final box, but he’s certainly gotten off to a great start in the others. He seems to be an elite and dominant rim protection and rebounding big, which could make up for the absence of shooting. He’s still worthy of high-end lottery consideration.
He’ll likely be closer to a DeAndre Ayton type of prospect, with questionable long-term touch or stretch potential, but unteachable size, motor, athleticism and great feel as a rim protector. The question isn’t whether Duren is one of the most talented guys in this draft, but whether his role, which is pretty squarely known as a rim protecting, PNR-finishing big man is worth taking over some rarer, high-ceiling guys in the top ten.
A guy like, for example, Chet Holmgren
Valuing Holmgren’s Game
If Duren is what happens when you paint only inside the lines, Chet Holmgren is color all over the page. There’s nothing about him that is traditional, from his body type to his skill level. Calling him a post player feels a bit out of place considering the skill he possesses away from the basket or in the open floor. There’s very little chance we see him operating out of the post very often in the NBA — unless Jason Kidd is his head coach.
Standing 7’0” but weighing a mere 190 pounds, Holmgren is skinny. He doesn’t have the broad shoulders or wide hips that typically go with adding weight over time. He’s likely to be skinny for the majority of his career, and guys of his size have been prone to have their bodies break down sooner. There’s risk that comes with his major skill set.
But boy… what a tantalizing skill set it is. Through four games, Holmgren has played 25.3 minutes and is averaging 11.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 3.5 blocks. He’s a traditional stat-sheet stuffer who doesn’t need to score to have a major impact on games. He has a phenomenally high basketball IQ. Envisioning him in the open floor at the NBA level requires a napkin to wipe the drool off your mouth.
Holmgren was dominant to start the season, filling it up in almost every way against Dixie State in his first collegiate game: 14 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists and 7 blocks.
Let’s talk defense first. Holmgren blocking 3.5 shots a game while playing a hybrid of the 4 and the 5 is absolutely mind-boggling. During our Gonzaga vs. Texas watchalong, we talked about Holmgren as a shot deterrent, someone who alters more shots than the blocks total will illuminate. Guys fling up wild shots to avoid getting sent to the second row, or bypass a shot altogether.
Check out this possession against Bellarmine. The undersized visitors were terrified of throwing up an attempt over the top of his gargantuan standing reach:
The shot blocking is wild because it’s able to be utilized in every way. Holmgren can be a great anchor, protecting the rim from the weak side and swatting away drivers. He can also move his feet laterally and stay with drivers one-on-one. His quick feel for winning the first step is impressive, and with that length the ground coverage is miraculous.
Combine those traits and there’s little doubt Holmgren can be solid defensively in the NBA. Sure, he may face some physical challenges early that his length gives him a better shot of overcoming in college. The highlight of Holmgren’s candidacy as a prospect is in what he can do on that end of the floor.
The offense is a little more of a work-in-progress. The skill level to handle the ball, pass and feel the game is rarely seen in seven-footers. The question is: how should it be utilized and how does he score the basketball?
Holmgren has beaten up on some smaller teams, playing in the post and being afforded a ton of time due to Gonzaga’s lethal roster around him. Holmgren picks up assists on nice passes to cutters while posting up, showing a major ability to read defenses and deliver strikes on time and on target. Many assists have also come by simply dumping the ball to another post presence on the Zags in Drew Timme, who has been on a tear to start the season.
We worry about Holmgren as a face-up creator though, mostly because he’s so high-waisted and struggles to get low when driving. We’ve already seen smaller guards poke his handle away with little he can do:
Chet isn’t very fast, a tough one-two combo with the high dribble. He’s long, and one sliver of space is all he needs to extend the ball outward and gain an advantage. He needs the open runway to get into the lane and is best when defended by other bigs, not by smaller guys.
As a shooter, his form is okay in spot-up situations. Smooth but slow, the shot should be alright in terms of not getting blocked — he’s pretty freaking tall. That said, his depth perception and ability to keep focused on the target while defenders close out will determine if the shot falls in the NBA. He can’t be a non-shooter who tries to drive it every time he feels a defender approaching; he’s simply not fast enough with his first step. We already see that in how he drives pretty wide when engaging in a jab-and-go:
At the very least, a four-game sample from Holmgren is not enough to determine what his offensive role could or will be. He’s been a mixed bag on that end: 2 points on 1-3 shooting against Texas, but strong against other mid-major opponents. He’s shot only four free throws since his 6-9 performance in the debut, and it would be nice to see him get back to that level consistently.
Chet isn’t Kevin Durant or Aleksej Pokusevki, a seven-footer with an ultra-smooth jumper that can drill shots off the bounce. He also isn’t Giannis Antetokounmpo, a ferocious athlete who can change speeds, handle contact or separate in isolation. He’s caught in-between as a high-feel, highly competitive prospect who is missing one piece and might be more like a super lanky Al Horford. Either he’ll gain the jumper reliably (1-5 from 3-point range to start is nowhere near the sample size to bring concern, though it’s telling he doesn’t shoot them frequently) or increase his quick-twitch athleticism to force second-line defenders to collapse on him from a face-up drive.
Both Chet and Duren are impressive defensive prospects. Duren, the traditional rim protector, can play in multiple PNR coverages. Holmgren, a more versatile piece, will erase anything if he’s near the rim and has some impressive instincts or first step counter-moves to shut down drives when guarding the perimeter.
Their defensive acumen is where the overlap ends. Duren gets a bit of a bad rap because he’s a traditional big man in the offensive sense, and those players and positions have been severely devalued based on supply and demand trends of the modern game. He’s come out and been a major positive for us early in the season as a hard worker and someone who is pretty aware of sticking to his comfort zones.
Projecting Holmgren is much, much more difficult. He’s so unorthodox and rare, but we’re being conservative and not anointing him a top prospect until we get a better feel for exactly what to expect from him offensively in the NBA. As of late November, the gap between these two prospects is much thinner than many are letting on.
We’re not sure who that says more about…