Start or off the bench, Kennard moves front and center for Pistons future

Luke Kennard
Luke Kennard is one of just 4 NBA players taking at least 7 3-point shots a game and making them at 41 percent or better.
Isaac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

MIAMI – If there’s a silver lining to the wave of injuries that pelted the Pistons in the season’s first month, it’s the way Luke Kennard has responded to the necessity of him becoming all things.

The sidelining of Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose and Reggie Jackson meant Dwane Casey’s grand vision of Kennard coming off the bench as the scoring anchor of the second unit got turned on its ear. The way Kennard has responded to the job upgrade means there is zero likelihood of a reclassification of his status once – not if, hopefully – everyone returns.

Kennard might not start. That will depend on how Casey sees the fit for the second unit, where Kennard and Rose made a dynamic tandem in the glimpses we’ve seen, as opposed to the first, where the playbook centers on Griffin.

But there’s no debate that Kennard is earning the right to finish games no matter where he starts them.

“No question,” Casey said after Thursday’s practice before the Pistons traveled to Charlotte for Friday’s game. “No question. And that, to me, is the most important part.”

Kennard has essentially blossomed into the player at the high end of expectations when the Pistons used the 12th pick of the 2017 draft to take him after his sophomore season at Duke. He’s averaging 18.9 points, 4.2 assists and 3.8 rebounds a game while shooting .414 from the 3-point arc.

There are only three other players in the NBA taking at least seven 3-point shots a game and making at least Kennard’s 41.4 percent. The others include All-Stars Kemba Walker and Kyle Lowry. Kennard has nearly doubled his scoring average of 9.7 a year ago. Only two players – Toronto’s Pascal Siakam and Oklahoma City’s Shea Gilgeous-Alexander – have seen a larger increase than Kennard’s 9.2 points per game.

Some of that, of course, stems from the fact Kennard’s minutes have increased by nearly 50 percent, from 23 to nearly 34 a game. And some of that is of necessity, too. But this much is clear: If and when the Pistons are fully healthy, Kennard’s not going back to 23 minutes a game or a subordinate role. If he’s not quite yet a full-blown NBA star, he’s about to get co-star billing.

“He’s still going to get starter minutes,” Casey acknowledged. “He’s just not going to hear his name called out by our guy if he’s coming off the bench. Doesn’t matter. Manu Ginobili, he’s a Hall of Famer. It’s what balances our roster. He brings value to the team. Luke’s a very valuable part of what we’re doing.”

Kennard’s shown a few powerfully encouraging things this season. He dazzled in the opener, scoring a career-high 30 to lead a win at Indiana. When Casey’s hand was forced by the injuries to Griffin and Jackson to move Kennard into the starting lineup, it took him a few games to adjust. He had one real clunker, a three-point game at Toronto. Eyebrows were raised: Was he not ready to get numbers, to produce, against NBA starters?

False alarm. He scored 24 as the Pistons beat Kyrie Irving and Brooklyn. He’s now scored 22 or more in five of the last six games. The 22 he scored in the most recent game, Tuesday’s loss at Miami, was perhaps as impressive as anything he’s done all season.

First, it came in a back to back and after a travel night from hell, the Pistons getting to bed at Miami around sunrise after spending three hours waiting to be deiced in Detroit. Second, all 22 of those points came after halftime after a first half in which Kennard took seven shots, five from the 3-point arc, and missed them all.

Young players who endure that type of first half very rarely recover to play anything close to their average game. Kennard outdid his scoring average in one scintillating half, drawing oohs from the Heat crowd for his shooting prowess.

“I’m hard on myself and when I was a rookie – maybe even a little bit last year, too – I would’ve let that affect me going into the second half,” Kennard said afterward. “I worked on that a little bit this summer, just talking to people and mentally being locked in and forgetting – having instant amnesia is what we’ve been talking about. And just moving on. I came in (the locker room), took a couple of deep breaths and moved on.”

Even when Kennard struggled with assertiveness and defense and confidence in his first two seasons, the constant was elite 3-point shooting. That, too, is exceedingly rare for young players making the adjustment to the deeper NBA line and to infinitely faster defensive recoveries from significantly longer, more athletic players. Kennard hit 41.5 percent as a rookie and 39.4 percent after increasing his attempts by 50 percent per game in his second season.

Kennard, by all appearances, will reside in the loftiest tier of NBA snipers for the next decade, but to pigeon-hole him as only an elite shooter sells him short. He came to the NBA with a sophisticated mid-range scoring arsenal complete with pump fakes and ambidexterity. A natural right-hander – and a record-setting Ohio prep quarterback who threw with that hand – Kennard is as likely to flip up a shot inside the foul line with his right as his left hand, the one that hoists his deep jump shots.

Casey began putting him in pick and rolls as the ballhandler midway through last season and saw him become proficient enough at it that it became a staple of the offense by the postseason. It’s one reason Casey leaned toward bringing him off the bench, where the Pistons could deploy that ability with greater frequency than in a Griffin-dominant unit.

“He has the ability to be a mid-range shooter or a pick-and-roll player, a facilitator, as well as a 3-point shooter,” Casey said. “That’s something that’s rare. He’s growing right before our eyes. Defensively, I’m happy with the fight and grit he’s playing with on that end because usually that’s the tough part for elite scorers.”

That last part, the fight and grit, is essential to thrive in the NBA and to earn the trust of most coaches, Casey surely among their number. Kennard has passed that test, too. Ask Casey what has most impressed him about Kennard this year and that’s where he’ll start.

“His overall NBA toughness. That’s where I’ve seen growth as much as anything else. That’s what you’ve got to have if you’re going to be a primary scorer. Nothing can bother you physically, mental games, whatever it is. That’s where Luke’s growth has come. And he still has a ways to go. He’s not a finished product.”

That rings true – and makes anticipation of what the next few seasons might yield for Luke Kennard all the more exhilarating for the Pistons and their fans. Whenever the Pistons become whole, it’s going to be something to see.

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