There’s no denying Luke Kennard’s unmistakable improvement.
Last year, he was overshadowed by fellow freshman Brandon Ingram, who went on to be the No. 2 NBA draft pick in June.
Coming into this season, he was overlooked because of the incoming star freshmen class and key returning veterans. He wasn’t expected to be a starter, let alone Duke’s leading scorer. A year ago, coach Mike Krzyzewski said a young Kennard needed to play better, that his toughness and sharpness from practice wasn’t translating to games.
The Duke sophomore is at the forefront of a Blue Devils team prepared to make a run for the national championship. The 6-6, 220-pound guard leads Duke (12-1) with 20.4 points a game, third best in the ACC as the Blue Devils open league play Saturday at Virginia Tech.
Going into ACC play, Kennard, who was supposed to come off the bench had the team been healthy going into the season, is one Duke’s most efficient players. One of the league’s most improved scorers, Kennard has shot 59 percent since scoring a career-high 35 points against Maine on Dec. 3.
“I’m proud to say I think I’m better than I was last year,” he said after Duke’s 88-67 win over William and Mary on Nov. 23. He scored a season-low 11 points but distributed six assists.
Kennard has finished scoring in double figures in each game — all starts — this season.
“I put in a lot of work this offseason,” he said. “I think one of the main things I worked on my offseason was my aggressiveness, especially on the offensive end. The coaches really wanted me to work on that, and my leadership ability.”
Kennard has had a 30-point game and three 20-point games in the stretch since Maine. In that time, he’s 42-of-71, scoring 125 of Duke’s 409 total points.
Duke had perhaps its worst offensive half against Tennessee State on Dec. 19, finishing with a season-low 65 points in the victory. The Blue Devils (12-1) shot 28 percent from the floor in the first half, another season-low. Kennard, however, went 3-of-3 in the first, completing his 7-of-10 night with 24 points.
A reliable Kennard has been sagacious in shot selections. He leads the team in minutes, able to play for long stretches on the floor. He strengthens runs, knocking down back-breaking shots in big moments.
He capped Duke’s 18-0 run against UNLV by racing ahead of the pack in transition for a triple.
The Blue Devil needed a big second half to shake off Michigan State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Nov. 29. A Kennard steal produced a Frank Jackson 3-pointer, and then the 43-percent 3-pointer shooter hit a trey to give his team its first largest lead of the game in the second.
Though he went 4-of-15 from the field in Duke’s win over Appalachian State earlier this season, he knocked down nine of 10 free throws.
“Last year helped a lot, with the speed of the game and all that, but being more aggressive is something I really worked on during the offseason,” said Kennard, who also leads the team with 35.8 minutes.
Had Duke been completely healthy, Kennard was supposed to come of the bench with Jackson.
The Blue Devils still aren’t 100 percent. Star junior guard Grayson Allen was suspended indefinitely after tripping Elon’s Steven Santa Ana on Dec. 21, Allen’s third tripping offense. Freshman forward Harry Giles has played a few minutes in just two games after making his debut against Tennessee State.
When Duke is all the way there, Kennard will be outshined by none.
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan
Duke at Virginia Tech
When: Noon Saturday
Where: Cassell Coliseum, Blacksburg, Va.