AUBURN HILLS – The players who’ve congregated at the Pistons practice facility ahead of September’s voluntary workouts leading to training camp are mostly first- and second-year Pistons: the last two No. 1 picks, Henry Ellenson and Luke Kennard; the guys signed to be affiliate players with the Grand Rapids Drive, Landry Nnoko and Derrick Willis; Luis Montero, the first player the Pistons signed to the newly created two-way contracts; and Eric Moreland, added as the No. 3 center after a strong D-League showing.
Ish Smith has spent the bulk of his off-season here, as well, but as an established veteran he often gets his work done solo before the young guys get into some two-on-two or three-on-three action.
So that leaves the Pistons heavy on big men and short on ballhandlers for those group sessions.
And that means plenty of time for Luke Kennard to play with the ball in his hands. The makeup of those groups is more a reflection of the roster than anything else, but it works well in speeding Kennard’s introduction to a role beyond what the Pistons might have envisioned on draft night.
Kennard won’t be an NBA point guard, but he showed them in Summer League that he can be a weapon making plays off the dribble.
“I’ve been handling the ball a lot,” Kennard said. “Having the ball in my hands, trying to create.”
Stan Van Gundy says he’s never been more open to what his rotation might look like this close to the start of the season. Kennard’s breadth of offensive skills – 3-point shooting, a mid-range game, ability to score off the dribble, passing – are going to open the door for playing time. If he shows he won’t be overwhelmed defensively, Kennard might well prove hard to dislodge.
He’s polishing that offensive game – getting in plenty of shots at the greater NBA 3-point distance, experimenting with pick-and-roll situations, working on his ballhandling – but offense has always come naturally to Kennard. He’s really focused on defense and, toward that end, on the weight room to add the strength he knows is essential to hold up. It was something he started as soon as Duke’s season ended and he prepared for the draft. Even with a hectic draft workout schedule, he found the time to get in the weight room and continues to do so, attaching himself to Pistons strength coach Jordan Sabourin.
“Any chance that I have to get in the weight room and try to work on that, I was doing it,” he said. “Sometimes it was a little rough to get in the weight room, just traveling wise. I went to the rookie (orientation) in New York (earlier this month) for about a week, but any chance I had to get in the weight room, I took advantage of it.”
Kennard has a solid frame and says he’s already feeling the difference in workouts.
“We’ve been able to play with some of the guys, live stuff, and I can tell that it’s really paying off. It’s definitely working.”
Kennard has become the pupil of new assistant coach Rex Walters, who last season coached the Grand Rapids Drive, the Pistons D-League affiliate. As a fellow southpaw who played Kennard’s position over a seven-year NBA career, Walters has formed a quick bond with the 21-year-old.
“Rex is great,” Kennard said. “He’s taught me so much so far in not a long period of time. He’s had experience, he’s a lefty, so we can relate to each other in the way that we play the game. I’ve really enjoyed working with him.”
Avery Bradley is a good bet to lead the Pistons in minutes played this season for his two-way ability. Kennard and Langston Galloway are the logical candidates to take backup minutes, though Van Gundy could also use Reggie Bullock or Stanley Johnson at shooting guard. And with the Pistons now much deeper at the wing positions, Van Gundy anticipates using more three-guard lineups – in part as a response to the growing NBA trend toward downsizing and prioritizing shooting and playmaking.
Kennard, recently settled into a new apartment chosen to situate him conveniently both to Auburn Hills and the new downtown Little Caesars Arena, is pushing as hard as he can to make it tough for Van Gundy to exercise patience with the rookie.
“Honestly, I just want to win,” Kennard said of his expectations. “I love to win. So any way I can make an impact, that’s what I want to do. I know everybody’s really, really focused. They’re ready to go. I just want to make an impact any way I can.”