Inspired by ESPN’s piece titled What If? Skills that could change the games of four NBA stars, we’re taking a look at what could change the games of some Clippers, perhaps elevating them to big-three consideration. Last week, we examined Reggie Jackson’s defensive shortcomings. Today: Luke Kennard.
When Luke Kennard torched the Memphis Grizzlies for 28 points last season — thus joining the elite members’ club of 4,152 NBA players to ever torch the Memphis Grizzlies — he did so by playing one way: shooting. Primarily from three. Frankly, that’s how his entire career has gone, and how he’s maintained said career’s existence. He’s grown as a player, even though he hasn’t necessarily changed as a player. He’s just kind of plodded along the same linear path, doing the same thing. That he’s good and consistent at it is the foremost pro in his game; that it’s just about all he’s good at is the biggest con.
The former Duke Blue Devil (another elite members’ club quickly forming on and around the Clippers, including the likes of Justise Winslow, Harry Giles, and Sabreena Merchant) is a human flamethrower set to one temperature only: blistering. He’s never shot worse than 39 percent from three in his four-year career (at least three percent better than the league average in each of those seasons), and shot a career-best 45 percent last season. That obliterated the league average (36 percent); most of Kennard’s shots from deep obliterate the nets they travel through.
But back to the night when Kennard out-gritted the Grizzlies — where we witnessed the peaks of Kennard’s premier skill, the one that also moonlights as a problem. It was his best game of the season (and arguably the most efficient of his career) across the board, a night bolstered by 6-of-7 shooting from beyond the arc and 10-of-16 (63 percent) from the field. Three of those makes came off the dribble, while six came from spot-ups.
One came in the paint. It was Kennard’s only attempt in the painted area all night.
It’s not necessarily a blight on his resume from that evening that Kennard only visited the lane once. But it helps paint a blueprint for stopping him. Even though he’s a phenomenal shooter, Kennard has a tendency to settle. He did it at Duke; he did it in Detroit, even during his best season as a Piston in 2019-20. He has never expanded his game beyond being a pure shooter, which in some cases can prove beneficial. For the Clippers, a team that is more than comfortable with Kennard coming off the bench, perhaps all they need is for him to be a resident marksman, pulling and draining from deep while their stars handle most of the offensive dirty work.
But those stars, Kawhi Leonard in particular, have health concerns and are operating within a championship window that is closing at a rapid pace. While they stand pat, the rest of the West continues to reimagine ways to topple the Lakers. The Clippers, for their many strengths, don’t always have the same five-man operation feel as a Denver or Phoenix; Kawhi Leonard and Paul George do their things, and the rest of the team fills gaps where they see fit. Maybe it’s because some of the team’s key players in the past haven’t given it enough reason to shy away from that approach.
Kennard can change that by developing a sensibility for when to attack the rim and to create off the dribble, not instead of shooting from three, but in addition to it. Because even his best games, like the April 21 outing in Memphis, are over-populated by pull-up threes and barren of rim penetration entirely. His presence beyond the arc does help to space the floor, but it simultaneously limits the Clippers' options when other players either 1) run into defensive brick walls on their way to the rim or 2) can’t get their own shots to fall due to tight coverage. A team can only turn to their shooters so often before defenses figure them out, too; that story is pretty unflinching, only to be rendered moot if the shooter in question is named Steph Curry.
That’s probably the reason Kennard has maintained a career average of 9.4 points per contest while almost always positioned in a role that beckons anywhere from 12 to 16 points a night. He’s always been too selective with his shots, particularly from where he takes them. Last season, he took a whopping 53 percent of his shots from three, according to Cleaning the Glass, which placed him in the 74th percentile among all combo guards. Conversely, just 13 percent of his attempts came at the rim — that put him in the ninth percentile among combo guards. Last season’s at-the-rim frequency was tied for the lowest rate of his career, while his rate from three was tied for the highest.
Here are Kennard’s frequencies in full. Note how they’ve evolved over the course of his career:
Just about every year, Kennard has gravitated further and further away from the rim. Perhaps it’s a comfort thing, or maybe it has more to do with the role he’s been assigned. But it’s not as if he’s been completely invaluable when slashing toward the rim. He’s shown flashes aplenty, particularly when he was in Detroit. And though videos of his career highlights in Detroit are, in my opinion, somewhat embarrassing due to the fact that 92 percent of the clips included are just of Kennard spotting up from three, they do feature a few instances of Kennard looping toward the rim and finding open shots. Even better: they often feature him finding open teammates.
With the Clippers — where he messed around and averaged a career-low 1.7 assists last season on top of the career-low tendencies in close — Kennard has faded into the background, merely taking up space for the most part unless he’s launching from beyond the arc. On his big night against the Grizz, he only missed six shots, and sure, you’re not going to see every single shot you take during a heater go through the net. But if you are riding a heater, wouldn’t you aim to refrain from settling? Kennard didn’t do that on just about all six of his misses in that game. Instead, he rushed into ill-advised leaning jumpers or forced fading ones rather than keeping his dribble alive, drawing two, and dishing to Ivica Zubac for a much easier shot than Kennard is bound to chuck up from an awkward position.
Zubac is, in fact, probably the best sort of partner for Kennard to use as a dish-off option when he attacks, à la Andre Drummond from his Detroit days. When Kennard attacks, particularly to the right side, he draws multiple defenders who are trying to force a tougher shot from what is already Kennard’s weak side. He’s strong with his right hand, but as a natural lefty, swooping layups just are not going to come with the same sort of ease as if they were coming on the left side. But as a passer, Kennard might as well be labeled ambidextrous; evidently, he has no problem lobbing balls over his head to taller, leaping teammates. It pays dividends for everyone involved: Zubac (or *insert rim-running teammate here*) gets an easy deuce, while Kennard evolves his game. Everybody’s happy; I can already see someone scampering back into the bellows of the Staples Center to get Steve Ballmer a Xanax. Talk about developers, amirite?
It’s an easy fix, too. Kennard is a capable ball-handler, not the best but far from the worst. And if need be, I’m sure Tyronn Lue will have no problem sending screens at Kennard’s man to provide him some man-made separation, whatever Kennard can’t create himself in a tighter area atop the key. The erstwhile Dukie becoming a slasher may seem like gravy to most. But it may actually be the meat and potatoes to the operation.
Kennard is expensive (and, like meat and potatoes coated in gravy, is about to become rich once his contract extension kicks in at the start of this season). All he has to do to prove that he’s worth it is more of what he’s shown he’s capable of doing offensively. He wasn’t drafted to become pigeonholed; he wasn’t traded for and extended to be Mike Miller. If he wants to stay out of trade talks — and remain a vital player on the current iteration of the Clippers roster, which should be expected given that he’s being paid like a borderline All-Star — development (development, development, DEVELOPMENT, DEVELOPMENT!!!!) is a must.