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NBA Draft Prospect Preview: Luke Kennard

Luke Kennard is a player the Hornets should target in the first round.

NCAA Basketball: Wake Forest at Duke Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

As the NBA Draft draws ever closer, NBA teams such as the Charlotte Hornets have to balance sometimes opposing priorities. Do they use their draft picks on players with the highest ceilings, or highest floors? Draft for need or pure talent? Take best player available, or go after positional scarcity?

It is likely the very best players will be off the board by the time the Hornets make their pick at 11. Then the draft board splits, between big men with pools of potential and guards or wings with more polish but less upside. How does Charlotte navigate the way forward?

The answer is positional scarcity. Centers are still valuable in the league, and the Hornets saw that firsthand when they lost Cody Zeller to injury for much of last season. Their record crumbled as they rotated through a variety of options to fill in.

But centers are everywhere around the league, and Charlotte has already invested a lot of money in Zeller and MIles Plumlee (via trade). With the league trending away from two-big lineups, the Hornets need to load up on versatile guards and wings. That means that a player such as Luke Kennard would be a prime pick at 11.

A colleague here recently described Luke Kennard as “a pair of Khaki’s” while singing the praises of Dennis Smith, Jr. Sure, the sophomore guard out of Duke can be described as khaki’s. But what he didn’t say was that khaki’s are now part of the official uniform of the NBA.

Kennard is a shooter, pure and simple, and that’s what teams need in the NBA. Anyone who watched the NBA Finals saw an incredible display of shooting, as Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry rained unblockable fire down from one end, while LeBron James and Kyrie Irving attacked the rim as their outside-shooting teammates spaced the floor.

Last season for Duke Kennard had an All-American year, and his best skill is his ability to shoot from anywhere on the floor. He shot 49 percent from the field and 43.8 percent from three-point range, the latter number ranking fourth among major-conference schools.

The beauty of Kennard’s shooting ability is that he’s not a one-trick pony. He was brilliant coming off of screens, both taking dribble hand-offs and rising to shoot, or catching passes and rising up immediately. With Duke playing most of its minutes without a true point guard on the floor, Kennard also took on ball-handling duties and refined his pull-up shooting off the dribble. He nailed those shots too.

At 6’6”, Kennard fits the profile of a modern 2-guard, a true sniper from deep who can attack closeouts and constantly keep the defense working as he runs around continual screens. Add in his improving ball-handling, and there is upside for Kennard to become a true combo guard, able to back up either guard position. He has strong court vision and a tight dribble, and could function well as a secondary ball-handler.

That type of player is not only perfect for the modern NBA, but he’s a perfect fit for this Hornets’ roster. They badly need shooting, as outside of Kemba Walker the entire team struggled from deep last season (they fell to 18th in three-point percentage after ranking seventh the year before). Kennard would be an instant shot in the arm.

He can also grow into Kemba Walker’s backup, another need on the roster. Jeremy Lin left for more money and a starting job in Brooklyn, but he was perfect for the Hornets’ needs two seasons ago. Kennard has the upside to fill that role again, backing up Kemba on bench units and playing alongside side him as well.

It would be inappropriate to suggest Kennard doesn’t have weaknesses. There is little evidence he can play anything approximating defense. He tries hard, but a short wingspan (6’5”) and poor lateral agility means he will always struggle at that end. But if anyone can maximize defensive ability, it’s Steve Clifford.

Kennard also doesn’t boast star-upside, and Charlotte certainly needs a star. If Rich Cho and the front office see true star-level upside in a player available at 11, they may need to pull the trigger in that direction. But if they’re looking for a plug-and-play option to bolster their backcourt, the Duke sharpshooter looks like the perfect fit.

And who doesn’t need a pair of perfect-fitting Khaki’s in their closet?