ORLANDO – There will be other hurdles for Luke Kennard to clear before he wins his coach’s full trust, but he’s already sailed cleanly over one.
When Stan Van Gundy made Kennard the 12th pick in last week’s draft, he did it with 100 percent conviction in Kennard’s offensive potential and only a hope that the competitive fire and brass he saw from Kennard at that end would allow him to hold his own defensively.
That hope now has a little tangible supporting evidence behind it.
“I actually have felt good,” after watching Kennard’s first four practices, Van Gundy said Wednesday night. “On the film I watched, I thought he was really skilled offensively and really knew how to play and I’ve certainly seen that out here. But I was concerned about him at the defensive end of the floor. That’s safe to say. And he’s shown more here. He’s got a long way to go in terms of really locking into that, but in terms of his ability to move his feet, he’s got that.
“I didn’t really see him get in a stance and move his feet much this year. I think it was, ‘I’m the guy we go to and I’m going to make sure on the other end I don’t foul.’ I’m not saying he didn’t put out any effort, but he didn’t really get down and get after it. Here, he has. What I’ve seen, he’s definitely got the ability. He’s got good feet to be able to move. He can play in a good balance. He’s strong, so the ability is there. That’s where I’ve really been happy to say, ‘OK, this guy can go out there and defend, too.’ ”
Van Gundy wasn’t ready to declare on draft night that Kennard would be a candidate to crack the rotation, precisely because of his doubts about his defensive mindset. In less than 48 hours over four Summer League practices, he’s already accomplished that much.
“We’re a long way away and he’s got to come a long way over these two weeks and into training camp, but I think he’s a viable guy to look at as a guy who can go out and get minutes. He’ll be in that battle for minutes and I wouldn’t have said that for sure on draft night. I wouldn’t have. But now, even after two days, he’ll be in that battle. Now whether he comes far enough to earn those minutes, that’s a long way off. But I can say that he’s got the ability to get in that battle with those guys to fight for minutes.”
“Those guys,” presumably, will be Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Stanley Johnson, the pair who have played the bulk of minutes at shooting guard over the past two seasons when healthy and available.
Van Gundy reiterated that retaining Caldwell-Pope remains the organization’s off-season priority. As a restricted free agent, Caldwell-Pope can solicit offer sheets from other teams but the Pistons would have the right to match any deal Caldwell-Pope agrees to sign.
Johnson spent more time last season at shooting guard with the 2016 free-agent acquisition of Jon Leuer that allowed Van Gundy to rotate Leuer with Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris at the two forward positions.
The Pistons – and Johnson – expect a rebound season from their 2015 No. 1 pick that should see Johnson challenge for more minutes at small forward, too. Nevertheless, with Caldwell-Pope playing 35 or more minutes most nights and Johnson available to play whatever minutes he sits, the Pistons expect to have options at shooting guard.
But if their new No. 1 draft pick continues to win over Van Gundy at the defensive end, Kennard’s potential to energize the Pistons offensively could prove irresistible.