It’s time for the Pistons to unleash Luke Kennard

MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 03: Luke Kennard
MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 03: Luke Kennard /

The Detroit Pistons lost to the Miami Heat on Wednesday night 111-104 without Reggie Jackson or superstar center Andre Drummond. In a results-oriented league, rarely does a loss qualify as an encouraging performance, but there were a lot of good takeaways from this game.

In a lot of ways, Wednesday’s loss gave the Detroit Pistons fans a lot more of what they’ve been clamoring for as of late:

  • Reggie Bullock had another solid game as a member of the starting five, finishing +3 with 17 points on 5-of-8 shooting from three-point range.
  • Boban Marjanovic filled up the stat sheet in lieu of Drummond, adding 15 points, nine rebounds, and a career-high three assists on the evening.
  • And Luke Kennard came off of the bench to score double-digits in points for the second straight game, while finishing a team-best +4 in a losing effort.

A few weeks ago, Braden Shackelford wondered what could become of Kennard if the rookie were to gain an increased role on the team.

After injuries to Avery Bradley, Stanley Johnson, and most recently Reggie Jackson, it seemed like a certainty that Pistons fans would see Kennard on the floor a lot more towards the end of December – except that wasn’t exactly the case.

In the seven games that Bradley missed, Kennard averaged a paltry 18.5 minutes per game, which is about on par with his floor time since the beginning of November.

Kennard Has Earned His Opportunity

The recent emergence of Reggie Bullock has given Pistons fans a lot to be excited about, especially given how poorly the starting unit was playing together. But while Bullock has definitely been a bright spot as of late, Stan Van Gundy shouldn’t be giving away minutes at Kennard’s expense.

This isn’t about the need to develop Kennard or to see what he can do with a bigger sample size.

Kennard has already earned the right to see more minutes in the Pistons’ rotation.

The Pistons are outscoring opponents by 8.4 points per 100 possessions with Kennard on the floor this year. The team is much more efficient offensively with him on the court, sporting an improved effective field goal percentage (+4.0 percent), true shooting percentage (+3.4 percent), and field goal percentage (+3.2 percent) when Kennard is in the game.

Detroit is averaging 107.8 points per 100 possessions with Kennard off of the floor, compared to 116.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the court.

The biggest surprise comes defensively, where the Pistons are 2.8 points better per 100 possessions with Kennard on the floor. Not known for his defense coming out of college, the rookie has competed and held his own on the defensive end on several occasions already this year.

At +6.8, Kennard ranks fourth among qualified NBA rookies in Net Rating – just behind Jayson Tatum (+7.5) and ahead of some of his more esteemed peers like Ben Simmons (+2.1) and Donovan Mitchell (-0.1).

He also ranks fourth in offensive rating (109.3) and sixth among qualified rookies in defensive rating (102.5).

There has been a lot of criticism surrounding the decision to select Kennard over Mitchell in last year’s draft, but a closer comparison between these two players shows that they aren’t too far off from one another statistically.

Comparing Kennard and Mitchell

Both players are in their age 21 seasons, but Mitchell has already started almost as many games (28) as Kennard has appeared in this season (31). Through the first 36 games of the season, Mitchell has already logged more than double the amount of floor time that Kennard has seen so far this year (1114 to Kennard’s 532).

That may not seem like a big deal, but in less than half of a season, Mitchell has essentially accrued more than double the in-game NBA experience that Kennard has to this point in their respective careers.

Quin Snyder’s faith in Mitchell and his willingness to let the rookie play through his mistakes have allowed him to turn into an immediate contributor in Utah.

Snyder allowed Mitchell to struggle through nights where he clearly didn’t have it going during the month of November and it helped the rookie build an unshakeable confidence in his offensive game.

While the rookie was magnificent for most of the month, he also endured a 3-for-21 shooting performance against Philadelphia and a 1-for-10 night against Chicago before really getting the ball rolling on his Rookie of the Year campaign.

Since that Nov. 22 game against the Bulls, Mitchell is averaging 22.8 points per game.

He’s gone from averaging 22.1 minutes per game in the month of October to playing 36.4 minutes per game over the team’s last five games, after averaging 34.2 minutes a night during the month of December.

Mitchell’s usage rate (28.5 percent) is more than 10 points higher than Kennard’s (17.7 percent), which has helped him earn better per-game averages than the Pistons’ rookie in nearly every statistical category.

But that doesn’t mean Kennard hasn’t flashed potential in his own right.

At 6.5 points per game, Kennard’s numbers don’t immediately jump off of the page, but the Pistons’ first round pick has contributed at a high level when given the opportunity.

Consider this.

Mitchell has only had five games this season where he has played under 25 minutes and taken eight shots or less. In those games, he’s averaging a miserable 4.0 points per game on 25.0 percent shooting in 18.6 minutes of floor time.

That’s about the relative court time and usage rate that Kennard has been seeing on a nightly basis since the beginning of November.

There’s something to be said about allowing rookies to get into the flow of the game and that means giving them ample playing time on a consistent basis.

Kennard has played 20 or more minutes in only eight games this season. In those games, he’s averaging 12.0 points per game on 48.6 percent shooting from the field and 53.5 percent shooting from three-point range in just 24.8 minutes of action.

When comparing Kennard and Mitchell’s shooting splits, it’s easy to see that the Pistons’ rookie has been ultra-efficient from beyond the arc this year. He’s shooting a blistering 43.2 percent from three-point range for the season on 2.4 attempts per game.

But beyond simple field goal percentages, Kennard and Mitchell have comparable advanced stats too.

The Pistons’ rookie owns a true shooting percentage of 54.4 percent compared to Mitchell’s 54.6 percent. Kennard has taken 41.8 percent of his field goal attempts from beyond the arc, while Mitchell has shot 40.3 percent of his attempts from deep so far this year.

Kennard owns an offensive rating of 103 and a defensive rating of 107. Mitchell comes in at 102 and 107, respectively.

What separates these two players at this stage in their development is Mitchell’s ability to get to rim and his remarkable efficiency around the basket.

Kennard actually shoots better than Mitchell from 10-to-16 feet, 16-to-23 feet, and from three-point range, but has shot just 47.4 percent from inside of three feet and only 26.1 percent from 3-to-10 feet.

Meanwhile, Mitchell is shooting 64.5 percent from inside of three feet, while taking nearly 30 percent (29.9) of his attempts at the rim.

Conversely, Kennard has only taken 10.7 percent of his attempts at the rim and 13 percent of his attempts between 3-and-10 feet.

Unleashing Luke Kennard

Not only does he stretch the floor, but Kennard has also been one of the Pistons’ best isolation scorers this season.

Kennard is scoring 1.25 points per possession in one-on-one situations this season, which ranks fourth in the NBA among qualified rookies. That mark also ranks first on the team among players who have been in isolation situations at least one percent of the time.

Only 37.2 percent of Kennard’s made field goals inside the arc have been assisted on this season; however, he’s being used in isolation sets just 1.9 percent of the time when he’s on the floor.

Compare that to a few other Pistons and you’ll immediately see that number needs to change.

Take Reggie Jackson for example.

The Pistons point guard finds himself in isolation opportunities 12.7 percent of the time, but averages just 0.81 points per possession in those situations.

Andre Drummond is in isolation 11.3 percent of the time and scores 0.75 points per possession.

Meanwhile, Stanley Johnson has scored just 0.33 points per possession this year, but still finds himself in isolations 5.4% of the time when he’s on the floor.

Avery Bradley? He nets just 0.61 points per possession, despite going one-on-one 3.6 percent of the time.

It seems clear that Kennard deserves more opportunities with the ball in his hands.

But, let’s face it.

On a Pistons team likely headed to the playoffs, the rookie is more likely to play a secondary role in Van Gundy’s offensive attack. That’s why it is so encouraging to see Kennard already learning how to move without the ball effectively and use his shooting ability to open up opportunities for easy buckets at the rim.

Check out Kennard shake loose from Wayne Ellington for his first career dunk in Wednesday’s game against the Heat:

In the fourth quarter, Kennard takes advantage of an aggressive close out by Ellington to convert an and-1 opportunity.

With all that being said, it is time for the Pistons to finally unleash Kennard and allow him to become a major contributor on this team.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be growing pains.

Van Gundy already admitted to being a little too harsh on the rookie in mid-December, after Kennard was yanked following two mental mistakes in the first minute of a game against the Orlando Magic on Dec. 17.

“I know coach is going to be hard on me. He told me that and I’m completely fine with that — I want him to be,” Kennard said following the quick hook. “I want to become a really good player and if that’s what it takes, I’m all for it.”

Next: Does Galloway deserve more minutes?

Kennard has since accepted the challenge and promptly responded, posting numbers that make his presence on the floor undeniable.

And now, it is time to reward him for it.