Niyo: Pistons' Luke Kennard might have all the right stuff

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Luke Kennard starred in football as well as basketball in high school before heading off to Duke.

Auburn Hills — Looks can be deceiving.

That’s something college basketball fans eventually realized with Luke Kennard after he arrived at Duke as one of three McDonald’s All-Americans in Mike Krzyzewski’s 2015 recruiting class.

It’s something Stan Van Gundy was busy warning Pistons fans about on draft night, too, explaining why the 6-foot-5 shooting guard was the right pick, not just the safe one, or merely the best of what was left at the end of the lottery.

Kennard has his father, Mark, to thank for some of that, going all way back to when Luke was a kindergartner, dribbling a basketball right-handed the entire three-block walk from the playground at Schenck Elementary School to his home in the Dayton suburbs.

Luke was naturally left-handed, you see, but his dad, a former small-college hoops player, had him dribble right-handed — with his left behind his back — and he’d follow along in the family’s SUV making sure his young son didn’t cheat. If he did, they’d head back to the playground and start over.

“My wife called it child abuse,” his father laughed Friday, after his son — the Pistons’ selection with the 12th overall pick in Thursday night’s NBA draft — took part in his introductory news conference at the Palace. “There’d be times he’d be all fired up to do it. And there’d be times he was crying, ‘Daddy, I don’t want to do this.’”

But by the time he’d become a two-sport star at Franklin High School, Luke Kennard understood what it was all about. He was an All-State quarterback throwing touchdowns with his right arm — “That still surprises people,” he says — and a two-time Ohio prep player of the year on the court draining 3-pointers with his left.

Threat with either hand

And as you watch highlights of Kennard, or especially the hours and hours of film that Van Gundy and his staff broke down over the last few months, you’ll see the ambidextrous ability — he now writes and eats with his right hand — paying all kinds of dividends. He’ll drive past a defender with his left, then spin back and finish with his right. Or vice versa. Defenders don’t know which hand to challenge, and even his teammates wouldn’t know which way he’d pivot in practice.

“When he got in the paint this year, I bet he probably shot 60 or 70 percent of the time with his right hand,” Mark Kennard said. “So, yeah, we laugh about it now.”

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And why not? Because as the newest member of the Pistons posed with a No. 23 jersey Friday, a day before celebrating his 21st birthday, he couldn’t help but laugh.

“It’s kind of surreal, honestly,” said Kennard, whose favorite player growing up was former Piston Tayshaun Prince. “Since I was a kid, this is what I dreamed of doing.”

Yet now that it’s reality, Kennard says he’ll allow himself “a big sigh of relief,” but not much more before getting back to work, determined to prove people wrong.

He knows the criticism that’s out there, and, yes, the stereotypes he’s fighting. That he doesn’t play defense — Van Gundy’s among those who said as much Thursday night — and he’s not athletic enough to make much of an impact in the NBA. Or the lazy comparisons to, say, Kyle Singler, another former Duke player drafted by the Pistons. Never mind that Kennard actually patterns his game after Manu Ginobli.

As Krzyzewski puts it, “We live in a world of quick judgment and shallow analysis.”

Of course, that’s a fact of life when you play at Duke, the program everyone loves to hate — and never more so than the last couple of years with Grayson Allen in uniform.

“Away games were really tough sometimes,” Mark Kennard said.

Yet Krzyzewski and others pointed to Kennard as a steadying force last season, amid Allen’s overblown antics and Coach K’s leave of absence because of back surgery and all the injuries that ravaged the Blue Devils’ lineup. For a player who admittedly lacked confidence as a freshman, this past winter was a transformative time. And as for all those hostile crowds?

“He thrived on that stuff,” his father said. “He loved it. He’s very competitive. And it made him more focused. He knew he could shut ’em up by the way he played on the court.”

One on one

The Pistons certainly took note, as they evaluated draft prospects. And it was interesting Thursday night to hear Van Gundy talking about going back and watching some more film on Kennard on the eve of the draft.

“I watched their Louisville game in the ACC Tournament, and at one point he scored 10 straight in a tight game, 14 points in the last eight minutes,” Van Gundy said of Kennard, who finished with 24 points and 10 rebounds. “He’s coming down, hitting pull-up 3s in transition, he’s got — well, I don’t want to say how I put it during our meetings — but he really wants the ball in those situations. He’s got great confidence in himself, a little swagger to him. He’s something special.”

And maybe it’s worth notingthat Louisville game featured a matchup with Donovan Mitchell, who struggled mightily that day — 3-for-14 shooting, eight points — and a week later talked about his own coach, Rick Pitino, pointing to Kennard as a player he should emulate.

“He just plays so calmly,” Mitchell said then, “no matter how big the situation or how big the game is.”

Thursday night, when it came time for the Pistons to make their pick, the predraft consensus suggested they had a 50-50 decision to make at No. 12. On one hand, there was Mitchell. And on the other, there was Kennard.

Less than 24 hours later, everyone at the Palace seemed convinced they went with the right hand.