In his sophomore season at Duke, Luke Kennard had a second half for the ages in a road win over Wake Forest.
“My shots were just falling,” Kennard said in an interview with Stadium. “I don’t know if I missed a shot in the second half.” He didn’t, pouring in 30 of his 34 points on the day and topping things off with a game-winning 3-pointer.
“I knew I just had to be extra aggressive in the second half,” Kennard said on the win.
The Pistons selected Kennard 12th overall in the 2017 draft, but the guard didn’t make a major impact on the floor. He scored just 7.6 points per game in 73 contests, but his 41.5 percent mark from deep ranked seventh among all shooting guards. Despite Kennard’s defensive struggles, his strong shooting ability was a foundation for growth going into the offseason.
Unfortunately, Kennard’s summer was a difficult one marred with injuries.
“It was frustrating,” Kennard said. “One of my more frustrating summers not being able to work as much as I wanted to or expected to.” A knee sprain kept Kennard out of Summer League, depriving him of an opportunity to develop the rest of his game in live competition.
The rough stretch continued into the season. After playing three of the first four games of the year, Kennard suffered a shoulder injury. It cost him 16 games.
“It was different,” Kennard said. “[I] wasn’t used to sitting out.”
Despite the setbacks, the second-year guard was still able to develop his game from the sidelines.
“You can still learn a lot if you’re out,” Kennard said. “Obviously, it was not fun, but at the same time it allowed me to view the game a little differently.”
It was an interesting offseason for the Pistons organization as a whole. The team hired Dwane Casey, the reigning Coach of the Year, after the Raptors let him go. Casey would be tasked not only with optimizing a front court with Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, but also developing Detroit’s young players like Kennard.
Detroit started off the season 4-0, but then went on a five-game losing streak. The Pistons continued to display their volatility, rattling off a five-game winning streak to balance losing streaks of six, three and four games throughout the first three months games of the season.
Thanks to their consistent inconsistencies, Detroit entered a Jan. 31 game against the Mavericks with a 21-28 record, three games back from the No. 8 seed in the East. Kennard was struggling to progress in his second season after a difficult summer, averaging just 8.4 points per game in his first 31 contests. Then, the team clicked.
The Pistons went 11-3 in their next 14 contests, surging above .500 for the first time since late December. They are the No. 6 seed in the East as of March 8, beating the Nuggets, Pacers and Raptors during their recent stretch.
“I think that playoff race kind of got in our minds,” Kennard said. “I wish we had that thought towards the beginning of the year.”
Kennard’s hot play is a big reason why the Pistons are in this position. Here’s his splits over the last 14 contests compared to the beginning of the season.
|Luke Kennard Splits||Minutes||Points||FG%||3-Point%||Assists||Rebounds|
|First 31 Games (up to Jan. 30)||20.3||8.4||42.9||37.2||1.3||2.9|
|Last 14 Games (from Jan. 31 to March 6)||25.5||12.6||47.4||44.7||2.2||2.8|
The uptick in points and assists can be somewhat attributed to additional minutes, but Kennard’s 3-point shooting has returned to elite levels.
“Shooting the ball with confidence, more so than anything else,” head coach Dwane Casey said when asked about Kennard’s hot play of late. He also said the game has slowed down for the sophomore guard, which is the biggest factor in his development this season.
“When you’re at Duke that close out is a little bit slower,” Casey said. “In the NBA that close out you got about a half a second to get that shot off.”
Kennard agreed with his coach. “I think most definitely the speed,” he said when asked about the biggest change he’s seen from his rookie season to now. “It’s slowed down the little bit.”
The advanced numbers also show Kennard’s progression, specifically his improvement defensively.
|Luke Kennard Advanced Splits (via NBA.com/stats)||Offensive Rating||Defensive Rating|
|First 31 Games (up to Jan. 30)||101.6||106.8|
|Last 14 Games (from Jan. 31 to March 6)||115.1||104.9|
“His defense has improved,” Casey said. “I don’t know if he’s ever going to be a defensive stopper but he’s much much better than when the season first started.” He said Kennard has also improved as a pick-and-roll player during the team’s recent successes.
The guard has accounted for 21 percent of Detroit’s points during the 11-3 run, which might not seem like gaudy numbers. However, the Pistons rely most heavily on Griffin, Drummond and Reggie Jackson offensively so Kennard has to pick and choose his spots to attack. Accounting for a fifth of the team’s points over an extended stretch bodes well for Kennard’s future and Detroit’s playoff run. His skills as a creator have also grown during this stretch, accounting for 17.5 percent of the team’s assists.
“I think a little more motivation is allowing us to compete a little harder,” Kennard said.
Because of his jump defensively, Kennard has been a valuable cog in Detroit’s best lineups. In the last 14 games, he’s in the Pistons’ top four 5-man lineups for offensive and defensive rating that have played at least a quarter together. Extend the minutes played to one half and Kennard was in Detroit’s best offensive and defensive 5-man lineup during the run.
As the playoffs draw closer, Kennard’s two-way abilities will be key for Detroit’s chances. The Pistons have made the playoffs twice in the last 10 seasons and got swept both times at the hands of LeBron James. Making the postseason in Casey’s first year will give the organization a needed boost, but winning a playoff series will make the season truly a success. Detroit is getting hot at the right time and could carry that momentum into the postseason.
“We’re having fun, we’re communicating well, we’re playing physical,” Kennard said.
The playoffs would also help Kennard make up for lost time over the summer in his development, something he feels is still ongoing despite a jump in production since the end of January.
“There’s so much more I gotta learn and get better at,” he said. His coach’s thoughts should have Pistons fans excited for the coming seasons.
“The great thing is, he’s nowhere even close to his ceiling,” Casey said. “He’s only going to get better.”