Auburn Hills — Pistons president-coach Stan Van Gundy opened the post-draft press conference in the usual manner, accentuating all the positives of the first-round pick. It happens almost every year, with every pick.
He spoke glowingly of Duke’s Luke Kennard, the Pistons’ choice at No. 12, extolling his offensive prowess, with the ability to score in a variety of ways. Kennard was a marksman last season, hitting 44 percent on 3-pointers as a sophomore.
No doubt, that’ll help the Pistons, who ranked 28th in 3-point shooting, and lacked a dangerous outside shooter during their disappointing 37-45 season.
“In our minds, Luke was the best offensive wing player on the board; he can really play offensively,” Van Gundy said. “He had some incredible games, and where he was great down the stretch; when the game was on the line, he wanted the ball and came through. He was their guy all year in those situations.”
When the questions turned to defense, one of the big question marks surrounding Kennard entering the draft, Van Gundy didn’t shy away from the criticisms; rather; he jumped in headfirst, accentuating that was not only a weakness, but what could keep Kennard from playing initially.
While there are no sure-fire picks in any year at No. 12, Kennard checks many of the boxes for the Pistons in terms of their needs — on the offensive end.
So did last year’s first-round pick Henry Ellenson, who saw minimal action because of his lagging defensive acuity.
“He’s got to change his entire defensive approach — that’s the answer to him being able to get on the floor and get involved. His offense is good: you can put him in an NBA game right now and he can go play with four other players and play good NBA basketball,” Van Gundy said. “He’s a mature offensive player for his age. I would have no question putting him in the game offensively now. Defensively, I wouldn’t put him in a game now.”
There’s a lot to unpack there, especially given the fact that the Pistons also had worked out Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell, who was highly regarded as one of the top two-way players, lauded for both his athleticism and ability on the defensive end.
Mitchell, who was selected 13th by the Denver Nuggets and traded to the Utah Jazz, was likely the next Pistons choice, but Van Gundy and general manager Jeff Bower opted for offense, seeing an immediate opening for Kennard to contribute.
For Kennard, there’s no quick fix to the defensive questions, but the first step is getting stronger and putting more focus on that end of the court.
“One of the big things is strength. If I become a stronger player physically, it will help me guard and I’m looking forward to improving that,” Kennard said Thursday night via teleconference. “I have improved that and I know I can (continue) and I’m looking forward to that process.”
Van Gundy made an immediate comparison to another superb Duke sharpshooter, J.J. Redick, whom he coached with the Orlando Magic.
“Redick came into the league and people said he couldn’t guard. I probably think higher of J.J.’s defense than anybody else does because I’ve seen it,” Van Gundy said. “You can be a very good defensive team with guys who take great pride and have great intelligence and want to get the job done. I don’t doubt (Kennard’s) capabilities — he just didn’t do it.”
While he was critical of Kennard’s defense, Van Gundy also said he had questions about the defensive ability for 18 of the top 20 picks, but felt that Kennard’s offensive skills offset the concerns.
Much like Van Gundy has done with players on the current Pistons roster, he’s not afraid to step out on a ledge and be critical. That’s worked both to their benefit and detriment, but there’s almost no honeymoon period for Kennard, who arrives in Detroit for his introductory press conference Friday.
The path to playing time is clear: get better on the defensive end. While the Pistons have two good perimeter defenders in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Stanley Johnson, Kennard satisfies the scoring question, which plagued the Pistons in many spurts last year.
“We just have to get him to apply himself defensively. He’s a competitive guy; he’s played in huge games, he’s made huge shots, you can see he has a great desire to win,” Van Gundy said. “What it’s going to take to get on the floor is get better defensively. My expectation from everything I know about him is he’s going to embrace that challenge and get on the floor.”