East Lansing — Will he start or won’t he?
It was one of the burning questions for Pistons guard Luke Kennard as Pistons training camp opened Tuesday at Michigan State's Breslin Center — and one that will continue well into the start of regular season in a few weeks.
Kennard, entering his third season in the NBA, was a first-round pick in the 2017 draft and the third season in the NBA generally brings the expectation of a career acceleration and boost in production.
He had a productive offseason, though he had a bout with tendinitis in both knees that limited him for a couple of weeks. It wasn’t like last summer, when he suffered a knee bruise and he missed most of the workout time that is the lifeblood of improvement.
After a good summer spent on breaking down his game with extended film study — of himself and other players — Kennard, 23, is ready to get going with the season.
“That was the most important thing for me, to have a healthy offseason and coming into training camp healthy and able to do everything,” he said. “I’m taking the steps in the right direction to have a big year, to make an even bigger impact and help us win more games. I’m excited and I think I’ve gotten a lot better this year. I’m looking forward to it.”
Last season’s trip to the playoffs provided a teaser for what Kennard can bring. He started two of the four games and was one of the Pistons’ best players, averaging 15 points, 4 rebounds he shot 60 percent (9-of-15) on 3-pointers.
It’s a small sample size, but against the Bucks, it’s an indicator of what he can provide against some of the league’s top talent. That doesn’t give a clear indication of where Kennard should be this year, though.
He’s played better with the reserves, but as coach Dwane Casey explained at media day on Monday, Kennard's numbers dip with both Reggie Jackson and Blake Griffin as pick-and-roll options in the starting group. Among the reserves, Kennard has more freedom to create opportunities on his own.
“I don’t know if Luke’s going to start but I think he’s going to have a terrific year,” Pistons senior adviser Ed Stefanski said Monday. “He got better as the year progressed last year and he was our best player in the playoffs against Milwaukee. If he keeps that trend, that’s a pretty good second unit.”
ESPN’s Zach Lowe identified Kennard as one of his six most intriguing players of the season, noting: “There may not be a team that needs a role player to pop as badly as the Pistons need Kennard to establish himself as an above-average wing.”
Lowe compares Kennard to fellow Duke star J.J. Redick, Kyle Korver, or former Pistons guard Wayne Ellington as a shooter and spotlights that Kennard can add some other elements to his game to become more effective.
One interesting number that Lower pointed out, according to Second Spectrum: Kennard runs the pick-and-roll just seven times per 100 possessions with Griffin on the court; that number jumps to 22 when Griffin is off the court.
That would be an argument for not starting Kennard with Griffin, but Kennard isn’t picky about where and when he plays; he just covets the opportunity — wherever it comes.
“I don’t really care (about starting versus reserve). Whatever fits the best and whatever the coaches want, I’m there for it. Whenever I’m in the game, they want me to make an impact in some way,” Kennard said. “I have to be ready, no matter what. I’m excited to get going. I love this group and the guys we got in this offseason.
“I don’t prefer one or the other; I’m just going to make an impact the best way I can to help us win.”
If Kennard stays with the second group, he’ll likely be paired in the backcourt with Derrick Rose, who was acquired in the offseason to bolster the bench. Kennard said he and Rose were paired in the early workouts on Tuesday — and he’s excited about the chance to play with the savvy veteran.
‘It’s a three-point shooting game,’ says Pistons coach Dwane Casey, who’s looking for improvements both offensively and defensively. Clarence Tabb, The Detroit News
“He’s a great guy and I feel like I can pick his brain a lot; he’s been through so many things and he knows how to play the game,” Kennard said. “He’s quick, so you have to be a step ahead with him, how fast he is and how high his IQ is. I’m excited if I’m in there with him and we’ll make a pretty good duo.”
How the rest of that reserve group shakes out will be decided in training camp, with Markieff Morris, Joe Johnson, Thon Maker and others likely in the mix to work around the possible backcourt of Rose and Kennard.
That was one of the top priorities for the front office in the offseason: getting more experienced and versatile players for the second group.
So far, it’s working.
Even without Ish Smith, who kept a torrid pace with his speed and quickness, Kennard sees the reserves playing up-tempo.
“We still want to push the pace. Derrick is fast — we don’t have Ish this year — but Derrick is going to be able to push the ball,” he said. “We have guys who can spread the floor out and knock down shots. We want to play fast and free and have fun. The guys we brought in really fit what we want to do.”