3 goals: Luke Kennard – start where you left off, then ratchet it up a few more notches
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(Editor’s note: Today continues a series looking at the 17 players – 15 under standard contracts, two on two-way deals – who comprise the 2019-20 Pistons roster heading into the home stretch of the off-season. Today: Luke Kennard. Coming Tuesday: Svi Mykhailiuk
Luke Kennard wound up taking the rookie-to-sophomore leap the Pistons expected, but it took longer than anyone wished through no fault of Kennard’s.
A knee injury suffered in the first July Summer League practice of 2018 KO’d Kennard for the rest of the summer and precipitated a lethargic preseason and slow start to his regular season. Just as he appeared to be turning the corner, a separated shoulder incurred in the season’s fourth game knocked Kennard out for six weeks.
When the Pistons got rolling at mid-season, though, Kennard was right there with Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson in leading the charge. Kennard averaged 11.7 points after the All-Star break when he shot 43 percent from the 3-point line. At his best, Kennard is not merely an elite 3-point shooter but a creator with a deadly mid-range pull-up shot and ambidextrous scoring ability in the paint.
Dwane Casey eventually decided Kennard’s scoring and shot-creation skills were put to best use with last year’s roster coming off of the bench. While his 3-point shooting fits ideally with the Griffin-Drummond starting lineup, starting Kennard basically limited him to catch-and-shoot opportunities with the bulk of the offense funneled through Griffin.
Where Kennard gets used in 2019-20 is largely out of his hands and more dependent on how confident Casey feels in getting enough scoring and playmaking out of a second unit missing Ish Smith but gaining Derrick Rose.
Casey’s practice is to present his players with a three-item card with their core values to the team before training camp starts. In keeping with that protocol but with a twist, we’ll look at the three goals for each player on the roster heading into the 2019-20 Pistons season. For Luke Kennard, those are …
MAINTAIN MOMENTUM – Pistons front-office chief Ed Stefanski said it after the season: Kennard probably was the Pistons best player in their postseason series against Milwaukee. In his first taste of the postseason, Kennard averaged 15 points and hit 60 percent of his 3-point shots. That should send Kennard into training camp – off of the healthy summer that last year’s knee injury cost him – full of confidence and ready to thrive in whatever role Casey designs for him. When Kennard has struggled over his first two seasons, he falls into a passivity on offense. That almost never happened over the second half of last season after Kennard regained his mojo upon return from the shoulder separation. If that’s his baseline this season, then Kennard will be ready to take the next leap in his evolution.
BE FLEXIBLE – There are strong arguments to use Kennard with both the starters and with the bench unit. Assuming that Tony Snell is the front-runner to start at small forward where his length would match up best against opposition starters, then the only likely decision left for Casey will be Bruce Brown or Kennard at shooting guard. Using Brown gives Casey a tough defender who would allow Reggie Jackson the luxury of not having to guard the likes of Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker or Kyle Lowry for the majority of his minutes. Casey needed Kennard’s secondary ballhandling and primary scoring ability with the second unit last season, but the presence of Rose and his scoring gives Casey more flexibility to use Kennard however he sees fit this time around. It’s possible, perhaps likely, that Casey experiments with Kennard in both roles. It will be on Kennard to stay ready and be adaptable so that he can maintain his offensive edge no matter how he’s used. Even if it’s off the bench, you can pencil in Kennard for increased minutes this season over his 23 a game last year.
ROUND OUT GAME – Kennard has an incredibly diverse skill set with the ball in his hands. He’s able to shoot off the dribble as well as in catch-and-shoot situations, he’s a good passer with either hand, he’s got a devastating pump fake and terrific footwork once he cracks the first line of defense and the ability to score with either hand from inside 10 feet. (Kennard was a right-handed, record-setting high school quarterback before giving it up in his senior season after committing to Duke for basketball.) Now the challenge is to round out his game in other areas – becoming a high-level cutter to open up more shot chances, using his active hands to become a more disruptive defender (which Kennard showed he can be after the All-Star break last season), becoming a more efficient scorer around the basket, honing his command as a pick-and-roll ballhandler, etc, etc., etc. As promising as Kennard’s career has been through two seasons, the Pistons fully anticipate him elevating his level of play even more dramatically in the near-term future.