ORLANDO – It wasn’t just Stan Van Gundy who was struck by Luke Kennard’s footwork. Bob Beyer, Van Gundy’s associate head coach and the guy who’ll again be Pistons Summer League coach, picked up on it, too.
The Pistons still need to see Kennard do it in meaningful conditions, but many of the qualms Van Gundy admitted about Kennard’s defense on draft night already have been allayed.
“A lot of people were questioning his defense. I think we were, too, to a degree,” Beyer said. “But he’s demonstrated here in six practices that he can do it. He’ll have trouble in an NBA game with certain matchups, but I think a lot of people have him labeled wrongly where he’s not a defender. He can move his feet. He’s a good athlete. He’s smart and I think he’s going to be fine at that end of the floor.”
The Pistons took a calculated gamble in drafting Kennard over Louisville guard Donovan Mitchell, who went on the next pick, banking that Kennard’s intelligence, toughness and competitiveness would allow him to hold up on defense – and if he can do that much, then the Pistons see the potential for a major contributor offensively. So they’re thrilled by the early returns.
Beyer has installed offensive sets to capitalize on Kennard’s playmaking ability from the shooting guard spot, a different package of plays than the Pistons run with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Reggie Bullock. A shooting guard who can be the ballhandler in pick-and-roll situations expands an offense’s playbook.
“It just gives you more options,” Beyer said. “It gives you more options to score for him and for the team. I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how well he handles it with both hands. He’s able to get into the paint, to make good decisions. He’s an unselfish player and you know he’s got toughness. You can tell he played football at a pretty good level in high school and sometimes people say that’s a good thing because it brings toughness – and he has it.”
A day earlier, Van Gundy said, “He’ll be in that battle for minutes and I wouldn’t have said that for sure on draft night. But now – even after two days – he’ll be in that battle.”
One of those he’ll fight for minutes is Stanley Johnson, who’s gone through the seven practices since Tuesday morning Beyer has run in advance of Saturday’s Summer League opener vs. Oklahoma City. Johnson won’t play in Summer League games, but he’s been an alpha dog in practices just as Beyer had hoped after a disappointing second season.
“I think what he did as soon as the season was over, he took some time by himself and he thought about the season he just had and he had some reflection,” Beyer said. “He’s come back and I’ve noticed a more mature Stanley Johnson, just being on time, coming in, having a plan of what he wants to do. His game is still evolving. We forget he’s 21 years old. I think these practices have been good for him because it’s going to probably be the best competition he has this entire summer.”
Last year’s No. 1 pick, Henry Ellenson, will join Kennard and Michael Gbinije as two of Beyer’s Summer League starters with point guards Lorenzo Brown and Pierre Jackson likely alternating starts and center a rotation of Eric Moreland, Landry Nnoko and Mike Tobey. As with Kennard, the Pistons will be looking to gauge where Ellenson is at defensively.
“We talked a lot to him about that,” Beyer said of Ellenson, who at 20 will again be the youngest player on the roster. “He understands his limitations with his foot speed, his lateral quickness, so he’s got to play a more intelligent defensive game. He’s got to really work to stay down in his stance. I think he has a better understanding of that and I’m excited to see how he plays because he’s worked very hard.”
The player with the longest NBA tenure in camp is Hollis Thompson, who’s played 265 games and started 90 over four NBA seasons, mostly with Philadelphia. Thompson will be with the Pistons for the first three games in Orlando, Beyer said, and then leave to join another team in Las Vegas.