The Detroit Pistons are trailing in the first round of the NBA Playoffs to the Milwaukee Bucks 2-0. They’ve lost by a combined total of 56 points, a 35-point drubbing in Game 1 and a much lesser 21-point beatdown in Game 2. Blake Griffin’s left knee is the size of a grapefruit. The other team has Giannis Antetokounmpo. Yet the first two playoff games, and the likely only two playoff games still waiting to be played by Detroit have and will mean a lot to their team.
Without Griffin, the Pistons’ offense was stymied in his absence. They’ve lost their leading scorer, the only player capable of putting his head down and getting a bucket outside of a seldom successful isolation score for him.
That was until sophomore wing Luke Kennard was unleashed midway through the first quarter of Game 1.
The Pistons scored 86 points in the first game, and Kennard scored nearly a fourth of those points, finishing the game with 21 points on 8-14 FG and 4-5 3FG. He added in four rebounds and two assists, while asserting himself as Detroit’s lone option offensively with Jackson, Wayne Ellington, Thon Maker, Langston Galloway, and every other Piston struggled to put the ball in the hoop. Jackson was the only other player to make more than four field goals in the game. The Bucks couldn’t find a way to stop Kennard, and he made them pay for it.
It was more of the same in Game 2 with Kennard. He poured in 19 points on 6-13 shooting from the field and 4-6 from distance. Again, he added four boards and two assists.
When it came down to the Pistons needing a source of offense, Kennard looked as comfortable as ever stepping into the spotlight during the biggest moments of the franchise’s history in years. While at times throughout the season he looked distraught and uneasy with a heavy workload, he looked poised and confident in these past two games.
Kennard’s shooting prowess was unmatched by any member of the Pistons. Detroit shot just 21 percent from the 3-point line in the first two games, when you take away Kennard’s eight makes. Quite frankly, he was the only player on the team that could hit the broadside of a barn, as his coach, Dwane Casey, would say.
He was scoring inside the arc as well, showing a pretty stroke in the mid-range whether it be off the dribble or curling off of screens.
Bucks’ head coach, Mike Budenholzer, noticed.
“He was a big part of that first half thrust that they put out there. Give credit to Luke, he played well,” he said.
Kennard’s offensive game is a beauty. He’s a soiree of movement and elusive ball fakes mixed, with precision shooting and elite IQ.
His IQ comes into factor in other areas other than his premeditated shooting opportunities. Since his days at Duke, Kennard has flashed cerebral passing skills as an off guard. He’s only grown in that area, and when necessary, he is able to connect on any pass he desires.
Here, he drives baseline and wraps a pass around a burly Brook Lopez, setting up Andre Drummond for an emphatic jam.
With the likes of Griffin, Jackson, Ish Smith, and even Drummond to an extent, Kennard was not relied on to do much distributing with the Pistons this season, but he can do it. He also doesn’t turn the ball over, averaging just 0.9 turnovers per game over the regular season.
Kennard plays with a silkiness and coolness to his game that is relaxing to watch. He’s not a walking highlight video, but he’s going to pick up a couple of tip your cap style plays on a gamely basis.
Excelling in the playoffs has shown Detroit that a larger role needs to be afforded to Kennard next season. He can’t be coming off the bench and flailing in the pecking order for touches and shots. He needs to be cemented behind Griffin and maybe Drummond in the order for shot opportunities through the offense. He needs to be running the offense more, as he’s capable in the pick-and-roll as well.
At just 22 years old, he is the most important player on the Pistons outside of Griffin and Drummond. In the offseason, senior adviser Ed Stefanski and assistant general manager Malik Rose need to be considerate of Kennard when making roster decisions. They should be building the roster around him, as they have Griffin and Drummond. The three-man lineup consisting of those three posted a plus-2.1 rating during the regular season, a number that shows just how effective those three are together on the court. They’ll need to add a longer, two-way small forward in free agency to pair with him on the wing.
They’ll also need to evaluate if Reggie Jackson is the right point guard to maximize the potential of Kennard. Adding Jackson to the lineup of Kennard, Griffin, and Drummond saw the rating drop, but it was still a plus-1.5. It worked, and the lineup would improve greatly with a small forward who could both shoot and defend lengthier wings.
Kennard is a player that is easy to build around. His simple offensive game, in which he has shown how dominant he can be without the ball in his hands too much, makes it easy to plug him in with ball-dominant players in Jackson and Griffin. He’s going to hurt you, it’s just a matter of how much he’s going to hurt you. That depends on how much he gets the ball. If he plays passive and doesn’t play with assertion, then he’ll hurt you, but he won’t hurt you too bad. When he plays aggressive like those two counterparts, he can knock you to the floor and keep you down. That’s probably the most important stage of development for Kennard. He has to learn to play with the confidence of a marksmen more than he did in the regular season, because when he does, he’s practically unguardable.
The Pistons have seen what an unleashed Kennard looks like in the playoffs and the results are mesmerizing. He’s a scoring savant with the ability and IQ to be an elite secondary distributor.
Unfortunately for Detroit, the playoffs have shown them that their roster is far from complete in order for them to have much success in the postseason, but it has also cemented the inevitable reality that Luke Kennard is their starting shooting guard of both the present and future. The rest of the playoffs can be used to further showcase this unveiling, and provide hope for Detroit in the wake of what will be a bleak defeat.