Mitchell shines, but Pistons have no regrets with Kennard

Rod Beard

Auburn Hills —  In hindsight, Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy seems as satisfied with his decision than he was on draft night, when he selected Luke Kennard with the 12th overall pick. The Pistons also strongly considered guard Donovan Mitchell, who went to the Denver Nuggets with the next pick and was traded to the Utah Jazz on draft night. 

Things have worked out pretty well for Mitchell, who has started 37 games for the Jazz (19-28) and is leading all rookies in scoring, at 19.2 points, and adding 3.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists. Inevitably, Pistons fans gravitate toward the comparisons between Kennard and Mitchell, ahead of their first meeting on Wednesday. 

The two players’ skill sets are similar, but the Pistons’ greatest need ahead of the draft was 3-point shooting — and Kennard shot 44 percent at Duke — making him the better fit at the time. The debate continues to rage, but Van Gundy is happy for Mitchell, but resolute that Kennard is the right fit for them. 

“(Mitchell ) is a really good player and he’s had a great rookie year. We’re happy for him and happy with the way Luke’s played,” Van Gundy said Tuesday. “I don’t know (that 3-point shooting was the major difference); there’s a lot of factors that went into it.”


Kennard has been a good reserve for the Pistons, averaging 6.8 points and shooting 44 percent from beyond the arc. He’s putting together more consistent performances and looking to become a more integral part of the offense. 

“He’s very confident and gained a real feel for the NBA game. He’s a good offensive player; defensively he still has a ways to go but he’s improved,” Van Gundy said. “He’s got to get more consistent and more locked in on that end. He’s improved a great deal and his confidence and ability to make plays and shots offensively is good.”

“I’m just trying to get him to be more aggressive. We’ve gotten him to bust out; we’re running more plays for him. We’ve been happy with his development; he’s just got to continue to improve defensively.”

Mitchell, though, has taken advantage of his opportunities in Salt Lake City and has become a pivotal piece for the Jazz and has surged to become one of the best rookies in the league this year. It’s not just the Pistons who passed on him; it’s also 11 other teams. 

“The kid’s had a great year and he could very well be the rookie of the year. It’s going to come down to I would think him and (the Sixers’ Ben) Simmons,” Van Gundy said of Mitchell. “He’s gotten great opportunity; they had some injuries that created some early opportunity for him — and he took advantage of it. 

“(Dante) Exum went down early on, they lost (Gordon) Hayward to free agency, which they didn’t know at the time. I’ve said it before: opportunity is a big thing for guys and he’s gotten a great opportunity there. 

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Adjusting on the fly

While the Pistons are in their swoon, Van Gundy is considering tinkering with some things to try to get them jump-started, especially on the offensive end. With Reggie Jackson (ankle sprain) out for about another month, they are relying more on Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley to try to score. 

There aren’t big changes on the way, but there may be some different wrinkles. 

“Not so much new stuff; just try to get a little better pacing to made baskets and maybe different things in terms of play-calling and a bit more variety in what’s going on,” Van Gundy said. 

That could include running more plays for Kennard and getting away from the dribble-handoffs that they’ve used a lot more with Bradley and Andre Drummond. 

It could also mean more minutes for Kennard, who has found some rhythm with Stanley Johnson in the last two games in a reserve unit that has a good offensive mojo going. That is, if Johnson isn’t moved into the starting lineup, with Reggie Bullock recovering from a thumb injury he suffered in Sunday’s loss to the Nets. 

“I don’t know who we’re going to have wing-wise tomorrow,” Van Gundy said. “(Johnson starting) is possible; anything’s possible. He’s played well off the bench. Everything’s on the table in terms of rotation. I don’t know that either our starters or our bench have been very consistent in the way they’ve played, so we may have to mix things up a bit.”

Pistons vs. Jazz

Tipoff: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit

TV/radio: FSD/WXYT

Outlook: The Pistons (22-23) have lost five straight and eight of their last 10. The Jazz (19-28) have the league’s second-worst road record (5-19) and have lost seven of 10.