Pistons add polished offensive force in Duke’s Luke Kennard

Luke Kennard’s addition gives the Pistons another option at shooting guard – one that brings playmaking versatility to the mix.
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by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – What Luke Kennard might give up on defense – and Stan Van Gundy pulled no punches in describing the work Kennard has ahead of him at that end to get on the court – the Pistons expect he’ll more than make up for on offense.

The Pistons weren’t driven to draft the Duke sophomore because they finished 25th in offensive rating. They drafted him because they thought he had the brightest NBA future of anybody available when their turn came up. But now that they have him, the Pistons expect Kennard to be part of the solution in making sure those types of offensive finishes don’t happen in the future.

“He can really play offensively. I mean, really play offensively,” Van Gundy said after the Pistons spent the 12th pick on Kennard, passing on Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell who went on the next pick. “He is a skilled guy with a polished offensive game.”

It wasn’t just Kennard’s skill that popped off the screen as Van Gundy watched “13 or 14” Duke game tapes – including a Wednesday night session where Kennard and Mitchell went at it in the ACC tournament – but the way his level of play elevated to match the moment.

“Where he was great in games was down the stretch, when the game’s on the line. He wanted the ball and he came through. He was their guy all year in those situations. He’s really got that kind of presence. He wants the ball in those situations. He’s got great confidence in himself. He’s got a little swagger to him.”

The draft didn’t produce much in the way of surprises ahead of the Pistons, aside from a blockbuster trade that saw Chicago send Jimmy Butler to Minnesota and gave the Bulls the No. 7 pick as part of the return. But the 11 names that the Pistons saw go off the board went according to expectations.

“It pretty much unfolded the way we thought it would unfold,” Van Gundy said. “I don’t think we really had a surprise in the whole thing. It went exactly the way we expected it to go.”

It also didn’t come as a great surprise to Kennard that he went where he did, but he tried to shut himself out of advanced warning.

“I kind of put my phone to the side, didn’t look at anything,” said Kennard from New York, where he attended the draft at Barclays Center. “I was hoping. Detroit is a great place. When I heard my name called, it was a special moment.”

Kennard, 20,will give Van Gundy more options to build into his playbook offensively as a shooting guard who can handle, shoot and pass while also presenting him with some questions on defense for how to make up for the fact Kennard’s presence will make it more of a risk to switch on perimeter screens.

“Even guarding his own position. That’s an area where he’s just got to get a lot better,” Van Gundy said. “Quite honestly, in my opinion, he’s got to take a lot more pride in it than he did this past year. He’s got to do that if he wants to get on the floor. His offense is good. You can put him in an NBA game right now and he can go play with four other players. He’s a mature offensive player for his age. I would have no question putting him in the game offensively now. But defensively, I wouldn’t put him in a game right now.”

Kennard, 6-foot-5½, will come to the NBA as perhaps the most polished offensive rookie. He can shoot from all three levels, put the ball on the floor, has superb footwork that allows him to get his shot off in traffic and against athletic defenders and gets to the line. Van Gundy envisions putting the ball in Kennard’s hands and letting his offensive creativity and playmaking come to the surface.

“He definitely can do all that,” Van Gundy said. “He can run off screens and make plays. He’s not just a spot-up shooter. He can do that if somebody drives and kicks to him, but that’s not really his game. His game is to play with the ball, come off screens, make plays. I look at him as a playmaker, a scorer. He’s not a 3-and-D guy, he’s a scorer and a playmaker. He’s an offensive guy.”

The Pistons came into the night with no second-round pick, having traded it to Utah as part of the three-team deal that brought Reggie Jackson to Detroit in February 2015. Van Gundy said the Pistons got a few calls as the draft unfolded with trade proposals, nothing that came remotely close to tempting them to move up or back.

Kennard will have to beat out someone for minutes at shooting guard, where Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is the incumbent and a player the Pistons fully expect to retain in restricted free agency. Stanley Johnson has served as his primary backup the past two seasons and Darrun Hilliard and Michael Gbinije are other possibilities. But if Kennard can show Van Gundy enough at the defensive end in training camp and preseason, it will be hard to keep him out of the rotation.

“I think one of the big things is strength,” Kennard said. “If I become a stronger player physically, it’ll help me. It’ll help me guard. I’m looking forward to improving. I have improved. I know I can. I’m just looking forward to that process.”