Kennard’s playoff splash cements his standing as a Pistons cornerstone
Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images
AUBURN HILLS – There are two glaring takeaways from the opening two games of Dwane Casey’s first postseason run with the Pistons. The first falls under the category of “duh,” but the second comes as a revelation.
The most obvious fact put into evidence over games 1 and 2 at Milwaukee is that, indeed, Blake Griffin – yet to play as he deals with a cranky left knee – is as important to the Pistons as it seemed when he was at the heart of every meaningful offensive possession of their season.
The second unmistakable conclusion of the past week is that Luke Kennard has moved past “young building block” stage to the “franchise tent pole” phase of his career. Barring unlikely major roster upheaval this summer, there will be no Pistons player after Griffin and Andre Drummond more integral to 2019-20 game planning and success than Kennard.
In line with 98 percent of all who enter the NBA, Kennard’s career through two seasons hasn’t been an unbroken linear progression. There were fits and starts because there always are. He had the critical off-season between rookie and second seasons taken from him by a knee injury, played that second season under a different head coach and played catch-up on conditioning and winning a new coach’s trust through preseason and the early going.
Somewhere in the middle of the season, the good games became more common, the frequency of appearances where Kennard would go several minutes without making his presence felt diminishing. Since the All-Star break, his minutes went from 21 to 26 a game, his scoring from 8.4 to 11.7, his 3-point shooting from .366 (good) to .427 (superb).
In two playoff games, he’s led the Pistons in scoring each time, averaging 20 points. Small sample size, to be sure, but scoring 21 off the bench and 19 in the starting lineup against the NBA’s No. 1 defense in a player’s first playoff taste is, at minimum, encouraging.
And for those who sneer at the value of earning a playoff berth when the history of the NBA affirms the remote odds of the eighth seed advancing, Kennard’s words – even without the benefit of watching his eyes widen to underscore his point – validate what Casey has touted as its virtues.
“I remember talking to one of my coaches about how excited I was. I was asking questions about what the playoffs were like, going back to March Madness,” Kennard said. “He said it’s another level. I was excited to get out there and show what I can do. It’s a different atmosphere. The intensity is at another level. The speed, the physicality, things you can get away with – it’s different.”
Casey’s been on an NBA bench for more than two decades and seen the impact of first playoff experiences on young players over time.
“The growth of those young men, the experience they’re getting, it’s invaluable,” he said. “Luke Kennard will look back two years from now, even Khyri (Thomas) in the few minutes he got feels the atmosphere, the intensity, the attention to detail he’s gone through in these practices to get ready for the playoffs.”
Even as Kennard began displaying over the past few months an essential quality common to those who experience lasting NBA success – consistency – it was Casey’s call that he best served Pistons ends by coming off the bench. It made sense with Griffin so ball dominant with the first unit. Without him, it’s a luxury Casey could no longer afford.
Next season, if Thomas and Svi Mykhailiuk take the steps Casey anticipates and the front office uses another off-season to tailor the roster to fit Casey’s style, maybe the Pistons will have enough firepower coming off the bench to move Kennard to the starting lineup permanently, pair him with Griffin and make the Pistons an offense dynamic enough to hang with the likes of Milwaukee.
It will be another big summer for Kennard. Whether he’s starting or playing a super sub role, his minutes are almost sure to head north even from the 26 a game he’s logged since the All-Star break. He says working on his body will be a focal point of the summer.
Ask Casey what’s next for Kennard at the offensive end and turns the question on its ear and in doing so buzzes past a reference that tells you where they think his career could be headed.
“I’m not worried about his offense. I’m worried about him defensively. That’s his next step,” Casey said. “I love him to death, but his challenge to be an All-Star type player is to play both ends of the floor. Don’t be a one-trick pony. So I’m not even going to talk to him about offense. The offense is going to come. He’s naturally gifted offensively.”
You caught the part about the steps ahead of him to become an “All-Star type player,” right?
Sure, the Pistons could hit on a budding star with the 15th pick in the draft. Yes, Ed Stefanski’s front office might turn the mid-level exception into a critical rotation piece or two. There’s always the chance a trade will yield ideal chemistry fits. But the best chance for the Pistons to make the same incremental gains in year two of the Casey era that were registered in year one will come from the internal growth of the handful of 25 and under players on the roster.
At the front of that line is Luke Kennard. Seeing him thrive in the cauldron of the NBA playoffs alone makes it a worthwhile journey for the Pistons.