Luke Kennard checks most of James Jones’ boxes, fills needs for Suns
For all that James Jones has tried and successfully added to the Phoenix Suns in his first year as general manager, his team still needs a whole lot of work, as expected with the job he took on.
Removing defense from the equation for the opening proceedings of our discussion, the Suns’ biggest weakness this season has been dribble creation and shooting, both of which you can’t really put on Jones a ton.
For ball-handlers, the spinning around of Tyler Johnson’s role from the third guard to backup point guard to only backup two-guard to not being in the rotation to playing spot minutes appears to have nauseated him out of being an effective guard. Ty Jerome being thrown into NBA action after missing over a month due to a season-opening injury looked to overwhelm him and he’s just starting to find his footing.
As for shooting, a lot of “he can shoot!” added up to one of the league’s least efficient three-point shooting teams, as further detailed here.
By trading for someone like Detroit Pistons guard Luke Kennard, as reported being in the discussion by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, both of those problems are ailed while adding a few bigger long-term roster-building questions.
Let’s begin with the player the Suns could be getting in Kennard.
Kennard is a 23-year-old lefty combo guard in his third year out of Duke since going No. 12 in the 2017 NBA Draft.
In the midst of a career year, he’s averaging 15.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game on 44.2% shooting from the field, 39.9% at three-point range on 6.5 attempts per game and 89.3% for foul shots.
The buzz out of Detroit for Kennard’s breakout year is due to him being more of a combo this season and even a point guard due to injuries.
Kennard was always a high-IQ ball mover for the Blue Devils but his pick-and-roll prowess has been his main evolution in the NBA.
He will make secondary reads.
Kennard runs a lot of two-man game with Andre Drummond, where he could use some of that cohesion to mesh with Deandre Ayton. Of all the Pistons’ two-man lineups featuring Drummond, the one with Kennard has the highest net rating of 0.7 in over 700 minutes.
He knows how to eject on his own scoring endeavors to find the large person close to the rim for the shooty hoop.
Kennard’s first step has also gotten just good enough now to where he can create enough separation to be a nuisance and set-up man. He would be good for Kelly Oubre Jr. and Mikal Bridges’ cuts in that regard.
He’ll get saucy with it from time to time too.
Those examples are a way to display that Kennard is far more than a catch-and-shoot guy who complements it with some scoring, and some efficient scoring at that.
Kennard’s true shooting percentage has been at least a solid 56% in all three of his seasons, and on a 19.6 usage percentage this year, his TS% is a career-best and great 58.9%.
Those are the returns from when Kennard was a lottery prospect thanks in part to his shooting and the combination of fluidity and craft to make that shot off the dribble.
When delving deeper into the numbers of his good shooting numbers, it gets a little bit wonky and there’s a precedent that needs to be laid out for the player he is.
Kennard is shooting a strong 45% from the long mid-range, where he takes a high 15% of his shots and 31% of ’em from mid-range overall.
Of the 51 players in the league who take at least five pull-up jumpers per game, Kennard is middle of the pack at 39.3%. That part of his game is not a weakness necessarily, but also not a strength like Devin Booker’s elite 44.4% number.
With all the threes Kennard is jacking, those numbers combine into a guy who doesn’t shoot at the rim much. Only 17% of his shots come there, one of the lower numbers in the league, but he was at 63% efficiency there last year and 67% this season, so he converts well enough at least.
But that comes back to his pre-draft concerns of athleticism and creating separation.
He prefers to rely on his touch from the short mid-range, which has been average to below average in his career, compared to challenging a rim protector.
As you might guess, he ranks in the lower tier of guards in getting to the line at 2.7 free throw attempts per game.
You have to use Kennard in a specific way and his teammates have to be ready to get the ball when he has to bail when there’s not enough room to finish.
Monty Williams is capable of doing that and the Suns’ roster is only asking for Kennard to run the show for minutes here and there as the first guard off the bench.
Ricky Rubio and Booker will still run the show mostly and that’s where Kennard’s sniper traits as a spot-up shooter will be welcomed with open arms. Kennard shoots 42.2% on catch-and-shoot three-pointers this season, a very good number and one that would be the best on the Suns.
Slipping in actions like this off the primary ball-handler is what Williams has done with Cam Johnson already and he could do more of with Kennard.
Through all of that, we can agree that Kennard is a good target for Jones.
At this time, the price Wojnarowski is reporting is a package built around a first-round pick, Jevon Carter and Elie Okobo. Okobo’s progress in his second season has been less than encouraging and Carter’s positive impact has waned throughout the year.
Both aren’t worth much as assets, and assuming that first-round pick is protected from the tippity-top of the draft, that’s a fine price to pay for Kennard.
Assuming he plays both guard spots and some three-guard looks are sparingly implemented as well, it’s enough room in the rotation to give up assets for a player in Kennard who would primarily play behind Booker, the team’s best player.
With the minutes, however, that Rubio, Booker, Kennard, Bridges, Oubre and Cam Johnson would command, that doesn’t leave much room for Jerome beyond a smidge of 8-15 minutes a night behind Rubio. That can’t be what Jones imagined for Jerome’s role the next few seasons after using a first-round pick on him just seven months ago.
The main unanswerable is if Jones would tip his scales too unfavorably by adding “his type of player” again in Kennard. Let my comrade Kevin Zimmerman cover it here.
The links to young players in the ACC and ones with connections to vice president of basketball operations Jeff Bower, who drafted Kennard in Detroit, are there and you can choose to be as concerned as you want to be.
That and accepting guys with injury red flags like potentially Kennard’s right knee that has seen him miss a significant stretch this season is at least an unignorable trend.
Beyond that, Kennard shares attributes with Jones’ most recent two first-round picks in defense being a primary weakness, and to the point where their athleticism can be questioned some on the big NBA levels. Johnson has been better than expected but we’ve seen Jerome slam right into that wall as a rookie.
How much does that philosophy come back to bite the Suns at this point, and even worse if it continues? Speaking in the present, those issues seem more worthy of critiquing in a few years’ time where the Suns’ ceiling might solidify lower than warranted.
Right now, they’ve got to address the holes on the roster and take the losses on some of the shortcomings that come with it, whether that’s less than ideal asset management or the weaknesses of those players. That’s what Jones has been doing a fine job at and would keep doing by acquiring Kennard.