Luke Kennard stepped into the huddle. He was barely able to hear his coach over the Wake Forest crowd. He was used to the madness—a Duke team facing a road loss has long been a recipe for heckling and court-storming—but he wasn’t used to this: frenzied desperation in Duke’s timeout as its season spiraled out of control, with all eyes turning to him.
Less than six weeks remained before the beginning of this week’s ACC tournament, and Duke was reeling. Injuries to hyped freshmen, back surgery for head coach Mike Krzyzewski and Grayson Allen’s happy feet had grabbed top billing in college basketball’s most-watched soap opera.
Worse, seemingly after every statement win would come another loss hell-bent on—ahem—tripping up the Blue Devils’ momentum. A still-recovering Coach K invited his players to his house for a meeting, then promptly banned them from the locker room until this season started living up to Duke standards.
Someone needed to save it.
And so—after the Blue Devils called a timeout with 15 seconds left, a furious late-game comeback still leaving them down a point to Wake Forest—Kennard strained his ears and squinted. Interim head coach Jeff Capel scribbled on a whiteboard and looked at him.
Amid all the early-season hype—Near-consensus No. 1! A lottery pick for every Cameron Crazy! Best Duke team ever!—the 20-year-old Kennard had become something of an afterthought: a sixth man good for a few threes when Coach K needed them. A talented player, certainly, but not the guy you’d turn to when the door was closing on your No. 2 seed.
“Luke’s a playmaker,” his father, Mark Kennard, told B/R Mag before serving up the deliciously juicy childhood stories. “Everyone said last year: ‘He’s a shooter, he’s just a shooter.’ Luke kind of laughed at that. I think it kind of got him fired up.”
And so here was Kennard in the huddle, in the middle of one of the finest games of his Duke career, with 27 of his 31 points coming in the second half. Still, he was surprised at what he heard over the blistering crowd.
Wait a second, Kennard thought. He’s calling this play for...me?
The coach caught Kennard’s gaze as the huddle broke: “Go win this game,” Capel said.
Frank Jackson dribbled near the top of the key as Kennard sprinted from one corner toward the other. A Harry Giles screen under the basket sprung Kennard off his defender. He curled around to the three-point arc, and Jackson whipped him a pass. Kennard caught, turned and shot in one motion, a defender’s hand in his face.
Back home in Franklin, Ohio, his mother walked away from the television and put her hands over her ears.
A big-time three, Kennard’s 10th made shot out of 10 attempts in the second half. Duke had walked up to the precipice of disaster, and Kennard—an afterthought no more, now a centerpiece in the making—had brought his team back from the edge.
A month-and-a-half later, here we are once again. It’s March, and what was supposed to be the best Duke basketball team ever has walked right back to that edge, teetering again between redemption and desperation. Following seven straight wins after Kennard made that shot, the Blue Devils lost three of four. Yes, they tripped over themselves.
Relish in a Duke dumpster fire if you’d like. But this team’s potential—despite the season-long drama, the 14th-ranked Blue Devils are the sixth-likeliest team to win it all, per OddsShark—still glows in the embers.
Freshman Jayson Tatum has grown from shaky to dominant, Giles has shown flashes of the brilliance expected of him and Allen seems to have accepted his lot as college basketball’s villain du jour. But if anyone is going to bring the Blue Devils all the way back from the ashes, it’s their catalyst, their rock—you know, that guy nobody was talking about a few months ago.
“The most amazing thing for Luke is the consistency,” Duke assistant coach Jon Scheyer said. “After his freshman year, he had a big chip on his shoulder. There’s an edge to him, a confidence and a swagger.”
Indeed, Kennard has transformed from tentative to unafraid, scoring 24 or more points in eight games and fewer than 10 just once. His reputation among scouts has transformed, too, from a fringe NBA player to a shooting guard who an Eastern Conference executive told B/R Mag could become like Chris Mullin, one of the most efficient shooters of all time.
That is the real Kennard, the one his parents began to see at eight months old—the one who figured out how to bounce a basketball off the wall and have it roll back to him.
He’s going to play a long, long time in the NBA. ... On the court, he’s got a swagger to him that good players have to have. — Jay Bilas of ESPN
Not long after he nailed that shot against Wake Forest, Kennard sat on a cushy couch in the Duke players’ lounge. He was late to his morning interview with B/R Mag—he had to grab a cup of Starbucks, and a group of fans touring Cameron Indoor Stadium had chatted him up—but now he wasn’t nervous, and it wasn’t loud. Duke’s story could still head in any direction, from first-round flameout to cutting down the nets. But here was a young man at ease in the middle of any frenzy, no matter the stakes.
“When Coach Capel drew up the play for me, I said to myself, ‘All right, I can do this, let’s go for it,’” Kennard said. “Last year, I wouldn’t have wanted to be in any situation like that. I didn’t have enough confidence in myself. This year, things have changed.”
When you ask Kennard’s family what made them most proud of Luke back at Franklin High School, they don’t talk about his passing LeBron James on the all-time Ohio scoring list. They talk about when Luke heard that an older man who came to see him play had been hit by a car after the game. The next day, Luke visited the man in the hospital.
This from the kid who loves babies, who still goes to church on Sundays, who teachers say sat next to the unpopular kid in the cafeteria, who had a GPA higher than 4.0 throughout high school—oh, and did we mention he was the star quarterback, too?
Yes, the lefty shooter who is hitting threes at a remarkable 45 percent clip this season became the Ohio Division II offensive player of the year by tossing 26 touchdowns—with his right hand. (He also golfs from both sides.)
He’s just a special, special shooter. And there aren’t a lot of those. — NBA scout on Luke Kennard
When you ask Kennard’s high school basketball coach and family friend, Brian Bales, he says, yes, ever since Luke “was three or four years old—and this is gonna sound crazy—but he was that guy, he was that kid. Even at that age, he’d step on a button, the wiffle ball would pop up in the air, and he could hit that baseball—at three or four years old!—right-handed and left-handed. As crazy as this sounds, even then it was like, ‘This kid’s different.’”
As a senior at Franklin High, Kennard was called to a city council meeting. They did a short presentation on what he meant to the town, and then the mayor removed a sheet covering a giant sign, a few of which would be displayed roadside heading into town. “FRANKLIN,” the sign read. “HOME OF LUKE KENNARD. OHIO’S MR. BASKETBALL 2014 & 2015.” He was given a replica of the road sign, which hangs in his family’s basement.
But even that guy can do silly things.
Like when he was a little kid, and his older sister would prance around in her Kentucky Wildcats cheerleader uniform doing routines. (Yes, the Kennard family used to be dyed-in-the-wool Kentucky fans.) Luke was jealous.
“I want to be the boy cheer-weader,” the three-year-old Luke would say. So the family dressed him up in a baggy Kentucky uniform:
“Please embarrass him with that,” said his sister, Lauren. (Your move, Tar Heels message boards.)
Kennard also has a fun side, like knowing every word to every song in the Disney cartoon musical Frozen, which was released when he was a high school junior. He was also obsessed with High School Musical throughout his adolescence. “He knew every word to every song and every dance move!” said his mother, Jennifer, with a laugh. “He would study it!” He’d be the Zac Efron character, of course: the captain of the basketball team.
It’s one thing being the centerpiece in an Ohio town of just under 12,000 people. But when you’re playing for Duke on national television, you can’t be quite as silly, quite as carefree. He’s still Luke. Still goes to Roosters with high school friends when he’s home—mild boneless chicken wings and curly fries. Still absurdly competitive, winning the Duke basketball program’s preseason cornhole tournament at Coach K’s house.
But those changes, well…
“He has some man UGG boots now,” his best friend, Evan Crowe, noted in disgust. “He’s like, ‘Look at these! I’m gonna get you some!’”
When you ask Kennard about his newfound affinity for fashion, though, he is confident in his style. If Russell Westbrook can wear capri pants, Luke Kennard can wear his UGGs with swag, too. (At the very least, Tom Brady set a precedent.) Plus, Kennard points out, these aren’t the tall, fuzzy kind of UGGs. They’re barely above his ankle, OK? They’re warm. And they’re really, really comfortable.
“We do have a fashionable team,” Kennard says in the Blue Devils’ lounge, shrugging his shoulders. “My closet has definitely changed.”
When Kennard first started playing basketball, his dad noticed a bad habit: He’d dribble with his left hand and always drive to his left.
“I told him one summer, ‘We’re gonna break that habit,’” Mark Kennard said.
People who lived in Kennard’s neighborhood remember the scene: The father and the son would go to an elementary school court a couple of blocks from their house. They’d shoot, and Mark would put Luke through ball-handling drills, right hand only. When they were done, Mark hopped in the driver’s seat, and Luke would dribble behind the car the whole way home, right hand only. If the father saw the son use his left hand, they’d turn around and start over.
This was first grade.
“Jennifer said, ‘That’s child abuse!’ But I said, ‘No, it’s not,’” Mark Kennard said. “Sometimes he’d cry about it. We laugh about it now! But by that next year, by second grade, he was able to use his left hand and his right hand.”
Kennard’s offensive skills, plus a willingness to play hard on defense, haven’t just centered Duke this season—now he’s opening the eyes of NBA scouts. One called Kennard the best shooter in college basketball.
“But he’s not one-dimensional,” the scout said. “He’s not just catch-and-shoot. He can put the ball on the floor, drive and finish with either hand. He can spin and do up-and-under. He’s got some toughness, and [he’s] just an outstanding free-throw shooter. He brings an awful lot to the table, but he’s just a special, special shooter. And there aren’t a lot of those.”
ESPN’s Jay Bilas is one of the closest watchers of Duke basketball. He’s heard the criticism of Kennard’s NBA potential—Not athletic enough! Can’t guard NBA shooting guards!—but he brushes it off, telling B/R Mag, “He’s going to play a long, long time in the NBA. People say, ‘You think he can guard people?’ It’s the same stuff people said about Kyle Korver. On the court, he’s got a swagger to him that good players have to have.”
Swagger is part of Kennard’s DNA. His high school friends saw it when he played a game of cornhole or table tennis like it was Game 7 of the NBA Finals. His parents saw it when he was a four-year-old in the basement: “Daddy, let’s play ball,” Luke would say. His grandparents would hold out a ribbon of calculator tape, and then his mother would introduce him: “Now, No. 10, Luke Kennard!” He’d bust through the tape and start doing layups off the wooden Kentucky Wildcats backboard.
After a swagger-free freshman year, Kennard had long offseason talks with Grayson Allen about jumping from specialist to a featured role. Kennard worked on his shot and dialed in his floaters. He added muscle. And when Duke struggled—“We’ve had more interruptions than six teams,” Coach K admits—there was Kennard, the man in the middle of the storm, the afterthought-turned-superstar for a team that needs him more than ever.
This is the real Luke Kennard: Cool Hand Luke, the All-ACC first-teamer who hangs 34 points on Wake Forest in a must-win road game, who dropped 28 in a seesaw battle at North Carolina, and who will want the ball when it matters most during this week’s ACC tournament in Brooklyn and beyond.
On summer days when school is out of session, you can still find Kennard next to the pool in his grandmother’s backyard. There, Kennard and his best friend have an ongoing cornhole competition against his father and Bales, his high school coach. Kennard and his friend have won some 200 times in a row.
“This is high-level cornhole,” Bales explained. “We’ll be up on them, and I’m telling you—it’s happened so many times—it just happens to come down to Luke. And he’ll throw three or four in that hole in his last turn to beat us. I’ve never seen a guy in cornhole throw four-baggers in one turn.
“If he needs to put it in that hole, he’ll put it in that hole,” the coach continued. “As simple as that sounds, that’s Luke Kennard at his finest.”
Reid Forgrave is a contributor to Bleacher Report and a former national college basketball writer for FoxSports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @ReidForgrave.