SVG’s first talk with Pistons No. 1 pick Kennard: Play D, see the floor

Luke Kennard’s offensive ability attracted the Pistons, but how fast he progresses defensively will determine how soon he plays.
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – Even before Luke Kennard holds up his new Pistons jersey for the cameras this afternoon and poses alongside the man in whose hands his future rests, he’ll have had the talk with Stan Van Gundy.

Van Gundy, after taking the Duke sophomore with the 12th pick in Thursday’s draft, ticked off the three areas the Pistons needed to improve over the summer and how Kennard fit that mission.

“What we wanted to add to the roster was two things, 3-point shooting and guys who could make plays and create shots for themselves and other people. He can do both of those. Now the third thing is that we wanted to get guys who were better defensively. He’s got a lot of work to do in that area – a lot of work to do in that area. So we’ll have that first talk tomorrow, because offensively he’s really good. Really good. But he’s got to do a lot more at the defensive end of the floor if he wants to get on the floor.”

Van Gundy rightly earned the reputation of a defense-first coach, but he’s not inflexible. He’s willing to make some sacrifices defensively if he gets back enough at the other end. But what he saw on tape from Kennard defensively at Duke, he knows, isn’t going to be enough to consider the tradeoff.

But he puts a rather large caveat on his critiques of Kennard’s college defensive efforts. Asked if he thought Kennard’s defense should have been a red flag, Van Gundy said this:

“Every single guy on the board, even in the first pick on down, has red flags. And the number of guys that are great offensive players in college that really apply themselves defensively is a very, very, very small number. I can go from pick one on down – I’ve watched ’em all – this is a common theme. To be fair, they carry great offensive loads at their schools. Luke carried a huge offensive load. What he did was pretty incredible. The top 20 guys – and I’m not going to get into names – there were two that defended out of 20. So if you say red flags, yeah, I had red flags of that on 18 of the 20 guys in the first 20 picks.”

In watching Kennard carry Duke’s offense – and do so down the stretch of its biggest games repeatedly – and gauging how he might fit into an NBA defense, Van Gundy reverted to his experience with another Duke shooting guard. It’s a tale he’s told before in general tones of how smart players can help build a top-10 NBA defense.

“I tell the story all the time, another Duke guy. (J.J.) Redick came into the league and everybody said, ‘He can’t guard.’ Even when I got to Orlando, ‘He can’t guard.’ I probably think higher of J.J.’s defense than anybody else does, because I’ve seen it. I coached the guy. You can be a very good defensive team with guys who take great pride and have great intelligence and want to get the job done. So I don’t doubt his capabilities. He didn’t do it. I watched a lot of games. He didn’t do it.”

Kennard visited the Pistons on June 10 and after showing off his diverse offensive skills in a workout he watched video with Van Gundy.

“He’s really smart on film. I think he has an understanding,” Van Gundy said. “He’s really just got to focus.”

Kennard knew questions about his defense were coming when he made the decision to leave Duke after leading the Blue Devils in scoring at 19.5 points a game and shooting 44 percent from the 3-point line. Mostly he expected them to revolve around his athleticism. Since his season ended in March, he’s focused on getting stronger.

“I think if I become a stronger player physically, it’ll help me,” he said. “It’ll help me guard.”

It won’t take long for Van Gundy to get a first glimpse of what a Kennard focused on the defensive end can accomplish. The Pistons will open Summer League practices on Tuesday and play their first game on July 1, nine days after calling Kennard’s name in the draft.

Kennard, an Ohio native, is thrilled to be back in the Midwest and close to home, about a 3½ -hour drive to Detroit from Franklin, southwest of Columbus.

“I know that this is a great place for me to be, the way that I play. I’m excited,” Kennard said. “I think I fit well and I’m excited to make an impact in any way I can. I’m really looking forward to it.”