Kennard, Ellenson, Johnson top Pistons Summer League checklist

Luke Kennard says the draft feels ‘like it’s been forever ago’ as he settles in with his new team, the Pistons.
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by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

ORLANDO – Without cap space, the Pistons aren’t likely to cause any fireworks when free agency opens later this week. Without their second-round pick in last week’s draft, there won’t be a ton of public scrutiny on anyone beyond lottery pick Luke Kennard when Summer League play opens on Saturday.

But it won’t exactly be an uneventful 10 days in central Florida for Stan Van Gundy, Jeff Bower and their staffs as the Pistons get to work today with four days of two-a-day practices scheduled before the Summer League opener.

Here’s a checklist of things to watch for over the next week and a half:

  • Henry Ellenson’s development – He’s still just 20, younger by six months than Kennard, and came a long way in his rookie season on all the areas where he needed to show progress in order for Van Gundy to exploit his high-end offensive potential. The Pistons will get their first glimpse of the strides Ellenson’s made in his physical development since the season ended, allowing him to focus more on strength training, a critical component of the growth needed for him to take the necessary leap defensively.

    It didn’t take Ellenson long to open Van Gundy’s eyes at the offensive end. As a virtual 7-footer, Ellenson possesses a rare skill set for a power forward for his ability to put the ball on the floor with either hand and make plays off the dribble. As he improves his shooting range and consistency, Ellenson will present Van Gundy with possibilities to liven up a Pistons offense that too often struggled to sustain momentum last season. But first he’ll have to prove he can hold his own at the other end.

  • Stanley Johnson’s rebirth – Johnson won’t play in Summer League games, but he’ll get more than a handful of practices under associate coach Bob Beyer to prove he’s the alpha dog of those assembled. As a third-year player – and an expected rotation anchor – it’s important Johnson establish that much in Beyer’s work-intensive practices.

    Johnson started and finished last season unimpressively given the flashes of brilliance he displayed as a 19-year-old rookie who was Van Gundy’s sixth man on a playoff team. He played well in the middle of the season after shedding bulk and learning at what weight he’s most effective for his NBA niche, but shot efficiency was a season-long struggle after a summer spent reworking his mechanics.

    Farther removed from that transition and two months into the off-season, the Pistons will be eager to gauge Johnson’s confidence level and approach entering what could be a crossroads season for the former No. 8 pick.

  • Michael Gbinije’s future – There were times last season when Gbinije was on the verge of cracking Van Gundy’s rotation - due to injuries or slumps by others – but nagging injuries kept holding him back. In practices, Van Gundy saw in Gbinije the stuff to be an impact defender, while on offense Gbinije’s ballhandling, passing and ability to knock down open 3-point shots gives him a fighting chance to beat the odds of carving out an NBA career from the 49th draft position.

    The Pistons planned to audition Gbinije at point guard in his first Summer League last July, but injury – a sprained ankle – also pushed that back. They’ll keep him at small forward this time around. The Pistons have an option on Gbinije’s 2017-18 contract and have until mid-July to decide, so Summer League might mean more to Gbinije than anyone else on their summer roster.

  • Get Luke Kennard up to speed – The No. 12 pick will get his indoctrination to NBA expectations with Beyer’s two-a-day practice schedule. He’ll get a taste of how longer, quicker athletes will challenge him at both ends. The Pistons expect Kennard will adjust to that on the offensive end fairly quickly.

    Like Ellenson, defense will dictate the pace of Kennard’s NBA career path. More than anything, they’ll probably look to see how he competes and battles through fatigue and the physical challenges new to him in this environment. And again as with Ellenson, if Kennard can figure out a way to survive as a defender, the breadth of his offensive skills will open things up for Van Gundy offensively.

  • Two-way contract prospects – There’s a new incentive for Summer League invitees and an added dimension to the importance of the summer exercise for NBA front offices. The addition of two-way contracts – each team can sign two players who’ll be limited to 45 days with the NBA parent team that retains their rights while they play for G League affiliates – means the Pistons will be on the lookout for worthy candidates to fill those slots.

It might be players who fill out the roster around Kennard, Ellenson and Gbinije, but it might also be players who catch their eye while playing for other teams. Bower expected several quality players to go undrafted this year, a reflection of an unusually deep draft pool. One or two of them might find their way to Auburn Hills for training camp in September.