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Let’s get to know Duke shooting guard Luke Kennard, whom the Detroit Pistons selected 12th in the 2017 NBA draft. Video by Marlowe Alter, Detroit Free Press
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ORLANDO – Henry Ellenson gathered the ball at the top of the key in the first quarter of the Orlando Pro Summer League game against the Miami Heat on Tuesday.

The Detroit Pistons’ second-year power forward was given space, so he looked for potential openings to exploit.

He dribbled to his left, where rookie shooting guard Luke Kennard was curling toward the three-point arc.

Point guard Lorenzo Brown, starting at the three-point arc, cut through the paint and on toward the weak-side corner, a defender trailing closely.

Kennard quickly cut toward the basket, taking advantage of the sleeping defender.

Ellenson read the play, delivering a perfect bounce pass, leading to an easy lay-up for Kennard.

The sequence was an example of the No. 1 attribute Kennard, the Pistons’ first-round pick in June’s NBA draft, displayed in five games.

The rookie understands how to play, showing an ability to adapt quickly to the many fringe players he first met a couple of days after the Pistons used the 12th pick to select the former Duke standout.

“Just look at his situation,” an Eastern Conference scout told the Free Press. “The guy has probably only been around these guys for a few days, but somehow he’s figured out a way to play off them. And he was able to do it with many guys that really aren’t that talented.”

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‘A guy with no fear’

Kennard, who recently turned 21, did more than show an understanding of basketball.

Drafted for his versatile offensive game, he delivered.

He averaged 17.2 points and shot 48% from the three-point line and was a perfect 9-for-9 at the foul line.

And he delivered in pressure situations.

He sank three free throws Tuesday afternoon to send the game against the Miami Heat into overtime, a game the Pistons eventually won.

And he was at his best in the title game, when he scored all seven of the Pistons’ points in overtime in a loss to the Dallas Mavericks. He scored 24 points on 9-for-15 shooting, and was perfect in three triple attempts.

“He’s clearly a guy with no fear,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said. “I don’t think anything’s going to bother him. He’s going to go out and play, so he’s got that kind of toughness.”

Defensive promise

After the draft, Van Gundy roasted Kennard’s defensive no-show during his sophomore season at Duke.

Kennard stuck to screens and even a proper defensive stance was rare.

He has a ways to go defensively – mainly he needs to add strength to his 6 feet 6, 200-pound frame – but he’s not a lost cause.

He will never overwhelm with quickness, but he showed active hands, forcing loose balls on many ill-advised passes in summer league.

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Pistons rookie Luke Kennard takes questions from the media after the 73-71 double-overtime win over the Heat in the Summer League in Orlando on July 4, 2017. Video by Vince Ellis/DFP

He’s a good enough athlete, and it appears he has the proper mind-set.

“That’s one of the main focuses I had coming into this was learning a lot on defense,” Kennard said. “Obviously, to learn about the entire game, but especially defensively and just to be in the right spots. This is a very mental game. You have to be mentally prepared and focused at all times. That’s what I’m trying to lock in and focus on and, defensively, I think I’ve improved since I’ve been here.”

Road to playing time

Kennard will have every opportunity to earn playing time.

With the Pistons adding Avery Bradley and his expiring contract, and moving on from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in a series of Friday transactions, Kennard will have the chance to show his promise could offer future financial relief.

Van Gundy was skeptical because of defensive concerns before summer league.

He’s now cautiously optimistic.

“It’s been a positive,” Van Gundy said. “I told him that I would walk out of these two weeks, either saying he has a chance, certainly no guarantees, but he has a chance to play next year or I’m going to be saying he needs a year and let’s just forget about him.

“He has a chance, he has a chance to play. I’ve seen enough to know that. How far he comes through the summer and the rest of training camp and during the season, we’ll see.” 

Contact Vince Ellis at vellis@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @vincent_ellis56.

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