Spotlight will be on Kennard in Pistons' summer league

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Detroit Pistons 2017 NBA draft first round pick Luke Kennard shows off his No. 23 Pistons jersey.

Auburn Hills — It’s back to NBA basketball.

Well, sort of.

Summer league is a toned-down version of the real thing, with younger players and featuring many teams’ draft picks. The Pistons will be among eight teams at the Orlando Summer League, which begins Saturday at the Amway Center, home of the Magic.

The Pistons were the runners-up last summer, behind Stanley Johnson and Henry Ellenson. Ellenson will be the focal point again, along with first-round pick Luke Kennard.

Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said Johnson will practice but won’t play in summer league games. Darrun Hilliard’s situation also is in limbo: he was slated to participate last year, but a back injury pulled him out a few days before the games began.

Although the Pistons haven’t released the official summer league roster, some reports indicate they will have Kentucky free agent center Derek Willis and former California-Irvine standout Will Davis among their invitees.

This week, much of the attention will be on Kennard, the 6-foot-6 shooting guard from Duke who was the No. 12 pick.

The Pistons picked Kennard over Donovan Mitchell, an athletic wing who went to the Nuggets and was traded to the Jazz on draft night.

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That’s where Pistons fans will want to see an immediate return: as a potential immediate help on the offensive end. Van Gundy lauded Kennard’s NBA-ready offensive skills, which could be on display when games begin on Saturday.

“It’s pretty obvious when you watch Luke play that he can do everything to create plays: run off screens, make shots and passes, in pick-and-roll situations,” Van Gundy said. “He’s really good attacking close-out and reading defenses. He’s got the threat of the 3-pointer so there are lots of options.

“(Assistant coach Bob Beyer) will start in summer league and we’re not going to do really sophisticated stuff, but we’ll get him in some stuff we think will be good.”

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Van Gundy said he watched plenty of Kennard’s games from last season and immediately liked his resilience, an uncanny ability to turn a bad first half into a better second half. How Van Gundy plans to use Kennard in the Pistons’ system remains to be seen, but he had some initial thoughts.

“With every player, I’ll learn him more as we go and build more things as we go along and as he gets more playing time and into the rotation,” Van Gundy said. “He’s certainly a guy you’ll want to build things for. The one thing that’s important to note is we don’t look at Luke as a stand-in-the-corner, spot-up shooter. He can shoot the ball, but there’s a lot more to it than that.”

Henry Ellenson

There also will be an eye on Ellenson, who played 19 games with the Pistons and spent the majority of his rookie season with the Grand Rapids Drive.

He showed some flashes in the last five games of the regular season, but left many wanting more.

The biggest area of improvement for Ellenson was on the defensive end, where he had difficulty guarding power forwards and centers. Summer league will provide the first opportunity to see how much work Ellenson has done since the end of the regular season.

The Pistons obviously want to see a jump on that end of the court, which could signal more playing time for Ellenson heading into his second season. Last year’s second-round pick, guard Michael Gbinije also could see significant time in summer league.

During the five-game schedule, the Pistons also will see several lottery picks who went before and after Kennard: Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac, New York’s Frank Ntilikina, Dallas’ Dennis Smith, Charlotte’s Malik Monk and Miami’s Bam Adebayo, along with Oklahoma City’s Terrance Ferguson and Indiana’s T.J. Leaf.

Pistons schedule

Here is the schedule of games for the Pistons in the Orlando Summer League. All games at Amway Center on Orlando Magic practice court. All games on NBA TV.

Saturday: vs. Thunder, 5 p.m.

Sunday: vs. Knicks, 1 p.m.

July 4: vs. Heat, 5 p.m.

July 5: vs. Hornets, 3 p.m.

July 6: Time and opponent to be determined based on standings.