Most rookies struggle to make the transition from collegiate star to role player, but, then again, most rookies aren’t Luke Kennard.
As those playing for head coach Stan Van Gundy often learn, minutes are earned, not given, and the first few weeks of Kennard’s NBA career have been tumultuous to say the least. From finding himself in the G-League to going toe-to-toe with Carmelo Anthony, Kennard has already experienced many of the highs and lows of professional basketball, all before the end of November.
Still, it hasn’t phased him one bit.
And what the Detroit Pistons have uncovered is a talented prospect that wants to contribute to the team’s surprise 13-6 record in whatever way he can. However, after the Pistons scooped up Avery Bradley in an offseason trade and signed Langston Galloway in free agency, opportunities have been tough to come by for the No. 12 overall selection from June’s draft.
In fact, through the first 19 games, Kennard was a healthy scratch in five of them — three as an inactive member of the roster and two via the undesirable DNP-CD. His early season rollercoaster ride took Kennard to the Grand Rapids Drive, the Pistons’ G-League affiliate, where he put up 26 points, four rebounds, three assists and four steals in 40 minutes. Although the experience was brief — the rookie hasn’t appeared with the Drive since that one game — Kennard was grateful for the chance to improve.
“It was good to get up and down a little bit because I wasn’t playing the first few games of the year, I wasn’t active,” Kennard told Basketball Insiders. “To go and play, get some game speed shots and reps in, it was good. I’m just taking the opportunities that I have and I want just to learn from it and get better.
“To be put in positions like that, it can only make me better.”
As a disciple of Duke University’s Mike Krzyzewski, Kennard averaged 19.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 2016-17, eventually emerging as a lottery pick with a knack for scoring. Krzyzewski has been long praised for his ability to develop NBA-ready prospects — including the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum — and Kennard is no different. Despite the inconsistent role thus far, Kennard has been able to take his lumps with a confident resilience that he credited to his time in blue and white.
“Under Krzyzewski, I just felt like he matured me as a player really quickly,” Kennard said. “He got me through the transition from high school to college and that allowed me to then take those experiences from him and move on to the NBA. I learned a lot from Coach K, he’s prepared me for this level and I can’t thank him enough for that.”
Now working with insightful mind of Van Gundy, it’s safe to say that Kennard is in great hands once again. In the locker room, Kennard was effusive in his praise for Van Gundy but understands that it can take some time to earn the trust of such a stalwart game manager. While many franchises are willing to let rookies sink or swim from the opening tip, Van Gundy frequently tweaks the rotation based on past production. Great minutes are rewarded, while poor performances — weak defense, low-energy effort, etc — mean less burn the next time out.
Even so, Kennard has found the transition between Krzyzewski and Van Gundy to be a smooth one, appreciative of their on-going commitment to development in all shapes and sizes.
“They’re both real hands-on,” Kennard said. “They want to make sure each player gets to their greatness, what they do best. I’ve talked to coach about a lot of different things and he just continues to teach me. He just wants me to improve and Coach K did the same thing. They’re both really involved in our development as players and it’s been great to learn from them.”
Since his G-League outing, Kennard has worked his way into Van Gundy’s good graces, a process that included three-straight double-digit scoring outings against the Miami HEAT, Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers earlier this month. Most impressively, perhaps, has been Kennard’s improved status as a defender — which was not exactly his calling card as a prospect — and the Pistons’ willingness to rely on him during crucial moments already.
First, it was his noteworthy effort on both Paul George and Anthony that earned him important minutes in Detroit’s narrow one-point triumph over the Oklahoma City Thunder last week. Then, just three days later, Kennard helped stave off a hungry Celtics side for a large chunk of the fourth quarter while the starters received some well-deserved rest. While it may not always work out, Van Gundy is willing to back Kennard in those high-intensity situations, according to Rod Beard of the Detroit News.
“We needed to give somebody a rest. If you’re going to be out there, you have to guard somebody,” Van Gundy told Beard. “I don’t know that I want a steady diet of a rookie guarding a perennial All-Star but it’s good that he gets some challenges like that for his growth.”
While his season averages (5.7 points, 41.6 percent) pale in comparison to some of the other rookies in his class, Kennard’s unselfish play and growth as a defender have made him a quality addition to Van Gundy’s rotation as of late. Even better, Kennard currently holds a plus-minus of plus-47 and the 6-foot-6 shooting guard hasn’t recorded a negative effort in the last eight games.
Predictably, Kennard pinned his improvement on both sides of the ball to the aforementioned Bradley, one of the league’s best man-to-man defenders.
“He’s been great, I’ve learned a lot from Avery,” Kennard said. “[Bradley] is obviously one of the best two-way guards in the league right now. To have a guy like that to play against and watch every day in practice, it’s pretty special. As a rookie, to have a guy like that my first year to learn from, it can’t get any better than that.”
In the end, Kennard is all about finding opportunities to grow and develop. After earning the shot to play big minutes under Krzyzewski at Duke, Kennard blossomed into a Consensus Second-Team All-American. As the only lottery pick from this year’s draft to feature in the G-League already, Kennard turned that into a learning experience and now seems to be a key member of the Pistons’ rotation moving forward. Developing alongside Bradley, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg here as well.
Through 19 games, Kennard has learned how to both sit down and stand out at the professional level. Going from inactive to guarding to Hall of Famers is not an easy task, no matter where you happened to be drafted. So far, it’s a chance that Kennard has openly relished, a space to contribute something to this encouraging stretch of Detroit basketball in his own way.
With successes like Krzyzewski, Van Gundy and Bradley in his corner, there’s no telling what opportunities will come next for Kennard — just know that he’s going to embrace them all with open arms.
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