Even when the shots weren’t falling, the Duke staff kept insisting that Luke Kennard was a great shooter and that it was only a matter of time.
Sunday afternoon, in a 85-52 win over Utah State, Kennard had the first great shooting performance of his career. He poured in a a career-high 22 points on 7-of-9 shooting from the floor, including a 4-of-5 mark from 3-point range. As a team, Duke shot a season-best 56 percent from the floor.
“The coaches, I met with them, and they said it will come, it will come,” Kennard said. “And as long as I do the little dirty work like getting rebounds and playing great defense, bringing energy to the floor, my shot will come.”
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At the beginning of the year, coach Mike Krzyzewski signaled out three players as Duke’s best bets for offensive production: Grayson Allen, Brandon Ingram and Kennard. Allen has carried the bulk of the Duke scoring load (and also scored 22 against Utah State), and Ingram has had a tougher adjustment to the physicality of the college game than most expected.
Sunday was the first time Kennard, a freshman, flashed his potential, but he entered the game shooting just 17.4 percent (4-for-23) from 3-point range and 33.3 percent from the floor.
Even after Kennard strung together an 0-for-9 slump against Kentucky and VCU, Krzyzewski offered unsolicited public praise for Kennard, saying he played well in his 20 minutes off the bench.
“What we’re trying to show him is that it is more than hitting a shot,” Krzyzewski said after the VCU game. “Be a good player. And he was a good player. The shots will come.”
Krzyzewski said Sunday that Kennard hadn’t brought his shot speed up to the speed of the college game. Krzyzewski pointed to the free throw line – where the game is the same speed in high school and college — and Kennard is 18-for-19 from the charity stripe. During live game action, though, Krzyzewski said Kennard needed to move quicker and get ready to shoot quicker.
“The ball comes to him at different times than it did in high school,” Krzyzewski said. “Just shooting at the speed that he is going to need to at this competition. You’re not in the right lane anymore; you’re in the left lane.”
Kennard got started quickly once he entered the game with 13:48 left in the first quarter and Duke up 16-8. He made three of his first four shots, in less than three minutes, with the last one coming on a drive that also drew a foul.
I know how hard he is working. And so, he was getting it. And that’s exciting for me, and I wanted him to see that excitement from me because I know how hard he is working for it.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski on Luke Kennard
As Kennard went back to the sideline, a fired up Krzyzewski pounded his chest and shouted a few words of encouragement. That, by the way, is an example of the type of extra emotional investment Krzyzewski thinks this team needs from him.
“I know how hard he is working,” Krzyzewski said of Kennard. “And so, he was getting it. And that’s exciting for me, and I wanted him to see that excitement from me because I know how hard he is working for it.”
At the end of the first half, it was Kennard who got the ball on the last possession, and he drove baseline, missing the shot but drawing contact. He made one free throw to give Duke a 38-27 advantage after 20 minutes.
Kennard ended the first half with 12 points in 14 minutes, and those 12 came on an efficient 4-of-5 effort from the floor.
The Blue Devils quickly turned the game into a rout with a 16-0 run to open the second half, stretching the lead to 54-27. Kennard picked up where he left off when he entered in the second half, making his first 3 and adding 10 more points.
So far this year, Kennard has shot much better in Cameron than away from it, though the level of competition (Kentucky, VCU and Georgetown) has been significantly higher away from home, too.
On the road, Kennard has shot just 2-of-14 from the field, and 0-of-9 from 3-point range. In Cameron (against Siena, Bryant, Yale and Utah State), Kennard is 18-of-34 (52-9 percent) from the floor and 8-of-19 from deep.
“I love playing here, and I love shooting here,” Kennard said of Cameron. “But I’ve got to carry that to where we go on the road.”
The best possible result from these early season games against mid-major opponents is for a young player to earn some confidence. On Saturday, it was Kennard who took advantage of that opportunity.
“I’m trying to get my shot back, get my rhythm back,” he said, “And I think tonight was the beginning of it.”