If stellar scoring and shooting skills made Luke Kennard a lottery pick in the NBA draft, then defense could be his key to actually playing in an NBA game.
That’s been the blunt message issued by Stan Van Gundy, head coach of the Detroit Pistons, who selected the Duke guard with the No. 12 pick in last month’s draft.
“He’s got to change his entire defensive approach,” Van Gundy said when the Pistons introduced their top pick. And after an impressive week by Kennard in the NBA Summer League at Amway Center in Orlando, his coach is at least acknowledging the possibility of the rookie playing defense at a tolerable level.
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“I told him that I would walk out of these two weeks either saying he has a chance – certainly no guarantee – to play next year, or I’m going to be saying ‘He needs a year; let’s forget about him,’ ” Van Gundy said of the 6-6, 206-pound Kennard on Wednesday, after an 87-82 win against Charlotte. “But he has a chance. He has a chance to play. I’ve seen enough to know that. How far he comes through the rest of the summer and in training camp and during the season, we’ll see.”
The Pistons have made the playoffs just once in the last eight seasons and haven’t won a playoff game in Van Gundy’s three years as head coach, but Kennard could help change that. He emerged as Duke’s leading scorer last year, averaging 19.5 points per game and improving his 3-point shooting from 32 percent as a freshman to 43 percent as a sophomore.
In four games in Orlando, the 21-year-old has shown as much, going 4-for-6 on 3-pointers in his Summer League debut, scoring at least 14 points in all four games and hitting 40 percent of his shots beyond the arc. He said he understands his defense will need to improve, but that’s already a priority.
“You always have to be in the right spots. You always have to be thinking,” Kennard said of defense in the NBA. “It’s definitely a mental game. You have to always think about where you’re supposed to be, and making the right adjustments. I’ve been locked in and focused on that.”
Van Gundy has been reluctant in his praise, noting that Wednesday’s game was likely the worst of Kennard’s four in Orlando, but one stretch in the third quarter impressed him: Kennard scored nine of Detroit’s 11 points in an offensive surge to take the lead.
“He’s got an ability, a toughness mentally we saw in college, too, the mental toughness to overcome what may start out as a bad game and bounce back and play really well,” Van Gundy said. “We saw it several times at Duke, and you’ve seen it here. Same thing in practices. He’s clearly a guy with no fear. I don’t think anything’s going to bother him. He’s going to go out and play. He’s got that kind of toughness.”
Kennard, who scored 14 points against the Hornets, said he likes the tough love from his new coach, but said he got his share of that from Mike Krzyzewski in his two seasons at Duke as well.
“I love that he’s on me about stuff. I remember back at Duke, Coach K was always talking to me and teaching,” he said. “That’s what Coach Stan is going to do. He’s going to make sure I’m getting better, and I can be really successful in an atmosphere like that.”
Kennard wore No. 5 at Duke, but he’s confident enough to wear No. 23 with the Pistons, and hopeful he’ll earn the trust of his head coach quickly.
“I’ve been adjusting really well. It’s been exciting and a lot of fun,” he said.