The Pistons Should Not Trade Luke Kennard

Luke Kennard has attracted interest from many opposing teams on the trade market. The Pistons should hang up.

With the NBA trade deadline approaching, the Pistons are apparently receiving a lot of interest in rookie Luke Kennard -- and with good reason. He is a highly attractive asset: he is young and has potential to grow into a really good player, even though he is already a solid NBA player. If the Pistons were to attempt to put together a package for a starting caliber player of some sort, Kennard is likely to be the guy opposing teams are most interested in. But the Pistons should not listen.

"But they need to make a playoff push this year! Kennard is a white guy from Duke. How good is he going to become down the road anyways? Not a great track record there, ya know."

It is true that white guys from Duke do not have a great track record of roaring success in the NBA, but here is the thing about Kennard: he is already good enough to contribute to a potential playoff push this year. Kennard is currently playing 17.3 minutes per game off the bench, and he is doing great work in those minutes. In contrast to Stanley Johnson's rookie year, when he played a pretty significant (though not effective) role as the de facto 6th man for a team with a below average bench, Kennard is already an effective and important player on a solid bench squad. It appears that he has even beaten out veteran Langston Galloway for the backup shooting guard minutes. In 17.3 minutes per game, Kennard is posting 6.4 points, 2 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game. He is shooting 44.3% from deep and has a true shooting percentage of 54.9%.

Kennard's shooting ability is even more important now that Stanley Johnson has moved to the bench and Jon Leuer is done for the season. A theoretical bench mob of the future featuring Ish Smith, Stanley Johnson, and Eric Moreland will need every single ounce of shooting it can get, which Kennard brings it in heaps.

I would also like to put aside the notion that Kennard has a low ceiling as a player. People so often gauge a player's ceiling based on how athletic he is, ignoring the fact that you don't gain skills in the NBA like in 2K. For instance, people were once in love with Stanley Johnson and Justise Winslow's potential (and some still are) because of their great athleticism. Kennard, on the other hand, arrived in the NBA with a complete offensive game than either of those guys has developed in 3 professional seasons. This will allow Kennard to focus on fine-tuning his game. So while Stanley Johnson is stuck desperately trying to figure out how to shoot threes, Kennard is watching Reggie Jackson's highlights to learn how to use Andre Drummond's gravity to manipulate defenses.

Luke Kennard is also cheap

This is especially valuable for a team that is currently very strapped for cash. Even with Kennard under contract, the Pistons will face a real question about whether to trade Tobias Harris for salary relief this offseason. The fact that Kennard is already a legit rotation player at such a cheap price is a huge bonus for the Pistons.

So how good is Kennard right now?

Luke Kennard is a really solid player right now. He has a quick release and is already one of the best shooters in the NBA at 43.8% from deep. And his shots are not necessarily the wide open types. Defenses have respected his long ball from the moment he stepped onto an NBA floor. Seriously, check out his first two buckets as an NBA player.

On both of these shots, Kennard received the ball beyond the three-point line and made the defender, who was rushing to close, bite hard on the pump fake, allowing him to take a step in and sink a mid-ranger. Sometimes he would have been better served to pull the trigger on a few more threes, instead of stepping inside the line in those situations. But it is easy to see why he scares defenses. He gives you great spacing and makes defenders think twice before leaving him alone for help defense. Simply put, he is the type of shooter that makes your offense better simply by being on the floor.

When he does have space to let loose, he can and will fire from every which way. His shot can be absolutely deadly, whether it be a spot up...

with a guy in his grill...

or after rocketing off a screen away from the ball.

The dude is already an elite shooter as a 21-year-old rookie. He is also capable as a ball handler out of the pick-and-roll. While he is struggling to score effectively in the paint (more on this later), he can pull up for mid-range jumpers really effectively and he is a smart passer when he isn't trying to get too fancy. On top of that, he rebounds well for his position.

What about his defense though?

He has actually been... decent? His short arms and lack of general speed (he lacks the after-burners on both sides of the ball) limit him a bit, but he has a great feel for the game when he is focused on making the right rotations. He also has quick hands and knows when to step in for a steal.

Those two clips show the positive side of Kennard's defense this season, and you can find plenty of others that show similar results. In the first clip, keeping his head on a swivel, Kennard sees an opening to jump in and knock the ball away from Gasol, which he would do again later in the game as well. In the second, he shows that he is fully capable of making really crisp rotations and is always ready to defend.

It may be a cliché to assume he, as a white guy, will probably never become a very good individual defender, although he already is a pretty good team defender. But he does have some struggles on the defensive end. At times, his defensive effort and focus lapses, which is difficult to overcome considering he does not have the sort of athletic tools to make up for drop-offs in focus. He is also prone to typical young guy stuff like misdiagnosing a play and getting totally picked off by screeners, though he has surprisingly limited his number of dumb rookie mistakes. I don't know if he will ever become an above-average contributor on the defensive end, but he will have a chance. And we all know that if he doesn't play defense, Stan Van Gundy won't play him.

All in all, Luke Kennard currently is a really good bench player who could maybe work as a starter. If he was 28 right now, he would be a valuable player who can space the floor, shoot threes, hold his own on defense, and provide a dash of playmaking and shot creation.

But he's 21. What is his ceiling?

Very high. Once again, Kennard already has a polished offensive game, which allows him to focus on developing as a defender while fine-tuning his offensive skills. While I think there is a good chance he becomes a pretty solid defender, there is no question that his ceiling will be dictated more by what he can become offensively. One look at his shot chart to this point of the season shows why there is a mixture of hope and doubt as to whether he has the ability to become a big-time scorer.

Kennard is an absolute sniper from most spots on the floor, but he is absolutely miserable once he gets to the hoop -- and this is going to be his greatest offensive question mark going forward. Very few big-time scorers struggle to finish inside. Even guys who make most of their hay as jump shooters are threats to get inside and score. If Kennard were to get a larger role in the offense, likely it would not take long for opponents to overload against jumpers and force him to beat them inside. The good news is that at least Kennard already has a good feel for slipping inside passes to guys, which will help. But somehow he has to improve inside, and that is not a good sign for his potential to become an offensive star.

I spent a couple of hours looking for examples of high-level scorers (like 20+ points per game, or close to it) that are shooters first. Among these players, there was not a single one I could find who began his career so ineffectively in the paint. Not Steph Curry or Klay Thompson. Not Bradley Beal or Damian Lillard. And not a whole host of other guys. There is simply little precedent for rookies who struggle around the hoop improving enough to become high-level scorers. It is possible; Kennard has already shown flashes that it is possible. He is already such a good shooter and a decent passer that he could get by without becoming much of a threat to score inside. Like with most things though, that would make him the outlier, and you never want to count on an outlier.

What makes Kennard's struggles in the paint and at the hoop more alarming is that they don't really feel like a fluke. Many scouts were concerned that he wouldn't be able to finish inside once he reached the NBA. He wasn't a good finished when he was in college, either. Unlike Stanley Johnson, who has the tools but cannot seem to hit layups in traffic, most of Kennard's drives stall out with his shot getting blocked, or with him throwing up a terrible-looking sort of hook shot or runner that doesn't have a prayer. 

So what hope is there that he can become capable in the paint?

Hopefully, Kennard has plenty of film of Reggie Jackson. Jackson is more explosive, but I believe Kennard can learn to become effective in the paint by emulating Jackson's paint offense. Even before his knee injury, Jackson was not a big finisher at the rim -- he made his living on floaters, hooks, and general tomfoolery. Both players possess solid first steps and close space quickness, but not great end-to-end speed. They can create seams in the defense, but not huge holes for themselves. If Kennard can develop a similar array of elite runners, floaters, and hooks that Jackson has, he could become an effective paint player. The comparison could break down because Jackson isn't just good at those shots, he is one of the best in the NBA, when combining volume and efficiency. This makes Jackson a bit of an outlier, and once again it is not a great plan to hope for an outlier.

What if he never figures it out close to the hoop?

Kennard can still be a good scorer and super valuable offensive player. Kyle Korver and J.J. Reddick types do wonders for your offense, and Kennard is already a better ball handler than either of those guys. He could potentially fit in really well as a guy who either serves largely as an off-ball shooter type with the starters or as a more primary option off the bench against lesser defenders. His defense is already serviceable, which makes him a very valuable player. But his lack of scoring inside could keep him from ever becoming a really good scorer. 

So why exactly then? Should they not trade him?

The Pistons are facing a crossroads either this year or next. If the Pistons stay afloat until Reggie Jackson returns to lead the Pistons into a showdown with Cleveland in the conference finals, Kennard is an ideal bench piece to keep.
On the other hand, if the Pistons never recover this season, and they decide to blow it up this offseason, you absolutely cannot lose a guy like Kennard, who has a chance to really be something special. He fits both scenarios.

Is there anything you would give up Kennard for?

Only if Kennard was a part of a package for a legit star, which, if the Pistons were to make such a package, he would certainly have to be a part of it. So let's just say that OKC changes its mind and decides they are trading Paul George (which isn't happening, but this is theoretical). Assuming his best buddy Reggie Jackson is able to assure the Pistons that George will sign long-term with the Pistons, then I'm ok with letting Kennard go to get a player like George. When you have a chance to get a guy like that, you just do it. Anything less than that though, and I would be very hesitant.

What about Kemba?

I'll pass honestly. Reports on Jackson's recovery are good so far. Kemba is better, but we've already seen that this team is good enough with Jackson at the helm. Considering that you would likely be giving up additional pieces to get a player like Kemba, I'm not sure that the Pistons really come out much better as a team. Kemba is awesome and the Pistons should definitely look at him (especially if there is any setback in Jackson's rehab), but I'd be very hesitant to let Kennard go for him.

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