Summer League essence: teaching moments for Kennard, Ellenson in Pistons win

Luke Kennard hit three free throws with 1.1 seconds left in regulation to force overtime in a Pistons win
Fernando Medina (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

ORLANDO – It wasn’t a Rodmanesque defensive outing for Henry Ellenson, but on the possessions that mattered most he pitched a shutout. Luke Kennard didn’t show off the 3-point stroke that pushed the Pistons to use the 12th pick in last month’s draft on him, but with the game on the line his threat forced a foul that put him at the line for three free throws to tie with a second left.

The Pistons last two No. 1 draft picks scored 18 points each as they won 73-71 in double overtime over Miami to go to 2-1 in Summer League play with a pair left to play.

Both were matched up against older players whose ticket to the NBA wasn’t punched in the lottery. In fact, with the game in the balance the two youngest Pistons – who spent a combined three seasons in college basketball – were on the floor against Heat players who’d all spent four or five years in college and a few who’ve been out of college for a year or more clawing their way to a shot at the NBA.

“They get the game. They know their role and what they can do,” Ellenson said. “I thought they played really hard. They’re talented guys, they’re smart and I think their energy – you could hear it on the sidelines. That’s how they played the whole week.”

Ellenson hit 3 of 8 from the 3-point line, the one area of his offensive game the Pistons are monitoring with optimism and interest. He’s already more versatile and offensively gifted than most power forwards; if his 3-point efficiency rises to league average or better, watch out.

It’s at the defensive end where Stan Van Gundy and his staff are most curious to see what Ellenson can do and Tuesday was at once both a mixed bag and evidence of progress. Ellenson spent most of the game matched against Miami’s Okaro White, who played 139 games at Florida State and for the last three years has been knocking on the NBA door, crashing it last year by getting in 35 games with the Heat. He’s got a contract for next season – but it’s non-guaranteed, meaning he’s fighting for his job here.

And he played like it. White is the prototype of the power forward who’ll give Ellenson a challenge: rangy, athletic, with enough of a 3-point shot to dissuade backing off and enough of an off-the-dribble game to cause trouble. He played more than 37 minutes and scored 29 points.

But given three shots to win the game – on the last possession of overtime and on two possessions in a sudden-death second OT – Ellenson stoned him. The last shot – right before point guard Pierre Jackson’s runner won it for the Pistons – was perhaps Ellenson’s best defensive possession of the night. Isolated against White on the right wing, Ellenson prevented White from going to either side around him and was close enough to challenge the shot on a long 2-pointer.

“And that’s all we wanted him to do,” said Bob Beyer, Pistons associated head coach who’s running the Summer League team for Van Gundy. “If he was going to make a 2-point shot off the dribble over us, well, that would’ve been back on me. But I thought Henry really got down in his stance, he moved his feet well and he made him shoot a contested two.”

Ellenson had an open three to tie on the last possession of regulation that missed, but the Pistons got a second chance with 2.8 seconds left. Beyer dialed up a play for Kennard – he was 1 of 5 from the arc after shooting 5 of 11 over the first two games – who drew a foul and went to the line with 1.1 seconds left.

“I don’t know if I’ve been in a situation like that, but I’ve been in a couple similar situations,” Kennard said. “Just stayed calm. I was more calm that I thought I’d be, honestly.”

“He wasn’t afraid to knock those down,” Ellenson said. “None of those are rolling in and out. It was straight in. When he went to the line, I felt good about it. For sure, if there was anyone on the line you’re going to want it to be Luke. That was huge of him.”

Those last few seconds of regulation – chances for big shots for both Ellenson and Kennard, the chance for a coach to command a timeout huddle and see his team execute two out-of-bounds plays – is the essence and the value of Summer League, the reason teams invest all the hours and the money they pour into the endeavor.

“We saw offensive execution down the stretch, defensive execution down the stretch to get stops, but I think what it does is for both Luke and Henry, those guys were put in a position to decide a game and they executed plays to get themselves shots,” Beyer said.

“Even though Henry missed, that’s a great experience for him to get there to properly execute it. And for Luke, who’s playing college basketball three months ago, for him to get out there and really come off that screen like he wanted the ball, draw the foul and then it’s not easy to step to the line and make three free throws like he did. But he shot all three with great confidence and eventually led to the win for us.”