Job One for final quarter of Pistons season: Getting Kennard back at pre-injury level
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SACRAMENTO – Among the realistic possibilities for the final quarter of the Pistons season, nothing would be more important than Luke Kennard returning as the player he was for the first quarter of it.
“He had made a huge stride,” Dwane Casey said. “I was really singing his praises at that time about being a quasi-point guard, passing the ball. He was one of our best 3-point shooters. Unfortunately, in our league, ability is availability.”
Kennard scored 30 points to power an opening-night win at Indiana with Blake Griffin sidelined. Over the first 20 games, Kennard averaged 16.9 points and 4.3 assists while shooting 40 percent from the 3-point arc and stepping into the broader role Casey had envisioned for him. Kennard had proven himself as top-notch 3-point shooter, but to label him as merely an elite shooter badly undersells his playmaking ability.
On the rare nights over the season’s first six weeks when Kennard’s 3-point shot wasn’t falling – or on those nights when teams fully aware of his 3-point lethality sold out to prevent those shots – Kennard proved capable of and at ease with becoming a facilitator and exhibiting strides in other areas, like rebounding and defense.
Toronto held him to six shots, but Kennard registered seven assists. He hit just 1 of 7 triples in a win over the Knicks, so scored inside while dishing out seven more assists and grabbing nine rebounds. In a blowout win over Atlanta, Kennard shot 1 of 6 from three but had nine assists against a single turnover.
Getting that guy back would give a franchise that has veered in a new direction since Kennard went down in late December with tendinitis in both knees a huge shot in the arm going into the off-season. Will we see Kennard again this season?
“Yes. Yes, 100 percent,” Kennard said Sunday after completing a pregame shooting routine. “I’m ready to go. Just taking the little steps now to making that happen, getting back into the routine of things.”
Kennard joined the Pistons in Denver for the final three games of a road trip that wrapped up in Sacramento. He’s jumping and cutting now. A return to contact practice drills, he says, is “definitely coming up very soon – very soon.”
He’s now pain free, Kennard said, and, more encouragingly, believes the tendinitis that has cropped up occasionally won’t be a chronic issue.
“We’re starting to figure out what I can do to prevent it from happening again,” he said. “There’s some strengthening stuff around my legs I need to work on, some mechanical stuff, mobility stuff. It’s something I’ve got to be doing every day now, something I can prevent from happening again, which is a positive sign. Next season I want to go 100 percent. I’m encouraged to say it’s a very good possibility that I’m able to do that.”
Going into his fourth season, the final year of his rookie contract, it will be important for Kennard to prove his durability – and important for the Pistons to peg his value.
“It’s very important – very important for him, very important for the organization, for a lot of reasons,” Casey said. “It’ll be good for him as a player just to get back on the court and see his health come back around.”
Kennard felt stabbing pain in both knees that would come and go. Some nights, he said, he’d be symptom free in pregame warmups, then get in the game and at the first full-intensity blast the pain would surge.
“It started to escalate around the 20-game mark, something like that – some sharp pain,” he said. “It was nothing serious, nothing that would risk any potential big injury, but it was, ‘How can I control the symptoms and make sure everything heals up around the tendons.’ I’ve gotten a lot better. I’ve worked really hard to get back to it and I’m feeling really good.”
Kennard said that after missing a Dec. 4 game and another two weeks later without feeling any improvement, a plan was formulated to address his tendinitis more definitively.
“The doctors, everybody met and they figured out a plan for me. They thought it could work and so far, it’s worked really well. We’ve followed the plan to a T and we’ve worked really hard – the training staff, everybody’s worked really hard with me to make sure I’m in the right spot.”
He’s close enough to the right spot that a little more patience is in order to ensure Kennard’s progress isn’t turned back by rushing his return.
“It’s frustrating that it happened, but at the same time I’m figuring out ways I can make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said. “We’ve been taking small steps to getting back on the court – running, jumping, all that stuff. But I’ve been pain free and that’s a really big, positive sign.”
The Pistons are loaded with young players for whom the season’s final 20 games will be about making favorable impressions going into the summer and positioning themselves to be part of the franchise’s next phase. Nothing, though, would be more important than Kennard getting back on the same path he trod in November and early December, before his knees betrayed him.
“He had taken a huge step, one full step forward,” Casey said. “Beginning to play better defense. That was a plus sign there. Hopefully, he comes back and gets his body, his knees straight so he can pick up when he left off.”