After winning a gold medal with USA Basketball while still in high school, competing on college basketball’s biggest stage for two years at Duke and playing a pivotal role on an NBA playoff team in his second season, Luke Kennard might have wondered what he was in for when the Pistons acknowledged a rebuilding was ahead of them after injuries waylaid their 2019-20 goals.
So he was thrilled to hear new general manager Troy Weaver doesn’t envision anything like a 76ers-style race to the bottom to maximize lottery odds.
“As soon as he got here, that’s one of the first things he told us,” Kennard said Thursday after the second day of Pistons team camp scrimmages at their Performance Center. “We don’t need to start from the beginning. We’ve got some really good veterans. We’ve got some young guys at are going to continue to grow and work to get better. It was exciting to hear that.”
Nobody relished the chance to partake in full-court, five-on-five basketball more than Kennard, who was in the midst of a breakout third season when tendinitis in both knees shelved him in late December. With a March 14 return at Toronto in the cards, the NBA season was suspended on March 11. It’s been an agonizingly long wait for Kennard, especially with the looming question of how his knees would respond to the grind.
So far, so good.
“I’ve been looking forward to the bubble,” Kennard said. “Just because I knew it would be my first test of actually playing in game action and see how my body recovered and how I feel. So far, I’ve had no issues with anything. I’ve felt great. I’m probably in the best shape and strength – strongest I’ve been in my playing career.”
Kennard has spent the bulk of the past six months in Detroit, he said, maximizing his opportunities to work out at the PPC – the first off-season it’s been available to Pistons players since opening last October. The silver lining to the extended break is that it’s given Kennard more time to continue the regimen devised to strengthen his legs and ease the stress on his knees.
That’s been his focus.
“The strength part – my body and my legs,” he said. “Making sure I’m fully prepared to be on the court. I conditioned myself a lot. Got a lot of shots up.”
In a team camp that’s light on point guards – Derrick Rose, the only point guard who remains on the roster, isn’t participating with the team’s blessing – Kennard is having the ball put in his hands frequently by Dwane Casey.
“Coach told me, ‘We’ll run you at point guard, put the ball in your hands a lot.’ That’s kind of what we’ve done. I’ve brought the ball up a lot. I feel comfortable with the ball, comfortable making decisions, playing in pick and roll and finding open guys. So far, it’s been good.”
With the draft pushed back to Nov. 18 and free agency to follow, Kennard will likely find a radically different group of teammates surrounding him whenever training camp for the 2021 season opens. But he likes the skeleton of the team as it exists with Rose and Blake Griffin front and center and a supporting cast that includes him, entering his fourth season, as the longest-tenured current Pistons player.
“Hearing that line, it does seem crazy because I feel like I just got in the league,” he said. “But it’s also a thing of growth, maturity. I know I have to be more of a leader this year. It’s a really big year for me, a really big year for the team. I’m one of the older guys and I’ve got to help lead the team this year.”
And he’s relieved, more than anything, that the team he hopes to help lead will be one intent on taking the court 82 times with winning basketball games in mind.
“One of the biggest things I’ve taken away from talking to the new staff is we really want to compete,” he said. “We really want to have that competitive attitude this year. We want to have really good locker room guys that are easy to get along with, good teammates, good people. But we also want to compete on the floor.”