Luke Kennard has enhanced his college basketball status this season. The reason is simple, even if the process is not.
“As humble and confident as I can say it, I do think I am better than I was last year,” said Kennard, a sophomore guard for Duke University and a proud son of Franklin. “I just feel a lot more comfortable. The game has really, really slowed down for me.”
His early play this year has been strong enough to warrant All-America discussion. National Player of the Year candidate? Some have said that as well.
The 6-foot-6, 202-pound Kennard has augmented his statistics across the board since last season. And the Blue Devils, jam-packed with talent as usual, are 10-1 and ranked in the national Top 5.
“It really starts with us winning,” Kennard said this week during a telephone interview from Durham, N.C. “There’s absolutely no jealousy on the team. That makes us a really special group. We are really connected, and it shows on the court. It’s just fun to be a part of. It’s a process, and I’ve kind of just jumped on that train. It’s been really good for me.”
The two-time Ohio Mr. Basketball tops Duke in scoring with his 20-point average. He’s also getting 6.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.4 blocks per game.
And the shooting percentages aren’t too shabby — 52 percent from the field, 40.9 percent from 3-point range and 88.6 percent from the free-throw line.
Last season, Kennard averaged 11.8 points, 3.6 boards, 1.5 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.2 blocks a game, shooting 42.1 percent from the floor, 32 percent from beyond the arc and 88.9 percent from the charity stripe.
“I can just see the growth that has happened to me as a player, and a lot of that started with my season last year,” Kennard said. “Last year was an up-and-down year for me. My confidence wasn’t all the way there like it should be. The offseason was really, really big for me.”
At Duke, the drive to improve is paramount because blue-chippers come through the door every year. This year’s freshmen were regarded as the top recruiting class in the country.
Because of that, there seemed to be a very real chance that Kennard’s role might decrease in 2016-17. He heard that talk. It’s the kind of thing that keeps players on edge, but also paints a clear picture of how much work is necessary.
Kennard pushed himself hard in the offseason. At times, it was grueling.
“But I really enjoy it,” he said. “I love to be in the gym. I love to work and get better.”
Kennard said he talked to the coaches about his role coming into the year. There were no promises.
“They wanted me to be a leader on the court to the younger guys and be a playmaker,” Kennard said. “They wanted me to build off of the year that I had last year because I did some good things last year. But there’s always a lot to learn.
“Nothing is given here. It’s always earned. We had the best recruiting class in the nation, and I knew it was going to be a really competitive preseason. Being able to compete against really special players gave me a chance to get better. That’s what I did. I took advantage of that.”
Like last season, injuries have affected Duke’s rotation. The Blue Devils haven’t been at full strength yet, but they’re getting closer.
Junior guard Grayson Allen fought through leg and toe injuries, scoring a career-high 34 points against UNLV last weekend.
Freshman forward Jayson Tatum has returned from a foot injury and has a 15-point average in three games.
And freshman forward Harry Giles, generally regarded as a one-year Blue Devil who’s headed to the NBA the next season, hasn’t played yet after undergoing knee surgery. He’s expected to see his first action this month.
Could Kennard’s role be diminished the rest of the season? That’s not for him to say.
“Coach (Mike Krzyzewski) is a guy who wants the best for everybody,” Kennard said. “For myself, it’s all about winning here. I personally would do anything to help our team win. I’m just going to try to continue to play the way that I have been playing. I’m trying to grow and get better along with the guys around me.”
Duke will be back on the floor at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Monday night to host Tennessee State. The Blue Devils begin Atlantic Coast Conference play at noon on New Year’s Eve at Virginia Tech.
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Kennard said he’s doing well in the classroom, though he hasn’t finalized a major yet.
“Academics are really important to me,” Kennard said. “We have to travel and take work on the road with us. That has happened multiple times since I’ve been here. But it’s a good thing. It keeps us disciplined in the academic part of our careers. We have to be students first.”
Kennard scored 35 points against Maine in Durham on Dec. 3. He said somebody mentioned that it looked like he was back in high school, piling up points for the Franklin Wildcats.
Just the mention of his alma mater and hometown sends Kennard down memory lane. He talked about following former teammate Evan Crowe at Taylor University. Crowe is only a couple points behind Kennard in scoring average.
“He is playing great. I talk to him all the time,” said Kennard, who plans to come home for a few days around Christmas. “I talk to a lot of those guys that I played with at Franklin. It’s cool to see them doing really well.
“Franklin is a special place. I miss it. I’m always keeping up with anything going on in Franklin. I’m definitely supporting and keeping up with them for sure.”
Luke Kennard’s Career Highs
Points — 35 vs. Maine on Dec. 3, 2016
Rebounds — 11 vs. Oregon on March 24, 2016
Assists — 6 twice, last vs. William & Mary on Nov. 23, 2016
Steals — 3 three times, last vs. UNLV on Dec. 10, 2016
Blocks — 1 10 times, last vs. Maine on Dec. 3, 2016
Field goals made — 11 twice, last vs. Florida on Dec. 6, 2016
3-pointers made — 6 vs. North Carolina State on Feb. 6, 2016
Free throws made — 12 vs. Utah on Dec. 19, 2015
Minutes — 40 three times, last vs. Michigan State on Nov. 29, 2016