After Duke beat Georgia Southern, coach Mike Krzyzewski singled out one player the Blue Devils need to play better: freshman Luke Kennard.
“Luke has to play better,” Krzyzewski said after the Dec.15 game. “Luke, in practice the last three days, had been lights out. Sharp, tough, whatever. He hasn’t translated that to a game.
“He potentially can put up big numbers.”
Kennard responded in Duke’s next game – a 77-75 overtime loss to Utah – with the best performance of his young career. On a night when the rest of the backcourt shot a combined 11-for-50 from the floor, Kennard led all scorers with 24 points on an efficient 5-for-9 shooting.
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He was especially effective at getting to the line, the spot on the floor where he excels the most. Kennard is shooting 94.4 percent from the free-throw line this year, and he went 12-for-13 against Utah. No other Duke player attempted more than four free throws.
Kennard arrived on campus with a reputation as a sharp shooter, a McDonald’s all-American who had been a volume scorer in high school (averaging 38.1 points his senior year) without being a terrible teammate who refused to pass or defend. That scoring prowess hasn’t consistently translated at the college level, as Kennard, like most freshman, has struggled to adjust to the speed of the game. He is shooting 39.1 percent from the floor but struggling to hit from 3-point range, making just 27.1 percent of his attempts.
Krzyzewski pointed to his success at the free-throw line as proof that he is a good shooter – the speed of taking a free throw is the same in high school and college. But the coaching staff has extensively worked with him on putting himself in positions to receive a pass and shoot quickly – which requires the court vision to think a few beats ahead – and speeding up his release once he does get the ball.
In practices, according to his coaches and teammates, Kennard has made the adjustment and oftentimes is Duke’s leading scorer. But when he was inserted into the starting lineup after Amile Jefferson’s foot injury, he struggled against Georgia Southern, one of the two weakest teams Duke will play this year. Kennard went 4-of-13 from the floor and 1-for-7 from deep for 11 points.
Kennard’s uneven progress at the beginning of his career reminded Krzyzewski of another player: Grayson Allen. At this time last year, Allen was averaging 7.1 minutes per game and couldn’t even get off the bench in games against Stanford and Wisconsin. Of course, by March, Allen had found his way and saved Duke with 16 points in 21 minutes in the national championship game.
“He’s young. He’s Grayson last year,” Krzyzewski said of Kennard. “The potential to be Grayson was there all year, but it didn’t manifest. Part of it was because we had good players ahead of him. We don’t have as many players this year. So we need him. I believe he’ll come through.”
Saturday’s game against Utah was certainly a step in the right direction for Kennard. He was able to drive to the basket and draw contact, putting him in position to succeed at the free-throw line. He also grabbed five offensive rebounds – without Jefferson, all of Duke’s guards need to rebound – including one off of his own miss from 3-point range that he converted into a two-point jump shot.
And Kennard made the shot of the game in overtime: With Duke down 77-71 with 10.6 seconds left in overtime, Kennard completed a four-point play, sinking a 3 through contact and making the ensuing free throw. That gave the Blue Devils a legitimate chance to tie or win the game. Brandon Ingram’s missed layup from point-blank range kept the game from going into double overtime.
“Luke made those couple of shots, big plays,” Matt Jones said. “And obviously we had a chance to tie the game there. It just didn’t go our way. But I wouldn’t change our effort for the world.”
With just six rotation players and Chase Jeter contributing a few minutes here and there, the Blue Devils need steady production from all six of them in attempts to win without Jefferson. As Krzyzewski put it after the Georgia Southern game, “Dad lost his job, so we all have to go to work.”
And that includes Kennard.