By: Will Burchfield
Luke Kennard’s eyes widened and a smile spread across his face when asked about Stan Van Gundy’s harsh appraisal of his defensive play.
Apparently Kennard didn’t catch Van Gundy’s press conference after the Pistons selected him No. 12 overall in Thursday night’s draft.
The Pistons head coach, while praising Kennard’s offensive abilities, questioned his work ethic on the other end of the floor.
“That’s an area where he’s gotta get a lot better, and quite honestly he’s gotta take a lot more pride in it than he did this past year,” said Van Gundy.
“So we’ll have our first talk tomorrow,” he added.
A lack of pride? A sit-down with Van Gundy?
This was all seemingly news to Kennard, who, during his introductory press conference on Friday, turned to his left with a bemused look on his face and sized up Van Gundy as if to say, Oh, is that so?
Van Gundy smiled too when asked if their talk has happened.
“No, we’re gonna wait on that,” he said.
Then Kennard interjected with knowing grin.
“It’ll come,” he said.
The Pistons love Kennard for his offense. Van Gundy couldn’t stress that enough on Thursday night. The versatile guard can knock down threes, create off the dribble and get to the line, where he rarely misses.
But to get on the floor in his rookie season, Van Gundy made it very clear Kennard will have to improve — and reapply himself — defensively. Kennard is confident in his ability to make the necessary strides.
“Very confident,” he said. “I’m a very competitive player, just wanting to defend is a big thing for me. I think one of the things I want to improve on is strength, I think that’ll help me offensively and defensively.”
Between his 6’6 frame and 6’5 wingspan, Kennard has plenty of length. But he’s wiry at 200 pounds. Adding some bulk will certainly help him at the next level.
Then again, his defensive shortcomings aren’t necessarily physical. In fact, Van Gundy resists that very word.
“He’s really smart on the film, I think he has an understanding. It’s not shortcomings. He’s really just gotta focus,” said Van Gundy.
The coaching will begin soon, and it won’t be cushy. That’s not Van Gundy’s way — nor is it Kennard’s. He thrived at Duke under Mike Krzyzewski, a demanding coach in his own right.
“He was hard on me, always talking to me, always teaching me, and I’m successful in an environment like that. To play for a coach that approaches things in a similar way, I think it can be really successful,” said Kennard. “I’m looking forward to learning from (Van Gundy) because he’s a teacher of the game. I’m excited to be part of that atmosphere.”
The Pistons could have played it safe on Thursday night. They could have taken a more well-rounded player like the defensively stout Donovan Mitchell, who was drafted by the Jazz one pick after Kennard.
But they believe in Kennard’s ability to stiffen up on defense. And there’s no need to sell them on his offense.
“When we’re looking at prospects,” said GM Jeff Bower, “we’re looking for guys that are able to excel in grit, grind and mind. We feel that Luke really comes through in all those areas.”
There was a measure of eagerness in the way Kennard processed Van Gundy’s candid critiques, hearing them for the first time on Friday afternoon.
He was startled, but seemingly stirred. His eyes widened, but not in worry. His smile was almost a smirk.
Without saying a word, he conveyed two: Game on.
“You can see it on the floor that he’s got a great desire to win,” said Van Gundy. “Well, what it’s gonna take for you to get on the floor and win? You’re gonna have to get better defensively. My expectation, from everything I know about him, is he’s gonna embrace that challenge.”