Luke Kennard is a good basketball player. In his second season, at just 22 years old, he averaged 9.7 points per game and shot 43.8% from the field and 39.4% from deep. Per 36 minutes, he put up 15.4 points and 2.9 assists on true shooting of 56%. This is all very good.
Most importantly, Kennard is the brightest star for those looking for hope that the Pistons will improve in the coming season. Strapped for cash and harnessing few trade assets, the Pistons chances to improve are either through marginal acquisitions (sign Derrick Rose, trade for Tony Snell) or internal improvement. Kennard is the young guy who has shown the most promise, so he gets a lot of that hope projected onto him.
This faith is far from blind. Many discerning basketball watchers, including myself, recognize all of the good things that Luke Kennard does on a basketball court and the ways that he could become an impact player.
But there is hope and there is talking yourself into seeing something that’s not really there.
The narrative around Kennard for many Pistons fans has gone from “he’s our best hope to have a wing player who is actually good” to, “He is incredible and the only thing that is holding him back is his teammates and/or coaches,” and it’s that second one that is an issue.
Many of Kennard’s issues, in fact, most of them, do not come from poor coaching or poor play from his teammates. Most of it is on him — and it’s about both mindset and skillset. To be clear, this doesn’t mean Kennard is not good and won’t be good. But let’s talk through the reality of Luke Kennard.
Why don’t the Pistons give Kennard the ball more? He should be taking at least 15 shots per game!
I’m not totally sure why 15 shots per game in the mark that people have landed on but it seems to be the mark people landed on in the offseason. That Kennard needs to be putting up 15 shots every night and somehow it will fix all the problems.
First off, I’d like to point out that 15 shot attempts per game is a lot of shots. Only Blake Griffin took more shots per game last season with 17.9 and second behind him was Andre Drummond with 13.3 per night.
Here’s just a few guys around the league who took less that 15 shots per game last season: Khris Middleton, Danilo Gallinari, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Kevin Love.
But that’s beside the point. Let’s just go for “Why don’t they get him more shots?” and put the numbers aside. Kennard took the 7th most shots per game and 5th most total last season, so surely he should be higher than that.
A big part of this is, in fact, Kennard himself. There are a couple of problems that Luke has in the “taking more shots” department.
First off is with three-point shooting. Kennard has a picture-perfect stroke that is compact and quick enough that he needs very little space to get it off. However, to get that compactness he doesn’t get very far off the ground or have all that high of a release point. To give a visual let’s compare a semi-contested three-pointer of Luke’s with former Piston Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
The difference is fairly stark.
It is worth mentioning, that his hyper-compacted shooting form helps to keep Luke consistent, while a guy like KCP has many highs and many lows. All that extra lift for KCP meant more movement in the air, which means he’s always shooting at a moving target. Luke isn’t.
Second, Luke is 6-foot-5 with a short (by NBA standards) wing-span. In fact, he’s one of the only active players with a windspan shorter than his listed height. Even though he doesn’t need much space to get off shots, he does need some. Although a guy like KCP, or if you want a better player, Klay Thompson, would be a great example, they have the combination of size and hops to just rise up to the point that they can shoot over people. This allows them to get off shots even when they don’t have any real space.
This also, obviously, carries over into Luke getting shots up when he is inside the arc as well. He obviously isn’t big and strong enough to do any sort of posting up, even against smaller players, and his lack of explosion, both in terms of jumping and straight-line speed, make him largely a non-threat at the hoop.
Smart defenders know that even if Kennard manages to get by them, he isn’t fast enough to pull very far away, making it easy to catch back up to bother a potential layup or floater.
As such, they largely overplay him to take jumpers. The good news is that Kennard has the right combination of handles and close-area quickness to create space with some regularity, even small mistakes by a defender will allow him to reach into his bag of tricks to get a shot off.
But that is also part of the problem. Kennard needs that small slip-up by a defender, he isn’t a guy who can overwhelm a defender in such a way that he can find his shot despite good defense.
The main issue this causes is that Kennard, when he has the ball at least, rarely forces defenses into positions that they don’t want to be in. He is excellent at exploiting any holes that pop up in the defense, but he doesn’t tear holes in a defense like, say, Blake Griffin does.
Essentially, this means Luke Kennard isn’t likely to ever be a particularly high-volume shooter regardless of scheme or setup. Kennard just isn’t going to take some of the shots that some other guys might because he isn’t physically able to get a clean enough look.
What about off the ball though?
It is certainly integral to any hope of him becoming a improved scorer. Kennard is an awesome shooter but still has a lot of work to do off the ball. He isn’t an active cutter, he doesn’t move around the perimeter with much purpose, and when he gets the ball it tends to stick. Off the ball, other than his shooting, he is basically the polar opposite of Reggie Bullock.
But a lot of that is stuff that should come with time, let’s pivot back to the issue of not forcing holes into the defense.
Why go back to it?
Because that is a huge issue for one of the big pipe-dreams surrounding Kennard. That is, Kennard as a point-guard.
To be clear, there isn’t any need to poo-poo Kennard as a ball-handler. His ability with the ball in his hands is where this fantasy originated from, the issue is that it takes more than decent handles to be given the full reins of a point-guard running the show.
A large amount of the time Luke puts on the floor it doesn’t go anywhere meaningful and the ball ends up where the defense allows it to. Many possessions where Luke handled the ball went like this.
This isn’t the worst thing in the world, it keeps the ball moving, but you can see how unconcerned the defense is by Kennard putting it on the floor. Essentially, his dribble penetration (or lack thereof) is a wet noodle. Even if he had the explosion to make something of this more often, he doesn’t drive with a much purpose, he almost always wants to be slow and deliberate, but this only exacerbates his lack of explosion as he regularly plays even slower than he already is.
When Luke Kennard has the ball, it often ends up exactly where the defense wants it, whether that is in Ish Smith’s hands on the perimeter like the above clip, or some other bad shooters hands.
But what about this season when the Pistons have some more good shooters? This only furthers how badly Ish Smith hurt Kennard’s usefulness.
First off, Ish Smith’s minutes will be taken by Derrick Rose and Tim Frazier, who have shot 30.4% and 32.9% from deep, respectively, in their careers. Maybe hold back on how much better that spacing will be. But here’s the thing, even with good shooters Luke has trouble finding them.
Luke Kennard spent 599 minutes on the floor with Ish Smith this past season and assisted on 10 of Smith’s baskets. That’s not a huge surprise because Smith doesn’t take open threes or finish inside well.
Smith wasn’t even close to Kennard’s most regular partner, the player who Kennard spent the second most minutes on the floor next to last season was Langston Galloway, (first was Andre Drummond but he, obviously, isn’t a shooter) who he shared the floor with for 738 minutes this past season. Kennard assisted Galloway just 16 times.
To put this into further perspective, Galloway was assisted on a whooping 92.5% of all of his field goals, the highest mark on the team, while Smith was assisted on just 23.4% of his field goals, by far the lowest mark.
And yet, despite that, an extra 135 minutes played with Galloway yielded just six extra assists from Kennard. For all of his flaws, Galloway managed to shoot 35.5% from deep on high volume last season and was the best shooter Kennard spent the most time with. We all also know that Galloway does not need any encouragement to shoot, if you pass him the ball and he’s open, he’s firing.
For further reference, Galloway played with Smith for 841 minutes (103 more than Kennard and Galloway shared the floor) and Smith assisted Galloway 41 times. Jose Calderon, who played less than half the number of minutes with Galloway and had to be revived with a crash cart before each shift, assisted Galloway 21 times.
This trend continues with other players as well. Kennard was only behind Smith for assists going to Thon Maker on the Pistons with nine, and he only managed to get 12 assists to Blake Griffin despite playing more than 300 more minutes next to Griffin.
The only player where his assist count is comically lower than you would hope for is with Andre Drummond, who he assisted 27 times in 784 minutes (the most minutes Kennard spent on the floor with any player last season) but Drummond is one of the easiest players to assist in the entire league.
Combine all of this together, and players who shot after receiving a pass from Luke Kennard shot 36.1% from the field and 33.1% from deep.
So Luke isn’t a good passer?
No that isn’t true. He can clearly pass, he’s got a solid basketball IQ, he’s unselfish and patient. What is true is that he isn’t a good facilitator. His passes go where the defense wants them to go, which is to an open player who can’t shoot or a covered player who can. His ball-handling and passing are just fine and even good for a secondary option, but he has struggled immensely with the most important role that a lead ball-handler has. Just for reference, passes from Reggie Jackson saw the Pistons shoot 42% from the field and 37.3% from deep.
Now that we’re here, walk this back somehow — it’s the least you can do.
The biggest argument against the shooting percentages off of his passes is that of course it’d be lower because he can’t pass to himself. Luke Kennard was never worse than the second best shooter on the team last season, passing to him was a great way for other players to boost the value their passes provided, and Kennard doesn’t get the same benefit.
Perhaps just as noticeable in all this is that Kennard really struggled to find a groove with the starting lineup. But that is something that others have, and will continue, to talk about plenty. New teammates, new skillsets and a different role off the bench could do him wonders ... maybe.
So what’s the takeaway here?
Kennard is a good player who has a lot of flaws to work through if he is going to become the player that we hope he can be, but the problem is that one of his biggest flaws (lack of explosion) isn’t something that he can just “fix.”
The main thing to remember is to point back to his per-36 numbers, which are rock-solid. If he figures out how to play with the starters and a little more polish and he can score in the upper teens per game while being a great floor-spacer. I also think his defense is better than most give him credit for. Also, if he gets more comfortable with pullup threes, then he is cooking with gasoline.
Point is, these are flaws with him. Lord knows that I have no issues with complaining about Dwane Casey’s style of coaching, but Luke Kennard’s issues are mostly self-inflicted.