Kennard, Ellenson top Pistons Summer League checklist as they return to Las Vegas

Luke Kennard, coming off of a strong rookie season, figures to have a broader role with the 2018-19 Pistons.
Fernando Medina (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

LAS VEGAS – They’ll need to spend a little more time on introductions than typically, but the Pistons aren’t wasting much time getting down to business in the Dwane Casey era.

Casey’s newly announced hires – assistant coaches Sidney Lowe and Sean Sweeney and player development coach D.J. Bakker – are expected to run the two-a-day practices that begin today and go through Thursday, followed by three games in four days of the NBA Summer League. They’ll be introducing themselves to a new cast of players and installing a new playbook with new terminology as the Pistons – after spending the last seven summers in Orlando – return to Las Vegas along with all 29 other NBA teams.

  • Pistons 2018 Summer League Roster

    The team’s last two No. 1 picks, Henry Ellenson and Luke Kennard, plus 2018 second-rounders Khryi Thomas and Bruce Brown are the headliners of the Summer League roster, which also includes Reggie Hearn, signed during last season to a two-way contract. Keenan Evans, who went undrafted after a decorated career at Texas Tech, is also reported to have agreed to a two-way contract with the Pistons last week.

    All but Ellenson of the six key Summer League players man perimeter positions, which will probably dictate their style of play. Expect a lot of three-guard offenses with shared ballhandling and playmaking responsibilities.

    Here’s a look at the likely checklist of items Casey, front office executive Ed Stefanski and their staffs will be focused on over the next two weeks in the desert:

  • Expanding Luke Kennard’s offensive responsibility – Stan Van Gundy’s staff debated the merits of using Kennard at point guard but never committed to the possibility. Stefanski and Casey have both alluded to getting more out of Kennard, so given that desire – in addition to the composition of the Summer League roster – it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see Kennard used as the primary half-court playmaker for extended stretches. If Kennard is paired with one or both of the rookies, Thomas and Brown, they could bring the ball across half-court and then let Kennard run the offense from there.

  • Exploring the gains made by Henry Ellenson over his first two seasons – No one should feel any more liberated by the coaching change than Ellenson. Stefanski and Casey sent loud signals that they’re open to being won over by Ellenson, who isn’t likely to have free agent Anthony Tolliver as a roadblock to a spot in the rotation in 2018-19. One thing to gauge: the strength gains Ellenson has made since the season ended and how that improves his lateral agility. The single biggest reason Van Gundy defaulted to Tolliver over Ellenson was the latter’s difficulty in staying in front of ballhandlers when he got caught in pick-and-roll switches. Even incremental strides in that area will make it more palatable for Casey to keep Ellenson on the floor to milk the offensive mismatches he can exploit.

  • Gauging the readiness of the rookies – Thomas and Brown both come to the Pistons with the pedigrees of rookies prepared to contribute sooner than later. They’ll each be 22 by the time training camp opens, they’re both physically mature as validated by their strength measurements at the NBA draft combine and they both arrive with deserved reputations as hard-nosed competitors with a defensive bent. At the very least, they should make regular-season practices more competitive. Beyond that, Summer League will be the first indications of what they can become offensively. Thomas has been a consistent 3-point shooter over his Creighton career while Brown might have a future at point guard given his assist totals over two years at Miami.

  • Getting a handle on Evans’ NBA potential – Evans was remarkably productive in the Big 12, considered college basketball’s top conference last season, earning first-team all-conference honors. He’s got size and a scorer’s mentality, perhaps best evidenced by his 6.7 free-throw attempts per game as a senior. If the Pistons choose not to exercise their option on Dwight Buycks’ contract, Evans could be in the running for the No. 3 point guard role and, perhaps, elevation to a regular roster spot.

  • Searching for a diamond in the rough – The Pistons brought Eric Moreland to Summer League a year ago in Orlando with the intention of assessing whether to allot one of the newly created two-way contracts to him. Before they’d played their first Summer League game, administration decided Moreland was beyond a two-way contract and offered him a three-year deal with several team options built in. Moreland wound up beating out Boban Marjanovic to become Andre Drummond’s primary backup and proved a solid defender and a functional offensive player. Coming away with another such find would be a win for the new front office.
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