NBA Teams Shouldn't Let Bias Cloud Their View of Luke Kennard
The sharp-shooting Duke wing may superficially resemble the next Doug McDermott or Nik Stauskas, but a closer look at his game reveals superior playmaking potential.
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports
When it comes to scouting NBA draft prospects, unconscious biases are hard to avoid. For example, we've previously examined Indiana's OG Anunoby, and how people can unwittingly project positive attributes and potential onto players who look a certain part, even if their current skills and statistics don't quite match.
But what about the other side of the coin? Can the same effect hold down a player's draft stock? Duke's Luke Kennard provides an interesting case study into how what we see at first glance isn't always what we get in a league prospect.
Let's start with the superficial. Kennard looks like a typical midsized spot-up shooter. Standing 6-foot-6 with a corresponding wingspan, the product of Franklin, Ohio lacks the length that NBA teams typical want from starting shooting guards. He also isn't the kind of athlete who can power down an explosive dunk from outside of the half-circle.
Instead, Kennard is a smooth-shooting marksman with an extremely high basketball IQ who gets by on guile and dexterity, and scored lots of points for the Blue Devils at a historically efficient rate. If all of that brings to mind comparisons with some other recent prospects who have enjoyed varying levels of success at the professional level—like Jimmer Fredette, Doug McDermott, or Nik Stauskas—well, that's probably your unconscious bias at work.
Take a closer look: Kennard is bigger than Fredette, a shooting guard trapped in a point guard's body. He has better ball-handling and playmaking skills than McDermott, who is less a shooting guard than an undersized forward. Compared to Stauskas, Kennard has superior body control and a stronger release.
During his two years at Duke, Kennard has drastically improved his skills, turning himself into a well-rounded offensive weapon who can handle the ball and create offense on his own. He arguably was the most efficient high-volume scorer in college basketball last season, averaging 19.5 points per game on 49 percent shooting from the field, 43.8 percent from beyond the arc, and 85.6 percent from the free throw line. Over the last two decades, only three other high-major NCAA players have matched those numbers: McDermott, Buddy Hield, and Luke Jackson. All of them did so as seniors; Kennard did it as a sophomore in a deep, competitive Atlantic Coast Conference.
Kennard's biggest leap came via overall physical strength. As a freshman, his dribble attacks against closeouts were often stymied by stronger defenders who simply cut him off. Kennard added 15 pounds over the summer, and last season was much more difficult to knock off the ball, both on the perimeter and when slashing to the basket.
Just as importantly, Kennard's improved physique made him a more consistent shooter—he was now capable of running off screens and maintaining his shot mechanics deep into games, without any dropoff. His 53.1 effective field goal percentage on jumpers off the dribble was the eighth-best mark among 221 college players with at least 90 attempts last season.
Kennard took on more responsibility for initiating Duke's offense, and was particularly successful as a pick-and-roll creator. Among the 441 players with at least 80 possessions in pick-and-roll scoring this past season, Kennard finished No. 4 overall, utilizing his shiftiness and change of pace skills to slither in and out of the paint. His lightning quick release and ability to properly align himself in mid-air off the dribble makes him a threat to pull up from all over the floor, and that, in turn, presents defenders with a conundrum. Play him soft, and he'll pull up from beyond the arc; play him tight, and he's strong on the ball.
In spot-up situations, Kennard uses his shot fake and shoulder feints extremely well, baiting defenders into hard closeouts. Once that happens, he's excellent at using a few dribbles to attack with midrange floaters and pull-up jumpers—he actually had a higher effective field-goal percentage on "runners" (53.1) than on shots at the rim in half court situations (52.1).
Beyond scoring, Kennard differentiates himself from many other offensive wings by creating looks for his teammates. Yes, he can run around screens, and likely will be most effective off the ball. But he also makes quick decisions when the ball is reserved to him, and can pass on the move, too.
What does this all mean? Simple. Kennard will excel playing off others, but also has a better chance than most wing prospects to become a secondary creator on a bench unit. He's not a true point guard. But because he can really shoot off the dribble, Kennard probably could fit well next to a smaller, defensively gifted guard like Marcus Smart or Patrick Beverley.
That's important, because Kennard will need to be hidden on defense. He's a smart player, sure, but he often gets lost on that end of the floor. His below-average sliding speed makes him a liability at the point of attack, and his lack of length makes him a weak disruptor who doesn't generate deflections or jam up passing lanes. Fortunately for Kennard, it's easier to hide wings than to hide undersized point guards or slower big men, as their height-athleticism combination relative to other positions makes them less prone to extreme mismatches on switches.
So long as Kennard's offensive skills translate to the next level, he'll find a role in the NBA. Will league talent evaluators be able to see that? Probably. Many of them are aware of those aforementioned unconscious biases, including the tendency to compare players by skin color.
Kennard is white. (Please, save your #sneakyathletic hashtags). But his best recent NBA comparable isn't Fredette, McDermott, or Stauskas, all of whom are also caucasian. It's former Duke wing and current Utah Jazz player Rodney Hood, who happens to be black.
In 2014, Hood ranked No. 1 out of 525 college players with at least 70 possessions in pick-and-roll efficiency. His ability to shoot off the dribble was nearly identical to that of Kennard—1.10 points-per-possession for Hood versus 1.08 PPP for Kennard. Both players have average wingspans. (Hood is two inches taller, which adds a bit more defensive flexibility). Like Kennard, Hood is left-handed, and enjoys many of the same resulting herky-jerky advantages against defenders.
Of course, this isn't a perfect comparison. But that's not the goal. The goal is to be fair, and to figure out the most accurate possible projection for a prospect's game. Unconscious biases can make that process even more difficult. Given how the human brain works, it's awfully tough to put them aside—if we knew we were personally subject to them, they wouldn't be unconscious. But hopefully, being aware that they exist and can shape decision-making can help us avoid them.
Otherwise, those same biases may cause you to miss the talent that's right there in front of you. As Kennard shows, there often can be more than meets the eye.
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