Back-to-back big games for Kennard, but still work to be done to crack SVG’s circle of trust

Luke Kennard has put together consecutive impressive performances for the Pistons as he works through his rookie season.
Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

INDIANAPOLIS – Stan Van Gundy’s circle of trust today encompasses seven players: his five starters – Andre Drummond, Tobias Harris, Stanley Johnson, Avery Bradley, Reggie Jackson – plus Ish Smith and Anthony Tolliver. They’re going to play every night.

Luke Kennard isn’t there yet. He’s had back-to-back games that made all those who filed glowing scouting reports in Van Gundy’s front office nod in affirmation and that’s most encouraging. But as a rookie, Kennard might be another dozen consecutive such outings away from penetrating the Van Gundy circle of trust.

And that’s a position foreign to him. Then again, everything’s foreign to him at this point. Welcome to the NBA.

But what the Pistons suspected about Kennard – what they could see firsthand in the leap he took over the course of his two years at Duke, including a marked improvement as a sophomore over his debut season – he’s quickly confirming. He bends the learning curve severely.

Those three games he sat as the Pistons beat the Clippers and Warriors on a 2-1 West Coast trip a few weeks ago helped him navigate its arc on a few levels.

“The game is definitely slowing down a little bit,” he said after Thursday’s practice. “The few games where I was inactive, being able to watch the game and really just kind of take it all in, you get a different view when you’re not in action. You can see everything a little more. I really feel like I learned from that.”

It also underscored for him that he wasn’t there yet – there being a player his coach couldn’t win without – and the only way to get there was to do more of everything he’d ever done.

“I didn’t do it for psychological reasons,” Van Gundy said, “but I did expect that that would happen. If you go inactive for three games and it doesn’t motivate you to pick up what you’re doing, then I’d be concerned.”

And, Kennard admits, it did. It’s not like the flame on Kennard’s competitive fire was dialed back by achieving every kid’s dream of being drafted and pulling an NBA uniform over his head the first time, but each rung requires another level of drive that can only be processed through exposure.

“It motivated me to work even harder, to be better, to when I have an opportunity I’ve got to make the best of it,” Kennard admitted. “That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m continuing to learn and get better. I just want to help the team in any way I can.”

The Pistons know the ways Kennard can help. He’s a born scorer but – more than that – a unique playmaker at the wing positions, something that separates him from most. Van Gundy wanted playmakers besides his point guards, Jackson and Smith, and he’s got others who can put it on the floor now, Bradley and Langston Galloway among them. But Kennard is at the head of the list.

“No question,” Van Gundy said. “That’s one of the things that our scouts and front office – Jeff (Bower), Pat (Garrity), Adam (Glessner), J.R. (Holden), Jeff Nix – those guys all liked about him was his ability to handle and pass and be able to put the ball on the floor and make plays. And I think the way we’re playing should benefit him as he gets more familiar with it and I think we’ve seen it a little bit in the last couple of games.”

To be able to employ those unique gifts, though, Kennard has to be competent, at least, at the defensive end and in all other nuanced aspects of the NBA game. And that’s where Van Gundy has really seen strides lately.

That’s why he left him out for the last 18 minutes in Sunday’s taut win over Miami, when Kennard scored 14 points, and why he nearly left him out to finish at Milwaukee, when Kennard scored eight of his 11 points in the fourth quarter, instead of re-inserting Harris for the finishing kick.

“I think he’s come a long way in the last week or two,” Van Gundy said. “He needs to keep playing that way or he’ll be back to not playing like other people are. The good thing is we’ve got enough people to keep a lot of those guys from being comfortable because there’s some guys who are going to play every night and then there’s some guys who can really help us if they’re really on their game but if they’re going to get comfortable and relaxed, they’re going to struggle.”

So Luke Kennard would tell you that he’s getting more and more comfortable with the NBA. And Stan Van Gundy wound warn that he shouldn’t get too comfortable. Kennard so far seems pretty good at finding a happy middle ground.