Ending up the dog days of summer, DBB is rolling out a series of players that our writers are optimistic about this coming season - even perhaps irrationally optimistic.
The two are bound to be linked.
Both shooting guards taken in consecutive order in the NBA Draft, it was impossible to praise Luke Kennard’s rookie season without someone out there chirping up that thePistons should have taken Donovan Mitchell.
Now, I’ll acknowledge from the get-go that this is a pretty strong Kool-Aid. Like dumping two packets into one pitcher kind of level and, of course, adding a generous addition of vodka. To suggest that a guy who posted seven points per game is about to play near the same level as a guy who posted 20 points per game might be a bit crazy. RIP to my Twitter mentions after this post goes up...
It’s not to take anything away from Donovan Mitchell. He’s an immensely talented player who brings exactly what the Jazz offense needs. Mitchell was deservedly in the Rookie of the Year conversation last season while Pistons fans mostly grumbled about having to settle for Luke Kennard.
I fully expect both players to have strong seasons. Just that Kennard’s improvement will be better.
The key is opportunities for growth. Last year Quinn Snyder unleashed Mitchell, putting him in a great position to thrive. But without major developments in difficult areas of his game, it’s difficult to see how Mitchell takes a huge step forward.
No, players don’t generally peak in their second seasons and this isn’t to suggest that’s what Mitchell will do. But development also isn’t linear and it’s not uncommon for players to take some time to take a next step. Mitchell’s rookie season was so good that it’s difficult to see him taking a next step. I’ll go into more detail in a bit.
For now, let’s start with Kennard and why he’s primed for taking that next step.
The Pistons need Kennard. They need floor spacers on the wings to keep things open for Reggie Jackson, Blake Griffin, and Andre Drummond. They need guys who can move without the ball, a staple of the Toronto Raptors offense.
Kennard was drafted ahead of Mitchell for one reason. That floor stretching ability. In his rookie season, he showed it was legitimate.
Luke Kennard shot 41 percent from three and had a 66 percent effective field goal percentage in catch and shoot situations, good enough to put him in the 96th percentile in the league. Sham Mohile of BBall Index summed it up nicely:
All the rookies in NBA history with at least 7 ppg on at least 44% FG, 41% 3PT, and 85% FT splits (min 20 games played):— Sham (@shamshammgod) August 13, 2018
Dude can really shoot the ball. But one thing you might have noticed from the clips above was just how many of his looks came from above the break. That was definitely the case. Kennard wasn’t just hanging out in the corner, he was aggressively looking for his shot from some pretty deep spots - even though it seemed at times like he passed up too many shots compared to Langston Galloway and Anthony Tolliver.
163 of his three point attempts came from above the break, with only 32 coming in the corners. That’s a critical skill for Kennard to bring to the table since Glenn Robinson III is a bit of a corner specialist (shooting 46 percent on corner threes for his career) and it’s the only spot Stanley Johnson has knocked them down so far (34 percent career on corner threes).
Reggie Bullock is also a very good three point threat from all over the court, so it lets Bullock and Kennard stretch the court from those directions while Robinson and Johnson can hang out in the corners. And Andre Drummond too, if you’re buying into his three point summer delusions.
Legitimate three point threats around Reggie Jackson, Blake Griffin, and Drummond are huge. It makes the Jackson-Dre pick and roll that much more effective. It makes bringing a double team on Blake that much more risky.
To be sure, Kennard still needs to make quite a jump to catch up with Mitchell on the offensive end. Mitchell was Rookie of the Month four times last season and had a great claim for Rookie of the Year, Kennard averaged 7.6 points per game. Yeah. But even looking closer at some of the numbers, Kennard only averaged 13.7 points per 36 minutes. He wasn’t great inside the arc. He wasn’t as bad defensively as expected, but still wasn’t an asset on that end.
But the biggest spot for growth for Kennard is his scoring inside the arc. He has a versatile array along with a tremendous midrange game - he shot 49.2 percent on midrange shots, which was among the best in the league.
Still, too often that meant that Kennard would settle for a jumper rather than attacking the rim. He had 122 attempts from midrange and only few more attempts (148) in the paint. Much of this was due to his his lack of explosiveness or athleticism. He was often able to make up for it with savvy.
But rookies can only be so savvy.
Kennard shot just 44 percent in the paint, with most of his troubles coming from outside the restricted area where he shot 31 percent.
There’s plenty of room for improvement along with reason to believe that he should be able to make it come to pass. One of the biggest assets Kennard brings to his play from close is his ambidextrousness. It was always reported how he threw the football with his right hand as a high school quarterback while shooting the basketball with his left, and it came in handy (pun intended) as a rookie.
But usually only when he had time to be deliberate. The next step for Kennard is to be able to play faster and use that savvy to his advantage without coming to a complete stop to rely on pump fakes and pivots. Kennard has mentioned Manu Ginobili as a player he studies, and adding some more Manu to his game could be a great way to go.
There’s reason to project for a jump for Kennard based on his track record. He went from 11.8 points per game as a freshman at Duke to 19.5 points per game as a sophomore. And he did it while relying less on his three point shot, even though he improved his three point percentage considerably.
Instead, he attacked the rim. This led to more attempts from two and, vitally, more trips to the line. Kennard averaged just 2.6 free throw attempts per 100 possessions last season. He can easily up that number by better being able to trust his scoring ability in the paint. And once he gets to the line, he’s above 80 percent with ease - shooting 85.5 percent last season.
Mitchell and Kennard are such a study of contrasts. Where Kennard is deliberate Mitchell is a bowling ball.
Both styles have their place and are important. And each respective style is just what their team needed.
Utah already had plenty of patient, deferential players on their roster. Replacing Gordon Hayward, they needed an alpha scorer. Meanwhile the Pistons already have their alphas in Jackson and Griffin, making an efficient player who thrives off the ball more valuable.
So I hope that makes it clear. Mitchell does a lot of things that Kennard isn’t capable of. That said, he’s also at risk of stalling this year.
Part of the reason for that is his supporting cast. While the Pistons have done a nice job of bringing along personnel that should spread the court, the Jazz haven’t.
Ricky Rubio deserves plenty of credit for Mitchell’s surprising success from three last season, setting Mitchell up for lots of open catch and shoot looks. Rudy Gobert was an excellent pick and roll partner for Mitchell. Derrick Favors had a nice bounce-back season.
But none of those guys can shoot.
For a player who relies so heavily on a downhill style attacking the rim, it already made for some crowded spots for Mitchell last season.
They swapped Rodney Hood for Jae Crowder at the deadline last season, adding another weak shooter to the mix. Mitchell’s athleticism can make the most of packed paints, but how about a little help?
Just check out how the Hornets played him in one of the above clips February.
Kemba Walker’s disrespect toward Rubio...
But the bigger issue is what Mitchell is supposed to do with this? And it’s only going to be more of an issue next year. On the bright side though, those unis are sick.
Mitchell’s lack of shooting could also be an impediment for taking the next step. In looking at a player’s development, it’s more likely that the game slows down for them than they suddenly develop an effective jumper. Looking back through other players with rookie seasons like Mitchell, players like Tyreke Evans and John Wall had second seasons about on par with their rookie years.
Mitchell is likely a better shooter than either of those two, but his ball dominant role with the Jazz puts him in a similar position. Only 18 percent of his shots came from catch and shoot, where he had a 60 percent effective field goal percentage. But 43 percent were from pull up shots, on which he had a 43 percent eFG.
If we’re going to project improvement on a weakness for Kennard, it’s only fair to project it for Mitchell too. But it’s tough to see how he gets dramatically better on these shots. Many of them are just tough shots.
Mitchell’s game will likely have a reliance on some contested shots. That’s part of life as a first option on offense. He’s already getting to the rim a ton. He’s already making a lot of really difficult shots. Where’s the next step supposed to come from?
That’s a spot where his lack of a midrange shot hurts. He shot 40 percent from midrange, which isn’t terrible. But it’s enough that teams will give him that over the 61.7 percent he shoots at the rim. An opposing team’s entire defensive strategy against the Jazz will be to force Mitchell into shots as far from the rim as possible. Meanwhile Kennard will have the benefit of sliding under the radar.
Even if Mitchell only manages to repeat his performance, 20 points per game on 54 percent true shooting percentage along with some nice facilitating numbers is nothing to sneeze at. But if Kennard is able to generate, say, 16 points per game on 58 percent TS...
It depends on what you value. If it’s a creator who serves as the focal point of the offense, sure. But if efficiency, floor spacing, and a dangerous off the ball threat is your jam, this season Kennard will make for much less Spida envy.