ORLANDO – The usual caveats about “it’s only Summer League” apply, of course, but Luke Kennard is pretty rapidly easing Pistons concerns about the state of his defense.
Through eight Summer League practices and three games, he’s not only held up just fine in one-on-one matchups but exhibited keen instincts, active hands and the toughness necessary to avoid becoming targeted in opposition scouting reports.
That was all on display again in Tuesday’s double-overtime win over Miami in which Kennard’s three free throws with 1.1 seconds left in regulation got the Pistons to overtime. Kennard finished with two steals and accumulated a handful of deflections – plus five rebounds and four assists.
“He has great anticipation and he had good toughness,” said Pistons associate head coach Bob Beyer, coaching the Summer League team. “The more he’s in practice and even in these walk throughs, he’s a very cerebral player. So you say, ‘OK, Luke, on a high pick and roll, if you’re the low man you’ve got to pull all the way in to take the roll.’ He’s starting to get a better understanding of that.”
The Pistons clearly saw Kennard as the best offensive player on the board with the 12th pick and went with him on the hope that his basketball IQ and competitiveness would allow him to become a capable defender. But Stan Van Gundy bluntly admitted he hadn’t seen many signs of it on the college game tape of Kennard’s he’d viewed.
Within the first two days of Summer League practices, though, both Beyer and Van Gundy saw better lateral quickness from Kennard than they’d expected to see. And, since then, they’ve seen all those other things – toughness, anticipation, active hands.
Kennard knew the rap on him and put in as much work as a draft prospect could possibly cram in between the end of the college season in late March and the June draft to get a jump on the process. Strength training, agility drills, everything he could do to improve his defense, he did. Kennard, too, has been encouraged to see the results carrying over to Summer League.
“That’s one of the main focuses I had coming into this was learning a lot on defense,” he 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.”
Kennard is also revealing that he’s less a pure shooter than he is a pure scorer. After a 4 of 6 showing from the 3-point line in the opener, Kennard has gone 1 of 5 in consecutive games. But he’s still averaged 16 points in those two games, scoring 18 in the win over Miami. Not only that, he’s picked up seven assists in the two wins. In other words, even on nights Kennard isn’t raining triples he’s finding ways to make a major offensive impact.
“No matter what, being a scorer or playmaker, you just have to move on to the next play. If your shot’s not falling, I try to find ways to make an impact and help. My shot has been off the past couple of games a little bit, but just for me as a player and a shooter and scorer, I move on to the next play and try to focus on what I can do to help later on in a game.”
So far, he’s figuring it out just fine.