Futures market: Getting Kennard back on track a priority when (if) Pistons finish off 2019-20 season

(EDITOR’S NOTE: During the suspension of the NBA’s season due to COVID-19, Pistons.com is looking at nine young players who either filled larger roles than anticipated or got their first NBA exposure this year, all of it as a result of the wave of injuries that struck the Pistons and led to an organizational decision to rebuild. So far we’ve examined Bruce Brown, Jordan Bone, Sekou Doumbouya, Svi Mykhailiuk, Louis King, Christian Wood, Khyri Thomas and Donta Hall. The series concludes with Luke Kennard.)

Hall of Fame basketball coach Clair Bee, an innovator revered by Bobby Knight among others who followed his career at Long Island University, spent his post-retirement years penning a series of children’s sports books centered around Chip Hilton, who went from football to basketball to baseball seasons as the star of Valley Falls High and later State University.

If Luke Kennard hadn’t come 50 years after the fact, you’d guess he was Bee’s role model for Hilton. Even in an era where elite players are singled out well before high school and are herded into choosing their standout sport, Kennard was a two-sport megastar at Franklin High in southwest Ohio. Kennard was the Division II Player of the Year in Ohio after throwing for 2, 331 yards and 26 touchdowns as a junior quarterback. After committing to Duke the following spring, Kennard stuck to basketball, sitting out his senior year of football.

He finished second in Ohio history in scoring with 2,977 points – three spots ahead of LeBron James – and had two of the top 13 single-season scoring totals in state history.

Kennard was the No. 1 pick of the Pistons in 2017 and was in his third season when the NBA suspended the 2019-20 season on March 11 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Here’s a look at where Kennard fits now with the Pistons entering a rebuilding phase.

PAST – Kennard was a two-time winner of Ohio’s Mr. Basketball award and a 2015 McDonald’s All-American. In the summer between his junior and senior years of high school, Kennard joined with several other future NBA players – 2016 Pistons No. 1 pick Stanley Johnson, Justise Winslow, Myles Turner, Jaylen Brown, Tyus Jones and Jalen Brunson among them – in leading USA Basketball to the gold medal of the world U18 tournament. Kennard finished second in scoring at 13.8 points a game.

Kennard won the 3-point contest at the 2015 McDonald’s All-American game and led the USA Junior National Select team with 22 points in the 2015 Nike Hoop Summit game, considered one of the marquee events of the NBA scouting season.

His final three years of high school produced scoring averages of 27, 41 and 38 points per game. Kennard shot 49 percent from the 3-point arc as a Franklin senior.

Kennard entered Duke as one of four five-star recruits in the fall of 2015, a class led by Brandon Ingram, who would become the No. 2 pick in the 2016 draft after Ben Simmons. Kennard was a part-time starter as a freshman, averaging 11.8 points in 27 minutes a game for a 25-11 team that lost to Oregon in the Sweet 16. As a sophomore, Kennard upped his numbers to 19.5 points in 35.5 minutes a game for a team upset by South Carolina in the second round. The biggest jump for Kennard came in his 3-point shooting, going from 32 percent on 4.8 attempts a game as a freshman to 44 percent on 5.4 attempts as a senior.

Kennard entered the 2017 draft and was taken with the 12th pick by the Pistons. He averaged 7.6 points as a rookie in 20 minutes a game. After missing six weeks early in his second season with a separated shoulder, Kennard took off over the second half of the season, averaging 11.7 points and shooting 43 percent from the 3-point arc after the All-Star break.

PRESENT – Kennard ended his second season on a high as the Pistons – with Blake Griffin missing for two games and hobbled in two others – were swept by Milwaukee in the playoffs, averaging 15.0 points a game and shooting 60 percent from the 3-point line.

That momentum carried over into the 2019-20 season, which opened with Kennard scoring a career-high 30 points to lead a big road win against Indiana with Griffin sidelined. With Griffin playing sporadically and never up to par as he came back from April 2019 knee surgery and Reggie Jackson out with a back injury, Kennard became the primary scoring threat of Dwane Casey’s offense – and the obvious target of opposition defenses.

Over the first 20 games of the season, Kennard averaged 16.9 points, 3.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists a game. That’s roughly when he began to be afflicted by tendinitis in both knees. After scoring just eight points in a 33-point win at Cleveland on Dec. 3, Kennard sat out the next night’s game against Milwaukee with sore knees. He played the next six games before sitting out a Dec. 20 loss to Boston. Kennard scored 16 points against Chicago the following night, but then was shut down to deal with the recurring issue.

Kennard might have suited up for the next Pistons game – a March 14 game at Toronto – had the season not been suspended amid the coronavirus pandemic after a March 11 loss at Philadelphia. Kennard had joined the Pistons on their four-game road trip that ended on March 1 at Sacramento and said his return was imminent. More critically, he said he was confident that he and Pistons trainers had struck on a regimen to prevent his knee tendinitis from becoming a chronic condition.

“We’re starting to figure out what I can do to prevent it from happening again,” Kennard said. “There’s some strengthening stuff around my legs I need to work on, some mechanical stuff, mobility stuff. It’s something I’ve got to be doing every day now, something I can prevent from happening again, which is a positive sign. Next season I want to go 100 percent. I’m encouraged to say it’s a very good possibility that I’m able to do that.”

FUTURE – Kennard will be entering the fourth and final season of his rookie contract in 2020-21, which makes him eligible for a contract extension during the off-season – whenever that might come after a determination is made on how to conclude the current season.

With the Pistons having fallen out of playoff contention and deciding to opt for a rebuilding phase, among their chief objectives of the final month of the season was to get Kennard back in action to restore his career momentum and better inform their course of action with him going forward.

“It’s very important – very important for him, very important for the organization – for a lot of reasons,” Casey said on March 1. “It’ll be good for him as a player just to get back on the court and see his health come back around.”

At his best, Kennard is an extraordinary shooter and a multidimensional perimeter player. His ambidexterity – Kennard is naturally right-handed and, in fact, rose to prep football prominence as a right-handed quarterback – gives him advantages as a ballhandler and scoring threat at the rim. He’s got a sophisticated scoring arsenal – clever in the mid-range, great with pump fakes, elite distance shooting – on top of his vision and passing instincts.

Casey also felt Kennard had progressed significantly on the defensive end from last season to this. Still just 23, Kennard’s physical maturity and strength gains have helped him – and will continue to do so as his strength and conditioning regimen is maintained – both defensively and as an interior scorer.

The Pistons caught a glimpse of how a blossoming Kennard can be effective playing off of a primary scoring option late in the 2018-19 season when he was ascending and Griffin was playing at an elite level. They saw further evidence of it early in 2019-20 when Kennard and Derrick Rose shared the floor. It suggested Kennard could be a high-level and efficient scorer on winning teams, an incredibly valuable asset at any stage of a franchise’s progression.