By Jeff Louderback
When Duke commemorated Senior Night earlier this month, Detroit Pistons second-year guard and Franklin High School graduate Luke Kennard reflected on the moment with a Tweet.
While his alma mater barely escaped UCF and earned another trip to the Sweet 16 on Sunday, the 22-year-old Kennard continued to show signs of realizing the potential that the Pistons saw when they selected him 12th overall in the 2017 NBA Draft. That is one spot ahead of Donovan Mitchell, who is one of the league’s top young stars.
In Detroit’s 121-114 loss to Golden State, Kennard was 8-for-12 from the field (including 3-for-4 from the three-point line) and scored 20 points.
Kennard’s sophomore NBA campaign was interrupted when a shoulder injury sidelined him for 16 games, but he has recovered and averages 9.8 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game while shooting 39 percent (90-for-231) from the three-point line over 55 games. The 6-foot-5 left-handed shooter has served a pivotal role in Detroit’s second-half surge. The Pistons are 37-36, seventh in the Eastern Conference and one game behind the Brooklyn Nets.
“Every shot I shoot I think is going in,” Kennard recently told reporters. “I know my teammates trust in me, and my coaches trust in me.
“We have guys that are making great plays, getting us open,” Kennard added. “We’re screening when we’re cutting through our big guys. They get us open. That allows us to get open shots, and make shots.”
In his fledgling career, Kennard is shooting 40.1 percent from beyond the arc. That tops the list among players in the 2017 draft class who have a minimum of 200 attempts. Considering a minimum of 100 attempts, that figure is first in team history for a player in his first two seasons.
There are times when he is aggressive and confident, and there are also games where he appears hesitant with the ball and experiences defensive lapses. Kennard understands the high expectations, and he is still a work in progress.
The Pistons traded guard Reggie Bullock at the Feb. 7 deadline. Since then, Kennard is averaging 12 points per game and shooting 41 percent from three-point range. He is second on the team with 117 points per 100 possessions.
Kennard’s playing time is contingent on his defensive intensity, and Pistons head coach Dwayne Casey is known to pull the former All-State Franklin Wildcats quarterback when there are lapses.
Toughness will not be an issue for Kennard on either end of the court because of his football background, Casey believes.
“We sometimes forget Luke has only been in the league two years,” Casey said. “His growth is in front of him, and we are looking for bigger and better things from him each night.”
A two-time Ohio Mr. Basketball at Franklin, where he became No. 2 in state history with 2,977 career points, Kennard was also a standout on the gridiron. He earned Division II offensive player of the year recognition as a sophomore in 2013, when he passed for 2,331 yards and 26 touchdowns while running for four touchdowns. He opted to hang up his football cleats to fully focus on basketball as a junior, eventually becoming a McDonald’s All-American and signing with Duke.
“I’ve been hit,” Kennard said. “I’ve been in some battles on the football field, so I know how to be physical. I just need to take it up a notch.”
Developing consistency on offense and defense is all part of growing as a young player in the NBA, Kennard thinks.
“He’s gotten on me before for playing lazy, not being ready, not being in a stance,” Kennard said about coach Casey. “He’s great, talking to me about being positive, but also being on me when he needs to be.
“He’s been hard on me, which is good, I love it,” Kennard added. “He expects a lot out of me, so I’m just trying to show him that I can play aggressive on both ends of the floor. It’s been fun.”
Kennard averages 22.7 minutes per game for a Pistons team that is jockeying for playoff positioning. With nine games remaining, they are just one game ahead of No. 8 Miami, two games in front of No. 9 Orlando and one game behind the Nets, so they could ascend to the No. 6 seed, or be left out of the playoffs.
It’s coming down toward the end. We haven’t got a spot in the playoffs yet,” Kennard said. “We’re not in it yet, so it’s just trying to take it up another level.”