Against the Heat on Sunday, Luke Kennard got his first major minutes in a competitive NBA game of his career. The Pistons won as Kennard played the entire 4th quarter and he finished with 14 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists in just over 27 minutes played. While not exactly a coming out party, it was close, so let's go on a deep dive into the play of the Pistons rookie.
Kennard came into the league with expectations of being a terrible defender, he is a white dude from Duke without a good wing-span and he didn't show a whole lot of desire to be a good defender in college. He is lacking in overall speed a bit and also has all the rookie kinks that are there with every young player, but he has not been the train wreck a lot of people figured he would be.
First off is his off-ball defense, there are of course many possessions where he is not overly involved in the play and is largely standing off the ball. Most of those plays looked something like this:
This is, of course, nothing overly complex or remarkable, but it is worth noting that he consistently looks like he is going through the right motions on plays where he is defending off the ball. He keeps his head on a swivel, keeps bouncing on his toes, and is fairly aware of the floor. Notice that he even double checks his man (Justise Winslow) before grabbing the rebound to ensure he doesn't need to box out. He checks every box as the play continues, and this time he doesn't really have to do anything.
But what about when he does have to do something?
The results are mixed when he actually has to get involved in the play. The area, by far, that he struggles with the most is navigating screens, particularly off the ball with the offensive player running full tilt.
It highlights to me what to me is his biggest physical limitation as a defender (and even offensive player) which is his foot speed. Despite being a white guy he actually has decent hops (as we will see later) and has decent quickness within tight spaces. Where he is truly lacking is in top end speed, and it really shows when running around screens. He doesn't know how to navigate them correctly, which is a problem with all young players, but if he falls behind at all then he is going to really struggle to get back into the play.
And even when it isn't taking advantage of his foot speed, he really needs to improve his ability to not just run into screens every time one is set for him.
On both these plays he gets hit with screens, he isn't flattened by them or anything and on both plays, the guys behind him make solid rotations to keep anything too easy from developing but almost every screen that has been set against Kennard this year has gotten a piece of him. Give him credit for at least sticking with it and fighting through, but if he had been guarding more threatening shooters than Dion Waiters, Tyler Johnson, and Justise Winslow all night this would've been a much bigger issue. He also can save himself a great deal of energy by not having to fight so physically through so many screens.
Take this play for example.
It doesn't matter here since Tyler Johnson isn't the sort of shooter to really worry about, and the Heat are looking to post Whiteside anyways. Given the situation, the simple fact that he kept with it means that it works out fine. But if this is a dangerous shooter, Kyle Korver for instance, then he is a step too slow and that is death against those kind of guys. Once again though, Kennard at the very least keeps with it and seems to have a decent grasp of what he is supposed to do, when he gets out to Johnson he is in a good defensive stance quickly. This isn't bad, but it is slow enough that it can become a problem against better competition.
The other area that he struggles in a big way is containing ball handlers. He is far too quick to open his body up all the way and essentially surrender an open driving lane.
This is less of a problem than the screens because he does enough that he gives the defense behind him an opportunity to cover for him with crisp rotations behind him whereas him getting screened off is harder for his teammates to cover, but this is still an issue. Once again he gets credit for not giving up on plays, he continues to chase the ball handlers to keep them from getting too comfortable, and then when the rest of the defense shifts over and the ball handler slows up a bit, Kennard is suddenly there to help make the play (whether a pass or shot) a bit tougher and the window tighter.
What about rotations?
Bit of mixed results, but there is a lot more good here than the other areas. Once again, Kennard clearly has a good head for the game and makes quick decisions, the problem remains that if he doesn't make quick decisions he isn't really fast enough to make up for the slow decision.
You can see it pretty clear there, he still has his head on a swivel, but he ends up too far into the paint (for what appears to be not much reason at all) and it makes for an easy pass to Tyler Johnson who is wide open in the corner. Compare the way Kennard played this with Galloway who is in the same position but on the other side of the paint. The moment that Kelly Olynyk picks up his dribble Galloway has started to recover to the shooter, while Kennard stays planted despite the fact that Tobias Harris is in perfect position to wall off the drive. Once again too Kennard's credit, he recognizes that Ish Smith is recovering for him and he starts to move to cover Smith's man. It obviously doesn't matter in this case but there are times where it would, and it continues that trend of that he does not give up on plays much and anyone can tell you that effort is a huge part of defense in the NBA.
That last play is also one that the Pistons will live with because Kennard had some absolute beauties in rotations in this game.
Those three plays are great signs for the rookie, all of them show him making great and crisp rotations and diagnosing plays quickly and then acting on them. That one where he rotated over to cut off Whiteside from the hoop is especially great as it is a broken play since Drummond is slow getting back following a botched alley-oop, Whiteside slips through and no one notices but Kennard, who crashes into the paint and bodies up. If Kennard is a half step slower and/or doesn't body right up then Whiteside is dunking that, there are a lot of veterans who are good defenders who would not have read the need for the rotation that quickly, and even fewer who would've had any interest in actually trying to stop Whiteside.
Overall Kennard has work to do defensively, but there are some great signs that he could be a decent defensive player sooner rather than later. There are always going to be problems with his ability to stick with quicker ball handlers, but all three of those plays where he rotates into the paint where bonafide excellent and not the sort of plays that are made by guys who are objectively all around bad defenders. With an offseason of NBA strength and quickness coaches and a bit of experience, he could actually start to approach very solid on the defensive end fairly soon. The biggest reason is that if you are not a total cider-block-footed type and show real desire to consistently compete on defense then you can be above average and Kennard has absolutely shown that he is not going to give up or back down.
Just like with defense there are plenty of plays where he isn't overly involved in the play and they mostly looked something like this.
Notice that other than a brief swipe, Tyler Johnson has little interest in abandoning Kennard to help onto Ish Smith despite the winding clock. At some point, he will need to hit NBA threes, but for now, defenses are largely showing respect to his long ball and he is providing decent spacing with it.
He does have room for improvement as an off-ball player though, he does not always cut or move with much urgency or purpose and that makes him less of a threat than the Pistons probably hope he will be off the ball.
You can see it pretty clear there, he starts out in the right corner (where he began nearly every offensive possession in this game. I'm not sure if that is a Kennard thing or a position thing.) and makes his move towards Moreland at the break of the arc, but he is not exactly speeding and once he gets past Moreland he just sort of strolls into the lane without much rhyme or reason and you can see the defender relax. At the very least he is quick to fire when he receives the catch and shoot.
And when defenders close out too hard to him he nails them with pump fakes and steps right into a quick pull-up.
Until some more of his threes start to fall at least, the main area where Kennard has impressed is with his ball handling and creation for himself and others. He has made it abundantly clear that he is capable of being more than just a spot up shooter, although I'm not sure exactly how large of a load he is ready for in that regard until he cuts out really bad moments like these.
Both of those plays are the sort of dumb, careless, and bad turnovers that just can't really happen if you want to be any kind of high usage ball handler. The first one he has Dion Waiters just straight up take his lunch money for a breakaway layup. That is something that you just can't have, if it was someone like Kawhi Leonard I would have some sympathy, but not Dion Waiters. In the second clip, he tries to shovel a no-look pass to Eric Moreland and it is intercepted, but the thing is that it isn't even close and even if it had gotten through, Moreland is standing out of bounds. Once again, that is the sort of careless that you can't have from players. Although that isn't to say that he doesn't make good on some great quick passes.
All three of those passes are quick-hitting and require good vision and being able to think one step ahead of the play, and are dead accurate to boot. This holds up with a lot of his looks on defense that he clearly has a really good head for the game and can clearly process the game at the speed required for the NBA. He even had a really nice pass out of the pick and roll.
Moreland blows the layup, but that is a really nice play from Kennard. He shows great patience to draw the defenders an extra step away from the hoop and then zips an accurate pass to Moreland. He also has shown that despite the Waiters incident, he has a tight handle.
Richardson recovers to block the shot, but Kennard made a great move on the perimeter to get into the paint. It also shows the creativity that he has and a knack for making plays that are a bit odd which was also shown on this bucket,
His offensive game is a little bit off-beat and tricky at times which combined with a tight handle and a decent first step can give defenders trouble, Kennard can also get himself into trouble by trying to shoot layups into windows that don't stay open long, the blocked shot by Richardson above is an example and so is this.
The good news is that these are the sorts of plays that rookies make sometimes. Back in college, he is able to stay an extra step closer and that is a layup. In the NBA that is a hopeless toss up layup that is too far away to really be a layup. When it is just growing pains like this the Pistons will live with it, especially when he also makes those plays work sometimes.
Once again he uses the threat of his shot to blow by a defender (Dragic here) and get into the paint and uses a quick hesitation to get a floater up. It is a bit of a goofy angle but he hits this one. It is sort of a cliché with young players but he clearly has the tools and shows these flashes of really good plays. As long as he cuts out the mistakes going forwards there is great potential for Kennard.
Look, it is a tiny sample size still so it all comes with a grain of salt. But Kennard really looks like a player who is bursting with potential, if his long ball gets up to the point that everyone thinks it will (and defenses are playing him as) he already is great at using that threat to get space and can make plays. The best news remains that the game is not too fast for him to process on either end of the floor, as that is a problem that often can prove fatal for young players, especially ones that are not freak athletes.
He is still having enough growing pains on both ends that it is understandable if he doesn't break into the rotation given that the Pistons have good depth at shooting guard and Stan Van Gundy would be rightfully concerned about playing Kennard at small forward against actual small forwards, but when he is put onto the floor (whether by injury or otherwise) then he can do some real things right now, and the experience should pay off down the road. The good news in that department is that history says Avery Bradley will still miss 10-20 games at some point this year at which point Kennard is likely to find himself with a somewhat major role on the team, and I think he is ready enough to not be a disaster if that happens. And if his long ball catches on the way it should then he might force his way into the rotation regardless.
Probably the best sign I saw after all of this though, is that my biggest worry about him coming into the season appears to be totally unfounded. Coming in he didn't have any sort of reputation as a guy who is a grinder, fighter, or tough guy, which isn't the biggest deal in the world and often overrated in players. But the only way he was going to be playable as an NBA defender was if he showed up and was willing to absolutely work his tail off on that end, and he already looks tons better than he did at Duke, he clearly is willing to be coached and wants to be a good defender and that is a great sign.
What do you think? Can Kennard find his long ball? What is his ceiling?