The suddenness with which the NBA season shut down took the breath away from every player, but it was especially jarring for Luke Kennard. The March 11 game at Philadelphia was the 36th straight he’d missed since being shut down in late December with tendinitis in both knees, but there wasn’t going to be a 37th straight Pistons game without Kennard.
The next game on their schedule – March 14 at Toronto – was to be his return.
“I was pretty much ready to go. I was already in practices and drills, going full go in practices, so I was ready to go,” Kennard said. “I was probably going to be on a minutes restriction, but that next game was going to be the time I was coming back to play.”
And so what had begun as a breakout third season for Kennard ended under unprecedented circumstances and left unanswered how the regimen devised by the Pistons medical team to address Kennard’s knee issues would have worked.
Kennard, after dealing with the frustration of the pain in both knees stabbing at him early in games out of nowhere, had come to feel confident that the nearly three months of treatments had solved his dilemma. He was eager to put it to the test, though he sailed through the practices without incident. But when fate intervened, he adapted and has continued to work the program designed to prevent a recurrence of tendinitis.
“Ever since we got back from Philly (after the March 11 suspension of the season) – we had to do that quarantine, but right after that, I got back in the swing of things, working out of my apartment, getting outside doing workouts. I really haven’t missed a beat since then and I’ve been able to keep up with that workout regimen and I’m still feeling great. My knees, I’m 100 percent. I’d be ready to go if we were playing.”
Kennard has typically spent his off-seasons either at his family home in southwestern Ohio or in Los Angeles, where a cottage industry of personal trainers and facilities has flourished to service the needs of the many NBA players who spend summers there. This year, at least for the foreseeable future, Kennard plans to stay in Detroit and work at the Pistons Performance Center.
“We have a lot of young guys. They’re working hard right now and they took a lot of steps this past year to show what they can do and I’m excited to keep growing with them,” Kennard said. “I’m still in Detroit right now. Things are starting to open up. I’ve been able to get in the gym a little bit, seeing guys around, and they’ve been working hard. It’s exciting to see. It’s exciting that everybody’s on the same page of what we want to accomplish this off-season going into next year.”
Kennard hit the ground running to start 2019-20, his third season since the Pistons made him the 12th pick in 2017. He scored a career-high 30 points in a season-opening win at Indiana when the Pistons were without Blake Griffin. Through 20 games, before his knees started barking, Kennard averaged 16.9 points – grouped right there with Griffin (18.5), Andre Drummond (17.1) and Derrick Rose (16.3) – while a close second to Drummond in minutes per game (33.7). He made 40.3 percent of his 3-point shots on 6.7 attempts per game while also averaging 4.3 assists.
He had, by all accounts, taken a significant step forward. At minimum, Kennard established himself as a no-doubt NBA starter with well more than that within his grasp. And that’s what he’s intent on achieving.
“I want to continue to grow in playmaking, playing off the dribble. This year was the year I handled the ball more than I ever have so far,” he said. “I want to continue to get comfortable with it. I’m going to continue to work on that this off-season, shooting off the dribble, passing off the dribble, extending my range a little bit and try to become an elite scorer in the NBA. That’s what I want to do.”
And going into his fourth year – “it’s crazy to say that, honestly” – Kennard also is intent on moving into a leadership role.
“I want to become more of a leader on the court, off the court, everything,” he said. “Having team doctors around, talk to them about stuff like that, is going to be key for me. That’s why I think being in Detroit this off-season and being around some of the staff and players, it’s going to be good to grow as a player but as a person and leader on the court for some of the younger guys, as well.”
If the NBA permits the Pistons and the seven other teams not part of the Orlando resumption of the 2019-20 season to gather for team activities of some sort later this summer, Kennard will be an eager participant. “If the NBA allows it, I’ll be all for it,” he said.
If not, he’s not worried about the effects of going as much as a year – depending on when the 2020-21 season resumes – between real NBA games.
“That’s a long time without playing a legitimate NBA basketball game,” he said. “I’m not really nervous about the time off. I know what I’m doing right now is going to allow me to stay healthy and get through a full season and be ready to go for all 82 games or whatever they decide. It’s a long time, but I’m staying ready, staying healthy.”