A new normal: How Luke Kennard emerged as Duke's steady hand in a turbulent season
- Duke guard Luke Kennard was expected to fill a complementary role this season, but he's emerged as the Blue Devils' top player.
DURHAM, N.C. — Family vacations typically take the Kennards to Lake Cumberland, which is technically the ninth-largest reservoir in the United States, a halcyon spot that’s a four-hour drive from home in Franklin, Ohio. At the three-bedroom getaway house about a mile from the lake’s south shore, ensconced in the quiet of South Central Kentucky, everyone can boat or ride four-wheelers or just put the phone aside and, even when the extended clan is on hand, dissolve into the stillness. Last summer, though, there was an urge to take a separate trip with a smaller cast, a nuclear family-only excursion. So Mark Kennard polled his two children for suggestions on destinations.
His daughter, 24-year-old Lauren, advocated anywhere that had a beach. His son Luke, who had just completed his freshman year in college, also had warm-weather ambitions: He wanted to go to Florida. This was not the surprising part. The surprising part was that Luke Kennard wanted to go to Florida so he could go to Disney World. “Guess where we went?” Mark Kennard says now, with a laugh. “That’s just Luke. He likes being a normal person.”
Should it stun anyone that the player most responsible for keeping Duke afloat this season has a soft spot for roller coasters? No, nobody on the roster has done more to steady the Blue Devils during the relentless turbulence of injuries and suspensions and drama than Luke Kennard, a metronomic 6’6” All-America lefty who leads the team in scoring and, unofficially, fewest hairs grayed. He is uncomplicated (“A no-maintenance guy,” per Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski) during a period when anything uncomplicated counts as a blessing for this program. He is normal. His production and reliability are not.
Maybe Kennard’s team at last lives up to its championship promise, beginning this week at the ACC tournament. Maybe not. Regardless, any shortcomings ought not fall on the guy who did all he could to keep the keel even, even when it looked like the whole thing might go under. “He’s been consistently excellent,” Krzyzewski says. “And the best players in the country are consistently excellent, and that’s why there are only a few of them. To start out the season, we anticipated a different group out there—he really stepped up to put us in a position where we’re one possession from being undefeated in non-conference [games]. With all that going on. And a lot of it had to do with him. He’s carried that forward.”
It’s a Thursday in March and there’s a sociology class at the top of the hour, so Luke Kennard brings breakfast with him to the media room at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The spread consists of one plastic cup he sets on a table. From the looks of it, the viscous, beige liquid inside could be a protein shake. The vitamin-rich concoction of a trainer or nutritionist, probably. This is the most important meal of the day, expertly calibrated to fuel one of the most valuable performers in the country: A guard who has the third-highest offensive rating (129.5) of any player who has used at least 20% of his team’s possessions, per kenpom.com, as well as a Win Shares total (6.5) that ranks fourth in the nation.
“It’s chocolate milk,” Kennard says. “I’m a huge chocolate milk fan.”
Naturally. He is from a pin-dot town of 11,000 residents that just about splits the distance between Dayton and Cincinnati. He had cookouts with friends and swam in his Grandma Louise’s pool between games of corn hole in her backyard. He had an annual pass to the local amusement park, King’s Island. He ate at A&G Pizza House. He took trips to the lake house with his family. He was a basketball point guard and a football quarterback and he was very good at both, winning Ohio’s Division II Offensive Player of the Year award after throwing for 26 touchdowns as a junior (He then dropped the sport to concentrate on basketball). The self-evident athletic talent aside, everything about Luke Kennard seems so resolutely typical. His backstory is basically short on story.
“The town I was from, it’s a good place to grow up,” he says. “The people back home, they don’t look at me as just being a good basketball player. They look at me as just being the person I am. That’s been really, really good for me.”
Franklin is not a place with many outlets for outrageous behavior, which would suit someone disinclined to relinquishing control. In Kennard’s formative years, legitimate outbursts were rare…from Luke, anyway. As most parents are wont to do, Mark and Jennifer Kennard occasionally twisted themselves into knots watching their son play and, occasionally, voiced that apprehension in a highly audible way from the stands. Mark Kennard recalls his son catching his attention from the floor in these moments, following up with a hand gesture and an expression that said, We’re going to be fine. “He had that calming influence with everybody,” Mark says. It certainly proved useful. During his senior year, rival Bellbrook High School organized a “North Carolina Blue-Out” to not-so-warmly welcome Kennard for a road game. All the students donned Carolina blue for the night. At one point during the proceedings, after Kennard scored while drawing a foul, a Bellbrook student ran out of the stands, on to the court and flipped Kennard off. No shock that the kid was escorted from the gym; it was the second time he’d left the bleachers. “It was pretty funny,” Luke Kennard says. (For the record: Kennard hit the free throw.)
He became a coveted prospect at the Peach Jam tournament the previous summer, where everyone agrees Kennard’s emotional dam broke for sure. But not because he was overcome when his family was notified that the likes of Krzyzewski and Kentucky’s John Calipari were on hand to evaluate him, specifically. “Jennifer and I, we’re probably sick to our stomachs,” Mark Kennard says “And Luke’s walking around eating a hamburger, not even worrying about it.” The ripple in the calm came later during the event, when Duke, Kentucky and Michigan State offered scholarships on the same night, via phone calls from the programs’ three luminary head coaches. “I honestly didn’t know how to react,” Luke Kennard says. His father has a different memory: “We had to do three happy dances,” Mark Kennard says.
The offers were merely further confirmation that Kennard’s steadiness cannot be mistaken for nonchalance. He was doing Pete Maravich ball-handling drills with his father, a former player for NAIA Georgetown College, as a kindergartener. Then there is the well-worn yarn about Mark’s solution for Luke’s refusal to dribble with his non-dominant right hand as a grade-schooler. Three days a week, for about 45 minutes at a time, the two migrated to the playground court at nearby Schenck Elementary School to break the habit. Mark banned the left hand for these sessions. And to cover the three-block trip home, Luke dribbled along the sidewalk with his right hand exclusively, his other hand behind his back, while Mark kept pace on the road in the family’s blue Ford Expedition. “My wife called it child abuse,” he cracks. If Luke switched hands, they returned to the school and restarted the walk.
“Sometimes I would end up crying, I wouldn’t want to do it,” Luke Kennard says. “Now, honestly, I’m kind of more dominant with my right hand most of the time.”
Even on that Disney vacation last summer, Luke twice stole away to shoot at a local high school, with his father in tow. There was no use in attempting to keep the trip strictly to theme park visits and sitting idly by a pool. Luke Kennard knew he’d find a gym, because he knows who he is. A few months later, that last part would help save Duke.
After a passable freshman campaign—appearing in all 36 games, averaging 11.8 points on 42% shooting—Kennard was not expected to be the fulcrum for a title run in 2016-17. That was to be Grayson Allen, a preseason Sports Illustrated All-America and national player of the year frontrunner against whom Kennard scrapped in practice daily, or any member of a loaded freshman class featuring four consensus top-15 recruits. Then both Allen and three members of that class battled injuries early on, and then Kennard amassed 22 points in a loss to Kansas and 20 in a win over Michigan State and 29 in a win against Florida. By early December, the load had shifted to a new lodestar scorer. “He set the table in November and December for what you can expect, and then he’s delivered,” Krzyzewski says. “He’s there. He’s really good.”
Duke indeed has asked a great deal of its sophomore guard, and Kennard has slaked the thirst: He is the only major conference player to average at least 20 points (he’s currently at 20.1) while shooting at least 50% from the floor (50.5%), 40% from three-point range (45%) and 80% from the free-throw line (84.7%). He has reached double-figures in all but one game—and that was nine-point effort against Boston College on Jan. 7. In 13 outings against teams ranked in the kenpom.com top 50, Kennard’s offensive rating is 128.4, only one point lower than his season-long number, and his effective field goal percentage is fractionally better than the overall figure: 60.8% to 59.6%. “I had a decent year last year,” Kennard says. “I was very consistent but didn’t have tons of confidence. This year has kind of changed, in the way my teammates and my coaches have kind of built more confidence in me to be a better player. I can be the player Coach K recruited me to be. He’s been telling me that all along, that he just wants me to be myself.”
Kennard heard the same counsel from his father and his high school coach before he even matriculated to Durham. The advice was meant to help Kennard manage the attention that, for better or worse, inevitably trails a Duke player. This year it helped Kennard stitch together a team fraying all over.
His generally tranquil presence has been a touchstone as the Blue Devils scrambled for anything to rely on. Kennard’s performance imbues him with authority almost by default; Duke would be adrift without him, so teammates almost have to follow his lead. But privately, he’s likely enhanced his standing simply by being emotionally consistent and loyal. “I try to build guys up,” Kennard says. “Always trying to communicate when we hit adversity and keep people up.” After Allen was disciplined for his infamous trip of Elon’s Steven Santa Ana on Dec. 21, Kennard spoke to his father and voiced serious frustration—with the public at large. Dad, Mark Kennard recalls his son saying, I don’t want to hear one person say one bad thing to me about Grayson.
“Luke’s been tremendous, especially for the freshmen like myself,” Blue Devils forward Jayson Tatum says. “Just to see how he’s handled everything. He’s been our most consistent player the entire season and he’s someone you can look to on the court. He helps us out every day in practice and throughout he games. We’re trying to get up to [the level] where he’s at.”
Two days before the emotionally charged regular season finale between rivals, North Carolina forward Theo Pinson sat in a courtside chair and noted how Kennard’s confidence and aggressiveness had made guarding him a thankless chore. “Any time he shoots it, he thinks it’s going in,” Pinson said, “and most of the time it does.” Duke’s sophomore star subsequently registered 28 points in the 90-82 loss that followed over the weekend. Though happy to celebrate a victory and North Carolina’s outright league title, Pinson was perhaps nearly as elated to be through with his assignment for the evening. “Man, Luke Kennard can score the ball,” the Tar Heels’ junior defensive whiz lamented. “Doggone. He was driving me crazy.”
It has become Duke’s new and entirely necessary normal. Arguably, Kennard’s emergence as a superstar gunslinger could be categorized as yet another anomaly in a thoroughly irregular year. It wasn’t supposed to happen. But given all the commotion, it likely needed to if the Blue Devils had any hope of navigating the chop and eventually measuring up to the expectations heaped upon them.
They had to be led by the guy who requires no time to think when asked to name his favorite theme park ride (The Incredible Hulk Coaster at Universal’s Islands of Adventure), the chocolate milk aficionado whose lone idiosyncrasy might be that he shoots left-handed and throws right-handed. “That always surprises people,” Luke Kennard says. He’s almost out of ways to do that.