ORLANDO – The draft was less than a week ago. It already seems pressed between the pages of Luke Kennard’s scrapbook, along with all those 50-point games he had back in Franklin, Ohio or carrying Duke to the ACC tournament championship and being named MVP in March.
“The draft, honestly, seems like it’s been forever ago,” Kennard said between the morning and evening practices Wednesday as the Pistons prepare for Saturday’s Summer League opener. “I’ve enjoyed this past week so much. Getting to know the people around Detroit and the staff here and some of the players, it’s pretty neat. I’m just kind of taking it all in right now and I’ve really enjoyed it.”
As Kennard’s third Summer League practice was playing out, another reminder of how quickly lives can change in the NBA was delivered: Chris Paul, one of the biggest stars of the past decade, was in the process of being dealt from the Clippers to the Rockets, a deal that required the contract of 2015 Pistons draft pick Darrun Hilliard to facilitate.
But Kennard has spent the hours since being drafted by the Pistons on Thursday night imagining himself getting familiar with his new home and his new teammates. It helps that a few familiar faces now count among that group, Stanley Johnson and Henry Ellenson. Kennard and Johnson were teammates on the gold medal-winning USA team at the 2014 FIBA U-18 championship and Kennard and Ellenson, part of the same high school class of 2015, were together for that spring’s Jordan Brand Classic.
“Stanley is such a great player. He’s such a good leader, honestly, and he continues to talk to me throughout practices, just trying to help me out,” Kennard said. “It means a lot coming from a great player like him. It’s helped me. And Henry’s the same way. He’s been in the league for a year. He’s a talented player. He’s smart. He knows how to play the game and I listen to him, too. Just having those guys to look to and to have them teach me about the game really is helping me adjust well.”
The first few days of two-a-day practices and learning new offensive and defensive systems can be overwhelming, but Kennard hasn’t been paralyzed by an information overload. In fact, he’s been encouraged by the way he’s held up defensively and seeing clear signs that what made him a 20-point scorer at Duke will carry over to the NBA eventually.
On offense, he’s learned “just being smart and making good reads” is the basis for success. “They just kind of allow us to play and that’s great. They want me to just be myself. They want me to just shoot the ball. They want me to make plays and that’s what I’m doing, just kind of being myself.”
At the other end, “I’ve definitely improved throughout these past three practices, honestly. The coaches have been great with teaching me different things defensively. It’s a thing that you have to have the mindset to do and if you want to guard, then you’ll guard. I have that mindset and I’m working to improve on that end.”
One of Kennard’s gifts that separate him from most shooting guards is his ability to make plays off the dribble, something the Pistons are apparently eager to build into their playbook. Kennard said they’ve designed things that put the ball in his hands on pick-and-roll sets already.
It certainly didn’t hurt Kennard’s development to have played at Duke, but it’s probably truer to say that Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski was drawn to Kennard when he saw the same breadth of offensive tricks in his bag that attracted Stan Van Gundy. Kennard’s playmaking is enhanced by a keen basketball IQ, another quality he’s already seen will serve him well in the NBA.
“One thing I’ve kind of taken away throughout these last three practices is you have to be a smart player to play in this league,” he said. “I’m learning and the coaches have been great with me, the guys have been great with me. It’s been really good.”
So has he, Ellenson said.
“He looked great. He’s been picking up stuff really well. There’s no question he can shoot the lights out,” said last year’s No.1 pick of this year’s top pick. “That’s just fun to see him be able to knock down balls. Playing with him’s a lot of fun, too.”