Detroit Pistons

Examining Luke Kennard’s long-term upside

Heading into his third NBA season, Luke Kennard is a bit of a mystery. What exactly do the Detroit Pistons have in him as a prospect?

For even the most diehard NBA consumers and writers, there are certain young players who exist as somewhat of a mystery. They are intriguing but not quite captivating enough to binge on League Pass, failing to vie for All-Star berths or Rookie of the Year hardware. We have an idea of their overarching strengths and weaknesses, the type of information easily discernible through statistics or a brief eye test.

As the 2019 offseason approached, Luke Kennard was one of those players for me. So, over the past few days, I attempted to rectify that, aiming to uncover what exactly the Detroit Pistons have in their third-year wing. Some of it’s pretty exciting and other stuff is, well, concerning and less promising.

If you’re looking for an elite shooter from the 2017 NBA Draft, Kennard is as safe a bet as anyone. At 7-feet tall, Lauri Markkanen is lauded for his shooting versatility while Jayson Tatum burst onto the scene as a rookie, hitting 43.4 percent of his long balls. But Kennard has operated in the shadows of Detroit as a career 40.3 percent outside shooter, which leads all members of his draft class (minimum 250 attempts).

He isn’t just a stationary gunner either, finishing in the 62nd and 54th percentile in off-the-dribble shooting efficiency over the past two seasons. Impressive start-stop balance helps Kennard weaponize his pull-up game. In part, it allows him to leverage his presence as a spot-up scorer and attack closeouts or rise off the bounce in dribble handoffs and pick-and-rolls.

As a result of that live-dribble scoring toolkit, the Pistons utilized Kennard on the ball more often in his second season. After amassing only 87 pick-and-roll possessions as a rookie (15.4 percent of his usage), he totaled 149 this year (24.7 percent) and increased his efficiency from 0.77 points per possession (42nd percentile) to 0.852 PPP (57th percentile).

There is a limit to Kennard’s on-ball scoring aptitude, though, and Detroit would be wise in understanding that. Despite the clear upside as a pull-up shooter, he’s severely restricted by poor horizontal and vertical explosiveness, failing to generate much power and strength from his legs. This inhibits his ability to both reach the rim and score there.

Only 13 percent of his field goal attempts came inside the restricted area this season, a slight decrease from the 16 percent of last year. Per Cleaning the Glass, those marks ranked in the 11th and 16th percentile among wings. As a reference point, he’s taken 123 shots at the rim in 132 games, converting 59.3 percent of them.

Because Kennard struggles to manufacture opportunities inside, he’s compiled a .139 free-throw rate for his career and averages 2.3 free-throw attempts per game. Without the functional skills to get downhill and score at the rim or draw fouls, he’s heavily reliant on jump shots. That’s somewhat of a risky proposition as it pertains to his scoring development, given the volatile nature of jumpers.

Long-term, a player who can’t produce easy points near the hoop is a tough sell as a primary or secondary scoring option. It also restricts his playmaking potential, as he’s not one to break down defenders or opposing schemes. Quite clearly, Kennard is most comfortable functioning with momentum on his side, snaking around ball screens or receiving dribble handoffs.

Standstill creation isn’t his strong suit and doesn’t project to be unless he makes substantial athletic gains. This isn’t to say he won’t be a valuable offensive weapon, just that he probably shouldn’t be primed as a go-to initiator and that must factor into the calculus of his upside.

To combat his lack of athleticism, Kennard leans on an ambidextrous floater; he finished in the 85th percentile on runners last season. He’ll bust it out off the dribble or after a series of head fakes, shot fakes and pivots. Those moves — testaments to his craftiness and precise footwork — are how he finds room in the paint without the requisite burst or leaping ability. They aid him as a scorer and playmaker.

Kennard is capable of making complex passes but not complex reads — and yes, there’s a difference. Within structured sets, his ambidexterity enables him to rifle feeds from awkward angles because he knows where teammates will be. His forte is pocket passes and he occasionally hurls kick-outs to the weak-side corners. He demonstrates a good understanding of spatial awareness and can distribute on the move.

A pass like the one below is an apt representation of his skill.

Through a cursory lens, it’s very challenging and highly impressive. But this is a common action in Detroit’s playbook. Kennard knows Blake Griffin will rotate to the wing and be ready to act off the catch. To my earlier point, it’s a complex pass, though not a complex read. The latter concept is what distinguishes serviceable, complementary playmakers from those in the upper echelon of creators.

Only 23 and already holstering a burgeoning playmaking gene, it’s certainly possible Kennard transitions from a reactive playmaker to a proactive one. That leap is difficult and unlikely to manifest, but a foundation for growth exists. He’s not entirely devoid of passing creativity and the Pistons seem willing to give him chances, even if he’s best utilized in other ways.

Detroit largely abandoned Kennard’s off-movement shooting upside in favor of increased on-ball usage last season. He totaled 24 off-screen possessions (0.625 PPP, ninth percentile) in 2018-19; as a rookie, he had 76 such possessions and ranked in the 39th percentile (0.908 PPP). Through two years, that’s just 100 combined possessions in which a 40-plus percent 3-point shooter is flying off screens and teeing up jumpers.

The early returns are ugly but Detroit’s offense is in need of a jolt; it hasn’t been better than 15th in offensive rating since 2010-11. Kennard seems best suited as an off-ball scorer who moonlights in pick-and-rolls or dribble handoffs and is equipped to burn closeouts, getting to his floater and pull-up jumper. Right now, he’s treated as an on-ball scorer with intermittent off-screen possessions. The former is hard-capped due to his physical profile; the latter is still relatively unknown.

While he exhibits clever footwork in the paint, Kennard needs to accelerate his shot prep, which begins with streamlining footwork off the catch, as it’s currently choppy and slow. That improvement could come with increased reps and is easier to refine than the low-level athleticism that caps his dribble-drive blitzes. Deploying him off more picks would explore his viability as a motion shooter and diversify the Pistons’ offense.

They’ve yet to fully capitalize on Kennard’s shooting gravity. With Reggie Bullock and Wayne Ellington gone, next season presents an opening to explore the utility of that magnetism.

The primary issue with expecting a radical change, one where Kennard curls around endless pin-downs and floppy sets, is the inside-out nature of Detroit’s scheme. Blake Griffin is the team’s engine. He loves slow-developing post-ups and off-the-dribble triples. It’s tough to maximize a shooter like Kennard via screens when Griffin needs floor-spacers readily available if double-teams arrive down low.

To best merge the exploration of Kennard’s off-ball ceiling with Griffin’s talents, the Pistons should incorporate more 4-2 pick-and-pops. It’s an action that would unleash Kennard’s shooting value while potentially forcing smaller defenders onto Griffin, inviting him to shoot over the top or dribble into a post-up — a principle of their offense last season. It looks something like this.

Note how the threat of Griffin’s drive causes Mario Hezonja to hesitate and leave Kennard open on the perimeter (that’s also a good example of Kennard needing to set his feet quicker).

Additionally, Kennard should set flex screens for Griffin post-ups, which flows into a screen-the-screener play, something the Denver Nuggets run with Jamal Murray.

Most of Griffin’s low-block touches were the product of backing down switches from the perimeter. But this would add another wrinkle into his usage, perhaps even freeing Kennard for some open 3s and refining his off-movement shooting.

As currently constructed, the Pistons are in a precarious position. Griffin is a star but not one whose impact lifts the team above mediocrity. Andre Drummond is good but not among the NBA’s top centers. Their path out of basketball purgatory is shaky and dependent on guys like Kennard and rookie Sekou Doumbouya becoming high-level starters.

Next: James Harden and Russell Westbrook is a paring of dynamic opposites – will it work?

Kennard looks to be a very good shooter, both on spot-ups and off the dribble, with ounces of playmaking juice. He isn’t a dynamic on-ball creator and it’s not something that will expand over time. In that realm, it severely caps his upside but there are other avenues worth venturing down. The most likely route to his ceiling is emphasizing development as an off-movement shooter and complementary initiator.

Detroit is desperate for someone to emerge who can grow next to Griffin and amplify his strengths. Kennard could be that guy, but he requires the proper usage and opportunity. Time is running out on Griffin’s prime; he’s 30 years old and weighed down by a lengthy injury history. The Pistons have to adjust their interpretation of Luke Kennard’s skill-set to rapidly unlock all that he might offer.

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