In the first preseason game against the Raptors, Chris Duarte looked a bit lost.
The trade acquisition from the Pacers this offseason struggled to find the balance of playing physically without fouling with 4 personal fouls, looked hesitant on some opportunities, and appeared to be playing catch-up the entire contest. On top of that, the second unit—which he was a part of—was atrocious.
On Wednesday in the second preseason game against the Lakers in Anaheim, Duarte got off to a rough start. Early into his time in the first quarter, he was blatantly hesitant on an open three-point attempt before having the ball poked away for a turnover, and a bit later, he attempted an ambitious pass that led to another turnover. He also had an instance where he played a tad too physical on defense, picking up a foul.
And worst of all, he let a defensive rebound go over his head, which became an offensive board for the Lakers. Seconds later, on LA’s second opportunity, Christian Wood glided freely to the rim without Duarte stepping in as the low man, drawing the confusion and ridicule of veteran center JaVale McGee.
It looked like it was going to be another rough go for Duarte in terms of adjusting to his new team, and it looked like he was putting himself in a hot seat of sorts.
His failure to step up as the low man triggered a Mike Brown timeout, and after the break, Duarte got things moving in the opposite direction. That is to say, he got his act together.
Late in the first, he played some nice defense on rookie Jalen Hood-Schifino, using a nice contest to force a miss. On the following defensive possession, he poked the ball free for a steal before taking the rock all the way to the other end for a layup. And in the period’s closing seconds, he made up for his earlier mistake, stepping in as the low man to force a tougher shot for Rui Hachimura that did not go in.
Just like that, Duarte went from a guy who might be seeing his stock falling to a guy who was admirably implementing Mike Brown’s defensive lessons and principles.
There were not so many examples of great defense for the rest of the game other than drawing an offensive foul on an illegal screen with a good effort to try and get through it (as well as a nice sell to the officials), but there were no blunders.
As for his play in the second and third quarters, Duarte earned positive marks with his shooting. He hit all three of his jump shots, one was a mid-range in transition and the other two were three-pointers from the corner in the third quarter.
In all, Duarte finished with 10 points and 2 rebounds. He finished with 3 turnovers, but 2 of them came early when he still looked a little out of sorts, and he did not commit any additional fouls.
“I thought Chris — you could feel him defensively,” Mike Brown assessed after the game. “He was pretty good. He was pretty active defensively, he got a couple of deflections. I don’t think he allowed the ball to be blown by him at all.”
Brown also commended his offense after Duarte’s perfect night from the field.
Guys like coach Brown, De’Aaron Fox, and Malik Monk have highlighted that chemistry and comfort is something built up in due time. There was never any reason to hit the panic button on Duarte so early, but concern was slowly building as he looked lousy in just under five quarters of preseason basketball.
The quick turnaround could be a sign that his slow start is transforming into a rapid adjustment.
If he can defend and shoot like that as a role player for this team, he will earn plenty of opportunities. Moreover, he can get his career back on the right track after a poor second season in Indiana.
And as chemistry continues to improve, this will only increase his chances of living up to being the guy Monte McNair hungered for when he made the trade for Sabonis when the Pacers designated Duarte as untouchable. Not to mention, spectators have not yet been able to see the full impact of the Sabonis-Duarte reunion, which should be yet another two-man combination for this team.
After a poor start in his efforts to adjust to his new team, Chris Duarte appears to be finding a rhythm. And it’s still fairly early.