Evaluating Luke Kennard's Career Potential

Luke Kennard is in year two of his young career with the Detroit Pistons. Fair and unfair expectations have been made for Kennard due to where he was drafted and the type of player he is.

The 2018-19 NBA season is underway and so is the Dwane Casey era of Detroit Pistons basketball. Last season’s Coach of the Year in Toronto, Casey is inheriting one of Pistons Twitter’s most-controversial players: Luke Kennard.

Kennard is not controversial due to any off-court antics or polarizing play. He also does not have an established injury bug. Kennard came into the season recovering from a knee injury but played good basketball until his most recent shoulder injury that will see him miss about a month or so of the season. The "controversy" for the second-year shooting guard is that he is merely a victim of circumstance. That circumstance is his selection in the 2017 NBA Draft ahead of Donovan Mitchell.

As long as Kennard and Mitchell are playing, the two will be compared to each other due to their draft position. However, they are very different players and Mitchell’s ceiling with the Jazz is an entirely separate conversation from the future of Kennard with the Pistons.

Separating Kennard from Mitchell

The Pistons selected Kennard with the 12th overall pick and the Utah Jazz selected Mitchell one pick later. The selection garnered mixed reviews from NBA experts and novices alike. It was not until Mitchell broke midseason that regret took over in some circles of Pistons fans. Mitchell’s breakout rookie season came just short of an NBA Rookie of the Year Award as he led the Jazz to the playoffs in a tightly contested Western Conference.

However, Mitchell is a completely different player than Kennard. Each player’s success is entirely based on the role they were drafted for on the team they were brought to.

I am not saying the Pistons would not have a place for Mitchell - any team would be crazy not to take a dynamic, 20-point-scoring guard. However, the Pistons have that guard in Reggie Jackson. Before last season’s ankle injury, Jackson had that team in legitimate playoff contention. The Pistons needed a shooter to put with Jackson last season and injuries, plus the Blake Griffin trade changed everything. However, now more than ever the Pistons need a player with Kennard’s ceiling who can complement what is arguably a better-built team for his skill set going forward.

Kennard’s challenge with today’s Pistons

Kennard's shooting percentages were decent to start the season in limited minutes. Unfortunately, the shoulder injury he suffered against the Cavaliers forced him out of the lineup for the following few weeks.

His playing time before the injury had been limited by the success of the two-point guard lineups Casey has used frequently to start the season. Reggie Jackson and Ish Smith played above expectations early on, but struggled with shooting efficiency after the Pistons hot start came to an end.

Kennard got the surprise start for the Detroit Pistons in their opening night win over the Brooklyn Nets. Reggie Bullock sat out due to illness and Stanley Johnson sat out to nurse an injury. Despite the starting role, Kennard only played about 19 minutes. The 22-year-old Duke Blue Devil shot 3-for-5 from the floor – making his only three-point attempt. Kennard should see a spike in minutes as the team has struggles to shoot the ball through the first quarter of the season.

A more perfect shooting rotation

If it was not clear before the disappointing end to last season, Blake Griffin is going to be the Pistons go-to player if they want to contend this season. Griffin plays a role similar to that of LeBron James on his most successful teams; he frequently brings the ball up the court as the “point-forward” and attracts the most defensive attention from opponents. Griffin will attract that kind of attention this season and will need shooters around him for when defenses collapse on him.

Kennard can be one of those shooters.

Kennard’s strength so far in his career lies in his spot up shooting. He shot over 48 percent on spot-up field goals last season – by far the most effective play in his arsenal. He is also fairly effective when cutting to the basket, which can help his two bigs who should be looking for cutting guards in handoff plays.

Having a player like Kennard – whether he makes his way into a regular starting role or not – can provide a much-needed spark on a team that relies heavily on only a couple players per night to do most of the scoring.

Fair and unfair comparisons

The players that have always made LeBron James-led teams championship-worthy are the shooters he has been surrounded with. Ray Allen, Mike Miller, James Jones, and Kyle Korver were all key contributors to James’s most successful teams. Those are the kinds of role players Kennard can emulate on a team centered around Blake Griffin.

Kennard gets a lot of comparisons to J.J. Redick for being the stereotypical shooter coming out of Duke. Redick has been the starting shooting guard for many successful teams with lesser talent than the Pistons, but Redick is the most realistic ceiling for a player of Kennard’s skill and athleticism. Both players are obviously great shooters and can cut to the basket at will. Kennard, however, will need to become a better shooter coming off of screens to strike fear in the hearts of defenses the way Redick does.

Kennard ranked in just the 39th percentile of NBA players when shooting after coming off a screen last season. Redick – who obviously got a lot more playing time as the starter for the 76ers – ranked in the 82nd percentile when shooting off screens. If Kennard can master that movement with and without the ball the way Redick does, he can be a legitimate starting guard in a league full of great guards.

If you thought the Redick-Kennard comparison is a stretch, buckle up.

The potential for Kennard that can make him look like the obvious right choice over Donovan Mitchell is the chance that he can become something great. The greatest player Kennard can hope to be is Klay Thompson.

To be as fair as possible in this already unfair comparison, it is important to note that Kennard is nowhere near the skill level of Thompson right now. Thompson is in the prime of his career and plays on a multiple-time champion Warriors team with little-to-no pressure to be great on a nightly basis. (Editor's note: While this article was in-process, Thompson scored 51 in 27 minutes, including an NBA record 14 three-pointers.)

However, looking back on the beginning of Thompson’s career in Golden State makes his comparison to Kennard less absurd.

Thompson started 29 of the 66 games he played in his rookie year in the 2011-12 season. He averaged 12.5 points while shooting 44 percent from the field and 41 percent from three. By comparison, Kennard started just nine games of his 73 and averaged 7.6 points on 44 percent shooting and 41 percent from three. Thompson played about five more minutes per game than Kennard did in their respective rookie years, but the shooting percentages were nearly identical.

The differences between the two – similar to the Redick comparison – are their abilities while shooting off screens. Redick and Thompson are so difficult for opposing defenses to guard because of the way they move without the ball. Thompson shot 49 percent when coming off screens his rookie year while Kennard shot just 43 percent.

This could change as Kennard begins to get more opportunities. The Pistons are moving the ball around well this season, but they are better suited for pick-and-roll plays with their talented frontcourt. Reggie Bullock is their most consistent shooter coming off of screens yet even he has had his struggles so far after a dynamic season last year. If Kennard can cut into Bullock’s minutes – despite how well Bullock has played in his time as a starter – fans should see what they really have in Kennard.

He can certainly be a Mike Miller, Kyle Korver, or James Jones type of contributor to a contending team. However, the ceiling can be much higher than what many fans in the vile depths of Pistons Twitter want to consider. Will Kennard be Klay Thompson? No. He has not shown anything that says he can turn into that All-NBA kind of player. However, it would be irresponsible to not consider Kennard’s potential.

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