Auburn Hills — The rookie education of Luke Kennard seems to add a chapter with every game, as he logs lessons with each new encounter.
In the early part of the season, he got a taste of the NBA rookie life — the low of not playing in the opener, then the high of scoring 11 points in the next game — and the realization that there are going to be plenty of ups and downs along the way.
Things shifted again when he didn’t play for four straight games, including the three-game western trip in which the Pistons gained momentum for their 10-3 start, with victories over the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors.
Kennard has played in the last nine games, with varying results, including a season-high 14 points against the Miami Heat, but he got another valuable lesson Friday: he can be a big-time asset without being a big-time scorer.
He had just three points in Friday’s win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, but contributed on the defensive end, with some critical minutes in an unenviable position: guarding Carmelo Anthony and Paul George.
“We needed to give somebody a rest. If you’re going to be out there, you have to guard somebody,” coach Stan Van Gundy said Friday of Kennard. “I don’t know that I want a steady diet of a rookie guarding a perennial All-Star but it’s good that he gets some challenges like that for his growth.”
Kennard, the No. 12 overall pick, has gotten a seemingly steady spot in the rotation in a three-guard rotation. Van Gundy cautions against complacency in that spot though — as quickly as those minutes were earned, they can just as easily be taken away.
“He can’t get comfortable and think that he’s got secured minutes. We’ve flipped that spot over before — and we will again if he’s not going to do what he has to do.
“He gave a little better effort (Friday) but there are some technique things he needs to do better defensively, but he competed hard.”
The issue with Kennard isn’t his offense; he’s surrounded by scoring options in a talented reserve group. It’s more about his defense and Kennard is likely getting a valuable lesson while he’s young that will help him sustain his career in the long term.
It was somewhat frustrating early in the season, when he wasn’t getting the playing time to establish any kind of consistency at either end of the court. Now, the time and valuable experience are coming more frequently, but it’s not all roses, either.
Against the Pacers last week, he had a tough lesson in physicality from veteran guard Lance Stephenson, who was the catalyst for Indiana overcoming a 22-point lead and upsetting the Pistons.
“He was probably the player who has been the most physical with me during the season. This being my first year, I’m learning new things,” Kennard said. “I know the NBA level is very physical and some guys are more physical than others. You take experiences like that and learn from it and prepare for other guys and other teams. It was a test and it made me better.”
At the beginning of the season, many experts thought that the player moves to the Western Conference powers would swing the balance of power significantly in that direction, with teams in the East being just fodder.
Not so much.
Entering Saturday’s games, the East has a 64-55 advantage in head-to-head games between the conferences, including the Pistons’ 6-1 mark, with road wins over the Warriors, Timberwolves, Thunder and Clippers.
No progress for Leuer
Van Gundy said Jon Leuer’s left ankle sprain, which has kept him out of the last 10 games, isn’t improving. Leuer did some light shooting before Friday’s game and in Saturday’s practice, but isn’t any closer to returning to the lineup.