AUBURN HILLS – Rare is the player who convinces any coach of future NBA stardom based on Summer League performance, but every now and then the opposite proves true: players who give a coach scant reason to believe they have a path to any meaningful NBA role.
Luke Kennard passed that last test, at least, with flying colors.
Everything Stan Van Gundy loved about Kennard based on scouting his two years at Duke were put into evidence over the 21-year-old’s 10 days in Orlando. The thing Van Gundy most feared would impede Kennard’s ability to leave a mark on the NBA – defense – was largely put to bed.
That’s about as much as the Pistons could have hoped to get out of Kennard’s time at Summer League.
“Pretty much what we thought offensively, maybe even did a better job passing the ball than I thought,” Van Gundy said. “He’s able to make plays off the dribble , that nice change of pace, and things I hadn’t seen a lot of. He really has a great feel for the game and how to play in addition to clearly his ability to shoot the ball.”
It speaks loudly to Kennard’s alpha scoring tendencies that in two end-game situations where the Pistons needed three points to tie with less than five seconds to play, in both cases Kennard delivered. The first time, he drew a foul and made all three free throws – a situation that tests the mettle of even the best foul shooters – and the second he drained the tying triple as the opposing bench loudly alerted its defenders to prevent him from getting off a shot.
“We’ve seen that a lot. He’s got great mental toughness,” Van Gundy said. “The thing I have great confidence in is that as he runs into challenges in the league – and everybody does and he’ll be no exception – I just think he’s a smart guy who’s adaptable. I think he’ll figure out a way to combat it. I’ve got great confidence in his ability to do that.”
Lottery picks go into Summer League in almost a no-win situation, carrying weighty expectations from the fan base and a target on their backs from opponents – in many cases, veterans of international basketball significantly more experienced and older. Couple that with sitll feeling the exhaustion from the grind of draft workouts and the emotional toll of draft night and its aftermath. Kennard arrived in Orlando a mere four days after the draft, three days after his introductory press conference with the Pistons.
He wound up as the team’s steadiest player, averaging 17.2 points to Henry Ellenson’s 17.4 and finishing with a flourish, scoring 24 and hitting all three of his 3-point attempts in the finale as the Pistons lost in overtime to Dallas of the Orlando championship game. Kennard made 11 of 23 3-point shots over five games.
So Van Gundy was heartened to see Kennard’s ability to rise to the moment translate from Duke to a higher level against longer, quicker athletes. And he was encouraged to see Kennard’s offensive flair went beyond scoring. But maybe the biggest takeaway for him was the way Kennard held his own at the defensive end.
“The thing I didn’t know that he showed me is he has the ability to move his feet defensively. Now, he’s still got a long way to go in terms of handling some of the other things, rotations and things like that. But he certainly showed that he can get down in a stance and move his feet. I did not have a good feel for that going into the draft, so that was a positive.”
As with Ellenson, Van Gundy has enough depth and confidence in other players at Kennard’s wing positions to cobble together a rotation without him. But he left Orlando confident that the two youngest players on the Pistons roster would be ready to help them win games if called upon.