Luke Kennard and the Myth of Low Ceilings
When the Detroit Pistons selected Luke Kennard with the 12th overall pick of the 2017 NBA draft, there were a lot of things thrown around. Despair at not taking Donovan Mitchell, flashbacks to the various white-guys from Duke who didn’t live up to the bill in the NBA, comparisons were made to Kyle Korver and J.J. Reddick, but the term most often used was “Low ceiling.”
There is no way that Kennard didn’t hear all this noise, he’s a white guy who doesn’t jump that high, doesn’t run that fast, isn’t that tall, and has short arms. He may be able to shoot, but what else can he do? Where is the room for growth? Despite all of this, Kennard clearly never let any of it bother him, has refused to be put into the boxes others try to put on him, and keeps getting better and better.
More than just a shooter
I remember back when the Pistons drafted Kennard. I’m not a big college hoops guy so I knew little about him, after he was picked I started my deep dive buying into the basic knowledge that everyone else seemed to have on him. He was a great shooter, poor athlete, and J.J. Reddick was his ceiling. It took only minimal youtube research for it to quickly be abundantly clear that this was, by and large, a load of crap.
Just look at some of his highlights and it is abundantly clear that Luke was not just a shooter, he was a scorer who happened to be a great shooter.
Go into the statistics and it becomes even more obvious that Kennard is far from the stereotype. For starters, as a sophomore at Duke Kennard took far fewer threes than his main two comparisons of Korver and Reddick. Korver took 69% of his career shot attempts from deep and Reddick took 59% of his, and both players were much higher in their second season. For Reddick, he took 63.4% of his shots from deep in his second year at Duke and Korver took 70.2% of his from deep as a sophomore.
Kennard on the other hand, took 41.4% of his shots from deep, a high mark, but far from the “just a shooter” of his comparisons. Kennard wasn’t a off-ball complimentary player, he was a guy who entered a team with Jayson Tatum and Grayson Allen on it and became their leading scorer and, by most accounts, their best player.
But he still has a low ceiling because he isn’t a good athlete.
Here’s the thing about that. People love to look at guys who are the best athletes as having the highest ceiling all the time because they like to believe that it’s basically like 2k where you just add points in an area and get continuously better. But that isn’t how it works for almost any player.
While it is true that Kennard faces a real issue with his athleticism (more on that in a bit) there is a huge thing that many people overlook when talking about the ceiling of players.
If we say that the average NBA player starts to seriously hoop at the age of 10 (which is older than most do but we will be generous) then by the time they get to the NBA they will have already gotten between 9-12 years of development, most dudes don’t actually manage to last 10+ years in the NBA and by the end of that time they are typically starting to decline athletically. There’s only so much time that you can get better, and only so many things you can work on. As such, when a player is already so advanced by the time they enter the league, they get to move right to the finer points.
So while Stanley Johnson is still trying to learn how to shoot straight, Luke Kennard has been furiously watching Reggie Jackson to perfect a floater and to wield his ass as a weapon, typically one of the toughest skills for young players to master.
Kennard has also made great progress as a passer, he showed good instincts in both college and high school, but the progress he’s made at the NBA level is great. Kennard has an assist percentage of 12.2%, right in line with most solid passing wing-players. For reference, Reggie Bullock had been right at 12% this season, but the difference from many other wings is that Kennard gets a lot of his assists off of his own ball-handling.
He’s good at those dump-off, and excels at seeing corner shooters open. Watch the way he see’s these kick-outs coming before he actually tosses the pass.
See how he holds the ball for an extra beat to hold Zach Collins in place? Those are the little things that are the difference between Thon being wide open and contested, NBA defenses give only small margins, and since Luke already has so many of the other stuff down, he can focus on more advanced things like this.
But he still can’t really get to the rim.
This is true and it is the biggest road-block that faces Luke before he can be a legitimate scorer. Almost all guys who are big-time scorers (even if they are only high-usage in a 6th man role) are able to attack the rim and draw fouls. Kennard does manage to draw some fouls, but he is poor enough at the rim that he often doesn’t even try to to put it up when he gets there. He is blocked regularly as well.
If you are going to be a significant scorer, with the ball in your hands, and be so ineffective at the hoop, you must be some combination of elite shooting and passing. As established, Luke can pass, and boy can he shoot.
First off is the three-point shooting which is obvious but still. Kennard is shooting 39% from deep this season on high volume and shot 41% last season and he can do it any way you want. He can move off the ball for quick catch and shoot opportunities.
He can pull from absurd distances
He can stop on a dime to let fly in transition.
Most importantly, he can nail the step-back three with the ball in his hands.
Let’s talk about that step-back for a moment now. Kennard doesn’t have quite to confidence to launch these with too much regularity yet, but off-the-dribble three-pointers have become the most deadly weapon in the sport over recent seasons. Players who can regularly pull-up from deep break defenses, a pair of MVP’s in recent seasons won them largely on the back of how ungaurdable it is, and many other of the NBA’s best players utilize it.
The thing is, Kennard has shown more comfort with the shot closer to the hoop. It was a signature of his in college and has continued to be so in the NBA, which bodes well for the hope that he continues to develop the step-back from deep.
Kennard has gotten more daring in pulling these out of his bag as his career has gone on, now imagine if he’s able to start doing this to fools beyond the arc with more regularity.
But that’s still midrange for now. Midrange is bad.
Heres the thing, midrange is bad because for most players it is bad. Kennard is one of the outliers who is such a good shooter that you don’t want to let him just take mid-range shots. statistically it’s still a less efficient shot, but its effective enough coming from Luke that defenses do not want to give it away.
In today’s NBA, that is actually hugely valuable. Most NBA defenses have put their scheme in such a way that they openly invite opponents to take mid-range jumpers in order to sell out against 3-pointers. The Pistons are in fact one of these teams. But look how easy this is.
Kennard just slips right into the space that most defenses are willing to let him go, and he knocks down shots. After hitting a couple, most defenders react by trying to stay closer, and he knows how to deal with that as well.
So while he isn’t ever likely to be a big threat at the hoop, he’s so good everywhere else that he could still be a significant offensive option. It’s a hard living to make, but just this season D’Angelo Russell made an all-star game while being totally inept at getting to the rim and drawing fouls.
As Kennard gets more comfortable pulling up and using his step-back from from deep it will open up the floor further for him. On top of that, he competes on defense and has good hands and instincts. he will never be any sort of an elite defender but other than size mismatches he rarely is a huge hole on defense.
It also gives me great joy that Kennard is a really good defensive rebounder for his position, which helps him to make up for his lack of speed on the open floor.
Per 36 minutes Kennard has a line of 15 points, 3 assists, and 4.5 rebounds. And that is while noting that he has struggled to find ways to assert himself when playing with the starters. With some improved confidence and comfort with the starters he could easily be an efficient 18 points per game scorer with good facilitation. So while to many he may always be the guy drafted before Donovan Mitchell, for the Pistons, he’s exactly the guy they need going forward.