Auburn Hills — When the big moment, Luke Kennard just wanted to go old-school with it: no cell phones, no advance notice and genuine surprise.
As he sat at his family table at the NBA draft in New York on Thursday night, Kennard just wanted to hear NBA commissioner Adam Silver announce his name. The dream came true when the Pistons made him the No. 12 pick.
"Since I was a kid, it’s what I’ve dreamed of doing. Last night was a special night and it’s definitely at the top of my moments in life, one of my biggest accomplishments,” Kennard said Friday afternoon at his introductory news conference at The Palace. “It was a special night overall, but it was nerve-wracking a little bit. Once my name was called and to go to a place like (Detroit) was a sigh of relief. It’s a good opportunity.”
Now comes the hard part: starting the work and transitioning from a college star to a difficult rookie season in the NBA. It starts next week, as the Pistons begin practice for the Orlando Summer League, a week of games where Kennard will get his feet wet, alongside big man Henry Ellenson, last year’s first-round pick.
Kennard, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard who played two seasons at Duke, is projected to play shooting guard for the Pistons, but as Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy highlighted in his first comments after the draft, Kennard has a long way to go on the defensive end before he’s ready to play in regular-season games and keep up with NBA shooting guards.
“I look at Luke as a pretty classic (shooting) guard in this league. The flexibility that Luke provides is he’s a playmaker; he’s not just a spot-up shooter,” Van Gundy said Friday. “One of the issues we’ve had is we haven’t had a lot of secondary ball-handlers on the floor, so it’s really fallen to our point guards to make all the plays off the dribble.
“With Luke, that won’t be the case; he’s a guy who you can put the ball in his hands and he can make plays for himself and other people. He provides that kind of flexibility. He’s certainly a guy who can get you into the offense.”
While Van Gundy is all-in on Kennard’s prospects as a scorer and offensive asset, there’s much more work that needs to be done to ensure that he can play extended minutes because of his struggles on defense.
But Van Gundy and general manager Jeff Bower laud Kennard for his toughness, a trait that could carry over from his high school days in Franklin, Ohio, where he also played quarterback. Some of that can be an asset on the basketball court. He was highly recruited and being a two-sport standout was only the beginning for all the experiences he’d have as a college star.
“His skills and abilities and talents and background at Duke and his high school accomplishments in both basketball and football all bring traits and qualities that we feel are important for a team and can help our team in particular,” Pistons general manager Jeff Bower said. “When you’re looking at prospects, we’re looking for guys who can excel in grit, grind in mind.
"We feel Luke really comes through in all those areas, from his accomplishments on the court, from his mentality over the track at Duke that was filled with improvements and reactions to coming back from setbacks — whether it be in a game or within a game — were qualities that stood out to us.”
Kennard will wear No. 23 with the Pistons, possibly from one of his boyhood idols, LeBron James, whom he grew up admiring on his AAU teams — a connection that Van Gundy jokingly severed: “Not anymore!”
Salute to Coach K
Almost immediately, Kennard is going from a storied program at Duke with legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski to the NBA, with a demanding coach in Van Gundy. There are plenty of similarities and Kennard loves the rigor and reward of playing for both.
“Playing for Coach K was amazing; I love that he was that way with me and I felt like I learned something new every day from him on and off the court,” Kennard said. “He was hard on me and always talking to me and teaching me. I’m successful in an environment like that.
“To play for a coach who approaches things in a similar way, I think I can be really successful. I’m looking forward to learning from him because he’s a teacher of the game and I’m excited to be a part of that atmosphere.”
With his parents and girlfriend Savannah Chrisley in the front row, Kennard, who turns 21 on Saturday, spoke of how important the next stage of his basketball career will become — and it starts next week.
“(Summer league) is coming up really soon and I’m excited to get into it. I’ve been watching summer league for a long time and it’s a cool thing to watch and now to be able to play in it is kind of surreal,” Kennard said. “I’m looking forward to learning and starting this process off right.”