Luke Kennard can't remember the last time he was asked to hedge a pick-and-roll.
The Detroit Pistons selected Kennard with the 12th overall pick in last year's draft primarily for his dead-eye three point shot. They weren't thinking about how deftly he might navigate the complicated particulars of playing NBA defense.
But there Kennard was, minutes into his debut, when Washington Wizards wing Otto Porter slid up the right side of the floor to set a ball screen. Instead of switching onto the ball, Kennard leapt out to keep Wizards backup point guard Tim Frazier at bay, quickly recovered back to Porter, then stole the pass.
"I've never been used to showing on a screen." Kennard told VICE Sports. "I was always just switching or getting through or something like that...[NBA game plans] are more stuff. It's definitely more stuff. It's a little more [than college], but I've been adjusting really well."
Not every similar possession will end with a turnover. Kennard is going to get beat sometimes too, and opponents will go out of their way to attack him, as they would with any rookie. But the fact that Kennard treated this new challenge as if he had first encountered it years ago bodes well for his future as an NBA defender. It's easy to see imagine how he can help the Pistons become an upwardly mobile franchise.
"[Kennard] held his own on the defensive end," Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy said when asked about his second-youngest player's debut the following night.
The Pistons are one of several Eastern Conference teams to have incidentally handcuffed themselves to mediocrity. They have a bloated payroll, with long-term money committed to a slew of average, slightly-below-average, and downright inadequate pieces at their respective positions. Guys like Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Tobias Harris, Langston Galloway, and Jon Leuer.
Avery Bradley, potentially their best player, is an unrestricted free agent this summer. Seeing as how the Pistons have no room to improve via free agency, failure to sign the 26-year-old Bradley would be a major misstep.
Detroit can see few, if any, immediate paths to upgrade its roster. As it stands, Drummond's contract is a sunk cost and Jackson is one of the most frustrating starting point guards in the league. Blowing the whole operation up at this stage would be a hopeless endeavor (they want to make the playoffs, and don't have anyone on their roster who they can exchange for a valuable future asset), which means the Pistons' best bet for the time being is to pray at least one of their recent lottery picks—Stanley Johnson, Henry Ellenson, and/or Kennard—is able to contribute in a meaningful way alongside the pieces already in place.
Internal improvement—like what we're seeing from Drummond at the free-throw line—is the only answer, and Kennard is the most promising candidate, both as an individual and someone who can make life easier for everyone else. He probably won't ever make an All-Star team or average 25 points per game, but his ceiling suggests stature as the type of complementary element who can nudge the franchise's trajectory in the right direction.
That doesn't mean the Pistons will win a championship anytime soon, but if the 21-year-old is able to exceed expectations as a versatile defender while adding new proportions to Van Gundy's flat attack, they'll be more feisty and stylish than the monotonous, predictable also-rans they've become.
Last year, the Pistons ranked 29th in corner three frequency while leading the league in the percentage of their overall field goal goal attempts launched from the mid-range, per Cleaning the Glass. It's a humongous turnaround from Van Gundy's tenure with the Orlando Magic, when he led teams that took advantage of precious on-court real estate and, stylistically, were somewhat ahead of the curve.
Taking smarter shots is a step in the right direction. Actually making them would elevate Detroit to a higher plane. But, more than that, having a shooter who moves well off the ball and can put it on the floor to create for others is invaluable. Kennard may be the answer.
Not all of his minutes so far have been bundled in a blue ribbon—the inability to drive around Doug McDermott on one play last Saturday night was slightly disturbing—but his total package offers reason for optimism in a few important areas.
By itself, Kennard's presence isn't worth much this year, and there could be stretches where he finds himself on the outside looking into Detroit's unexpectedly deep rotation (especially after Reggie Bullock returns from a five-game suspension), but his potential all-around impact alongside Drummond, Bradley, Harris, Johnson, and others, is significant.
Assuming his outside shot translates from college (he nailed 43.8 percent of his threes last season after making just 31.8 percent as a freshman), Kennard will serve as a critical spacer in Van Gundy's high pick-and-roll scheme. He'll make weakside defenders hesitate one second too long before they sink in to bother Drummond's thunderous rolls.
It creates an unanswerable conundrum the team hasn't really had before, and if he can capably initiate pick-and-rolls as a reliable second option, knock down off-the-bounce jumpers, and take care of the ball, everyone else's job gets easier.
In his first game, Kennard played with a maturity that suggests it won't take long for him to pick up the NBA game. He was poised, batting away hard closeouts with buttery one-dribble pull ups, calmly getting off the ball when there wasn't anything for him to do. Good things happened when he caught a pass.
"I know going up against some of the guys that we have, like Tobias, and going up against Avery all the time in practice," Kennard says. "He's a player that can just make you better. We have guys like that on the team, so there's nothing to really be nervous about."
The Pistons' coaching staff has made life as easy as possible on their incoming youngster by instructing him to be himself on the floor. They haven't pigeonholed him into a role that only accentuates one part of his game, planted him in the corner, or gone out of their way to hide him on the defensive end.
"They just tell me to play," he says. "They tell me to be a playmaker, shoot the ball, just be aggressive, so that's just what I'm trying to do. But a set role? It's kind of just really being myself, honestly."
As one of the more overlooked lottery picks in what's shaping up to be a loaded class, (extremely) early returns on Kennard suggest he can be exactly what the Pistons need.