Kennard draws off transition to college as he adjusts to life in the NBA

Luke Kennard figures to be at the center of the Pistons offense in Summer League as a prelude to an expanded role in the 2018-19 season.
Gary Dineen (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – Coaches and players prattle on ceaselessly about the value of experience, but it’s not an easy thing to quantify. Maybe Luke Kennard’s, uh, experience will help sharpen the focus a little for you.

Two years ago Kennard arrived at Duke as a ballyhooed McDonald’s All-American. But he had to wait his turn, starting only 11 of 36 games as a freshman for Mike Krzyzewski. And he struggled with something you wouldn’t expect a guy who’d averaged a gaudy 38 points a game as an Ohio high school senior to, uh, experience.

“One of the biggest things in that transition was my freshman year was very inconsistent. My confidence was up and down,” he admits now.

And because of that – that experience – Kennard is rolling with the uncertainty of being an NBA rookie trying to find his niche. He had a nice moment in his second NBA game – the first game that he played in after not getting the call in the Pistons season opener – when he scored 11 points in the second quarter at Washington, but on their recent Western Conference road swing Kennard was inactive for all three games.

And his confidence level?

“Right now my confidence is there,” Kennard said after Thursday’s practice. “I’m not being too hard on myself, not getting down on myself. I’m in a good spot right now.” Because of how he came through a similar situation as a Duke freshman? “Yeah, I think it’s because of that. To have that, I think it’s really matured myself as a player and as a person. So when my number is called, I think I’ll still be ready.”

That call might come soon, perhaps even over the weekend when the Pistons host Milwaukee and Sacramento in a back to back. Reggie Bullock’s return triggered Kennard to the inactive list and he and Langston Galloway are roadblocks to Kennard’s entry into the rotation, but that’s a three-horse race that remains in progress.

Stan Van Gundy has seen Kennard’s decisiveness ebb and flow since the start of training camp, not at all atypical for a rookie. Kennard dazzled the first four or five days of training camp, then became less assertive. He flashed at Washington, but Van Gundy hadn’t seen that same certainty from him since. So he was curious how Kennard would respond in Thursday’s practice, the first for the Pistons since last Friday before the three road games.

“I don’t think that Luke had been playing to his capabilities in terms of being aggressive, so I was eager to see what he would do in practice after three inactives,” Van Gundy said. “You would expect a guy to come in and really go after it in practice and I thought he did. He was really aggressive at both ends, making plays, and that’s what I had hoped to see.”

What does it mean for the Milwaukee and Sacramento games on deck?

“We’ll re-evaluate that as we go into the weekend,” Van Gundy said.

Kennard understands what Van Gundy is asking of him. He’s trying to find the sweet spot, as a rookie still exploring what works and what needs refining from what made him a successful college player, between aggressiveness and recklessness.

“That’s what the coaches have been telling me – they want me to be more aggressive and that’s what I’ve been trying to focus on,” he said. “Being a road trip, you don’t get tons of practice time, but now we’re back and able to get in the gym, have a full practice, so I can really put that aggressiveness on the court.”

One of the appeals of Kennard was his scoring versatility. Veteran teammates see a player beyond his years in terms of understanding pace and angles. Kennard said the three games in street clothes – and every game that he’s sat on the bench – provided a different perspective and an opportunity to pick up nuances of the NBA game to see where he fits.

“Being able to watch benefited me in a few ways,” he said. “Just being able to see the entire floor at one time and focusing in on that. Sometimes when you’re on the court you’re really focused on a certain action, but when I was sitting on the sideline I was able to really see the entire court and it was good. I think I learned from that. You definitely see it in a different way.”

But playing provides another way to learn and Kennard is more than ready to get back to that mode of education.

“I’m a really competitive guy and I want to play,” he said. “I want to do whatever I can to help the team. I just want to make an impact.”