Orlando, Fla. — In his two seasons at Duke, defense wasn’t Luke Kennard’s calling card.
He was regarded much more for his offense, as he posted almost 20 points per game, helping the Blue Devils to the ACC Tournament championship. After he entered the NBA draft, one of the biggest questions surrounding Kennard, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard, was whether he would be a bigger detriment on defense than asset on offense.
In Kennard’s introductory press conference, Pistons president Stan Van Gundy gave his initial assessment: “Offensively, he’s really good but he’s got to do more at the defensive end if he wants to get on the floor.”
That was based on studying some game film and Kennard’s pre-draft workout.
Things have changed since then.
Six practices for the Orlando Summer League — which begins Saturday — have shown that not only does Kennard have good footwork on defense, but he’s further along than the Pistons first thought.
“He’s shown me more here. He’s got a long way to go in terms of locking in to that but in terms of his ability to move his feet, he’s got that. You don’t know that (from film),” Van Gundy said. “He can play in a good balanced stance and he’s strong. The ability is there and there is a lot of learning to go on, as there is with anybody coming out of college.
“That’s where I’ve been happy, to say this guy can go out there and defend, too. We’re a long way away and he’s got to come a long way over these two weeks and into training camp, but he’s a viable guy to look at as a guy who can get out and get minutes. He’ll be in that battle for minutes — and I wouldn’t have said that for sure on draft night.
“Even after two days, he’ll be in that battle. Whether he comes far enough to earn those minutes, that’s a long way off.”
Pistons assistant coach Bob Beyer, who is leading the summer league team, agreed.
“A lot of people were questioning his defense — we were too, to a degree — but he’s demonstrated here in six practices that he can do it,” Beyer said. “He’ll have trouble in an NBA game with certain matchups, but a lot of people have him labeled wrongly, where he’s not a defender.
“He can move his feet, he’s a good athlete, he’s smart and I think he’s going to be fine at that end of the floor.”
That’s a big about-face on the projections, and Kennard will get his first chance Saturday against the Oklahoma City Thunder to show whether those assessments hold true against NBA competition. Much of the focus will be on his offensive production, but he’ll also get a chance to open some eyes with how he performs on the defensive end.
The thought was that he was such a big part of Duke’s offense that he didn’t focus much on locking in defensively. That’s why when he began the workout process for the draft, he put a specific emphasis on defending.
“When teams were interviewing me, I told them I had improved defensively. When I got here, it was one of the main things I wanted to show,” Kennard said. “I told myself the offense will come but I have to focus on the defensive end and learn and listen and get better. They’ve worked on it with me and it’s been really good.
Beyer and Van Gundy also accentuated Kennard’s toughness from playing high school football, which has helped him focus and pick things up quickly in the summer league practices.
That’s helped make a believer out of Van Gundy — at least for now, which could bode well if Kennard can show more of it on the court and carry it over into training camp.