AUBURN HILLS – Stan Van Gundy didn’t add Rex Walters to his staff only because – or even primarily because – the Pistons drafted Luke Kennard in the June lottery. He’s known and admired Walters since he finished his playing career with the Miami Heat when Van Gundy was a Pat Riley assistant.
But it didn’t hurt that the role Van Gundy had in mind for Walters – to accelerate the development of young Pistons players, particularly on the perimeter – took on added importance with the drafting of Kennard. Or that Kennard, like Walters, was a left-handed shooting guard with a comparable frame.
The similarities weren’t lost on Walters’ sons, who often accompany him to work these days and then, after Walters has put Kennard through the paces for a few hours, get some drill work in with dad.
“My son just asked me who was better. I said, no, he’s better. He’s bigger. He’s got more shots in his arsenal, which is fun for me to watch,” Walters said after a recent session with Kennard. “My whole thing is just to try to really help him defensively, know who he’s guarding, understand technique, know what needs to be done defensively, becoming a great team defender. That’s my goal for him over the course of the season and just to be a constant reminder of those things and help him be the best pro he can be. Because if he’s that, then we’re a lot better.”
The two began working together in Orlando in late June, within days of Kennard’s drafting, for Summer League practices and continued in Auburn Hills in July and through the summer. Walters has gotten a sense of Kennard’s strengths and instincts and they’ve formed a strong working relationship already.
“He’s got great feel. He plays at his pace, which is pretty impressive,” Walters said. “He doesn’t get rattled. I’ve seen him go up against guys who try to get physical, guys who are super athletic. He never gets fazed. He plays his game.”
Scoring comes as naturally as breathing to Kennard, who averaged 38 points as a high school senior to lead Franklin High against strong competition in southwestern Ohio. He then led Duke in scoring as a sophomore – ahead of No. 3 overall pick Jayson Tatum – even though the Blue Devils returned their leading scorer from 2015-16, Grayson Allen. But Walters sees more than a scorer in Kennard.
“He can pass, handle and shoot it obviously at a high level,” Walters said. “I don’t know what happened in college, but I think he’s a pretty good defender. He’s got a chance to be a pretty good defender here. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when we go against the fellas” – Kennard’s veteran teammates as they gather at the team practice facility in advance of training camp later this month – “and now he’s guarding Avery and our guys. But also not having the familiarity of going against them every day and now we go to Boston, we go to Chicago.”
In addition to having good size for the position and adequate lateral quickness, Walters sees another ingredient he believes bodes well for Kennard’s capacity to hold his own at the defensive end.
“He’s really, really intelligent, very smart and competitive. That’s going to give him a chance to be a pretty darn good player for us.”
On top of all that, there was something else Kennard showed Walters, Van Gundy and his future teammates during Summer League. Twice over the five games the Pistons trailed by three points with under five seconds to play, twice they went to Kennard and twice he delivered to force overtime – the first time by drawing a foul and hitting all three free throws, the second time by draining a triple.
“Can really flat-out shoot the basketball and likes big moments. Very comfortable in those situations. He didn’t bat an eye,” Walters said. “So it’s fun for me. It’s going to be fun to hopefully help him in his development as a pro. It’ll be interesting this year to see how he does. He’s pretty good.”