SLAM x Panini Rookie Spotlight: Chris Duarte

Chris Duarte is not your typical rookie.

For starters, he is 24 years old. That makes him the oldest player in the 2021 class. In fact, when the Pacers drafted him with the 13th overall pick back in July, he became the oldest player selected in the first round since 2002. But with age comes experience, composure, confidence and toughness—all of which Indiana’s staff identified in Duarte right away.

“We wanted the best player available at 13,” head coach Rick Carlisle told reporters shortly after the draft. “[Duarte’s] maturity—when you watch him play, he plays like a pro. He plays at his pace. He has a great feel for change of pace. He never plays in a hurry. A lot of the young kids in college, when you see them play, there’s kind of a franticness at times to the college game. This kid plays the game at a different tempo.”

“All the coaches we’ve talked to both at Oregon and that have played against him and coached against him rave about his toughness, his ability to shoot the ball,” added general manager Chad Buchanan. “Our league today is about shooting and guys being able to create their own shot, create their own space. He’s got a beautiful NBA stroke and I think it’s going to translate from day one.”

It has. With TJ Warren still sidelined by a foot injury, Duarte was inserted into the starting lineup immediately, and has been able to provide a crucial scoring spark. His skill set is extremely advanced and, as Buchanan alluded to, a perfect fit for the modern NBA. Duarte shoots it at a high clip from behind the arc and attacks the rims effectively, using his 6-6 frame and soft touch to finish inside. He can create for himself with a smooth handle or spot up to space the floor when one of Indiana’s other playmakers, like Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LeVert or Domantas Sabonis, is orchestrating the offense. Just look at the array of ways Duarte was able to score in his first NBA game, when he set a Pacers rookie debut record with 27 points on 9/15 shooting. (Also note the poise and change of pace that both Carlisle and Buchanan referenced. Duarte never seems rushed or out of control, even with the clock winding down. He plays at his speed.)

As of this writing, Duarte is averaging 14.8 points (third among rookies) on 43% shooting from the field and 40% from three. He’s attempting and hitting about the same number of catch-and-shoot threes as pull-up threes off the dribble. He recently joined Reggie Miller as the only players in Pacers franchise history to score 10 or more points in their first nine career games. On defense, Duarte competes with a lot of energy and uses his quick hands to be disruptive (he averaged almost two steals per game at Oregon last season). He also takes advantage of his size and length to help Sabonis and Myles Turner clean up the glass. Of the Pacers who have appeared in more than half the games this season, Duarte currently has the best plus-minus on the team.

Of course, Duarte’s age is what deterred a lot of NBA scouts and executives this past summer. Organizations tend to target younger—albeit less polished—prospects in the draft, betting on their future growth and development. Front offices are often more fixated on “what if” than “what is”—a fact that, as Duarte admitted in an interview with, once got to his head a little bit. “I got mad one time,” he said, referencing a pre-draft camp. “I was like, ‘OK guys, everybody keeps talking about this age thing. The age, the age. You’re old, Chris.’ I got mad and said, ‘Hey man, I don’t want to hear nothing about my age anymore. If you want to win games, get me. If you want to win in four years, go ahead and draft a 19-year-old kid. Then you can develop him and make him a superstar in three, four or five years. But you don’t know if he’s going to be a superstar—you don’t know, who knows?’”

It’s true—who really knows? Some gambles are safer than others, but with rookies, you rarely know beyond any doubt. Duarte might be closer to his ceiling than most rooks; but when the draft took place a few months ago, he was also much closer to a “sure thing.” Indiana felt very, very confident that they knew exactly what they were getting in the guard from Oregon. And they’ve gotten it so far.

After his historic NBA debut, Duarte was asked whether his early success had impressed even him, given how rare it is for rookies to thrive from day one. “I always play around, telling some of my teammates that I’m not a rookie,” he responded with a laugh.

Well, certainly not your typical one.

Scottie Barnes
Forward, Toronto Raptors
#4 Pick
Evan Mobley
Center, Cleveland Cavaliers
#3 Pick
Chris Duarte
Guard, Indiana Pacers
#13 Pick
Josh Giddey
Guard, Oklahoma City Thunder
#6 Pick
Franz Wagner
Forward, Orlando Magic
#8 Pick
Jalen Green
Guard, Houston Rockets
#2 Pick
Cade Cunningham
Guard, Detroit Pistons
#1 Pick
Alperen Sengun
Center, Houston Rockets
#16 Pick
Davion Mitchell
Guard, Sacramento Kings
#9 Pick
Jalen Suggs
Guard, Orlando Magic
#5 Pick