LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Walking around either Louisville or Lexington—the two most basketball-mad cities in one of the most basketball-mad states in the nation—wearing a Duke shirt can sometimes be hazardous to a young man's health.
Franklin, Ohio, shooting guard Luke Kennard didn't seem a bit concerned for his well-being as he strolled around Louisville's Kentucky Expo Center, awaiting his King James Shooting Stars' next game at the AAU Super Showcase. His "Here Comes Duke" T-shirt was a vibrant shade of blue, a few degrees darker than the one sported by supporters of the Bluegrass State's most prominent hoops program.
Having committed to the Blue Devils in a March announcement in his high school gym, Kennard isn't sweating a lot of anything about his basketball career as he enters his senior year at Franklin High.
"(The commitment) kind of took a lot of weight off my shoulders," Kennard told Bleacher Report. "And it gives me a little more time, not dealing with all the reporters calling, all the coaches trying to call. It gave me a little extra time on my hands to just go out and be a kid."
Life is going by way to fast...— Luke kennard (@Luke_kennard10) July 26, 2014
Of course, part of what kids do is work the phones, chatting or texting their friends. Elite basketball players are no different, and college programs count on it.
The advantage for a program that lands a top recruit early is, to put it bluntly, unpaid labor. Coaching staffs can often count on players with solid verbal commitments to go forth and preach the gospel, acting as additional recruiting liaisons for their school. Kennard's all in with that process, too, with one particular target receiving the most persistent pitches.
"The biggest target that I talk to the most would probably be Chase Jeter out of Las Vegas," Kennard said. "I'm really pushing for him. I got to play against him last week (at the NY2LA Summer Jam in Milwaukee); I text him all the time, get on the phone a little bit. Trying to get him to come join me, it'd be great to have him."
Jeter, a 7'0" forward from Bishop Gorman High School in Vegas, told CBSSports.com this week that he's nearing a decision on his college career, with Duke still standing as a major contender. UCLA, Arizona and UNLV are his other primary candidates. Jeter indicated that an announcement may be forthcoming in the next two weeks.
Kennard and Jeter were also teammates in June, playing for USA Basketball's team that won the gold medal at the FIBA Americas U18 Championship in Colorado Springs. Kennard finished second on the team with 13.8 points per game—including 30 in the opener against Uruguay—sinking 15 of the squad's 39 three-pointers over the length of the tournament.
Back at domestic competitions, Kennard has frequently been able to turn to newly minted Duke assistant Jon Scheyer whenever he needs advice on his game. As Bleacher Report wrote last month, Scheyer's youth and championship pedigree can help him speak to current recruits in a way that even Hall of Fame head coach Mike Krzyzewski can't. Kennard is living proof.
"I've developed a great relationship with (Scheyer)," Kennard said. "He can kind of relate to all this, the whole recruiting process and stuff like that. Him being a coach there now is something to really look forward to."
Kennard is preparing to transition to a new coaching staff after spending nearly a decade under King James coach Leon Ellison. Ellison, the varsity coach at Aiken High School in Cincinnati, has been Kennard's summer coach since Kennard was eight years old, back when King James himself was still just trying on his crown and the travel team was called the Cincinnati Knights.
That long-term relationship uniquely positions Ellison to critique a player who averaged an absurd 40 points, 10.4 rebounds, four assists and two steals as a junior.
"Most definitely, he's improved his ball-handling," Ellison told B/R. "In the past, he was one-dimensional, having to have everyone else create shots for him. Now, he's more able to get his own shot. Guys can't stay in front of him anymore."
Ellison still lists Kennard's jump shot as a primary strength in his game, but the left-hander's newfound slashing ability may be a harder skill to flaunt in college, at least early on.
"His biggest weakness right now is gonna be strength," Ellison said. "He's gonna have to continue to lift to get ready for the Division I level. He'll be playing against grown men, so he's definitely got to get stronger."
Even the strongest men get butterflies when they step into Cameron Indoor Stadium for the first time. True to his name—since we know the "Cool Hand Luke" headlines will be writing themselves for the rest of his career—Kennard currently sounds more excited than anxious about the prospect of that first college home game.
"Man, I'm expecting it to be loud and crazy like always," Kennard said. "I know it will be; the fans there are unbelievable. It's gonna be a great experience, and I'm gonna have fun with it."
Though he looks like a straight-laced all-American kid, Kennard claims he's not above the sort of trolling that has made past Duke stars such as Christian Laettner and J.J. Redick Public Enemy No. 1 to opposing fanbases. He's willing to put a finger to his lips to shush the opposing crowd "a few times, if it gets a little heated. We'll see."
Duke fans are more than ready to see another sniper flex some attitude to visiting crowds, as long as he brings home a Blue Devil win.
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