DURHAM, N.C. -- Luke Kennard's parents happily waited in the car for their son to return from one of his first high school varsity road games. They already knew Kennard, then a 14-year-old freshman at Franklin (Ohio) High School, scored 27 points. They expected him to be giddy from his performance, but were a bit surprised when the school bus pulled up and he texted them to come inside the school's gym.
He needed a rebounder.
Kennard was so uneasy that he missed three free throws in the game that he decided he needed to practice right then. He took shot after shot, even outlasting Franklin coach Brian Bales, who simply told him to lock the doors at the end of the night.
But before Bales left, he had to ask: Why did Kennard keep shooting?
"He said, 'Coach, to go where I want to go, 7-of-10 from the free throw line is not going to get it done,'" Bales said.
Kennard might never say he's where he wants to go, but he sure has arrived in his sophomore season at Duke. The 6-foot-6 sophomore guard leads the Blue Devils in scoring, averaging 19.8 points per game, up from 11.8 points as a freshman.
Injuries forced Duke to play with a four-guard lineup, which helped Kennard become instrumental early in the season. But Kennard's consistency is what has made him a mainstay, even as teammates got healthy.
In Duke's 77-75 loss to Kansas in November, Kennard contributed to 14 of the Blue Devils' final 16 points with two field goals and three assists. When the Blue Devils fell behind 8-0 in a road loss at Virginia Tech, they looked to Kennard to settle them, and he quickly made their first three shots. Last season, he likely would have deferred responsibility to Grayson Allen or Brandon Ingram.
"People say he is taking advantage of an opportunity, but he is an opportunity," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "He is good."
Kennard has been the most stable player amid a volatile season for Duke.
No. 17 Duke (15-5) has used eight different starting lineups through 20 games. Kennard has started all but one of those games, and he has played more minutes -- averaging 34.7 (86.6 percent of available minutes) -- than any other Blue Devil.
There aren't many who predicted Kennard's rise, especially with Duke welcoming a 2016 recruiting class that was ranked No. 2 by RecruitingNation. Even his longtime friend and high school teammate Evan Crowe expected Kennard to vent about playing time when the two worked out in Franklin in the offseason, but Kennard wasn't discouraged.
"From talking to him, he seemed like he was pretty confident in what the year was going to be," said Crowe, a guard at NAIA Taylor University. "He seemed pretty confident in his ability."
Kennard figured to get to where he needed to go, he had to consult someone who could relate to what he was going through.
Allen, his teammate, made the leap from freshman reserve to Duke's leading scorer last season as a sophomore. When Kennard returned to Durham for open gym sessions in the summer, he made sure to seek Allen out.
"Me and him kind of match up in practice a lot," Kennard said. "Going against him, he's really taught me a lot. He's been there for me, building my confidence, making me more comfortable with everything."
Last season, Kennard allowed himself to be one-dimensional. He built his high school reputation as a shooter, so it was easy for him to stay outside the lane and shoot. Allen encouraged Kennard to drive more, as his ability to use his right or left hand to shoot floaters would be invaluable.
The switch is shown in his stat line. As a freshman, Kennard took 51 percent of all his field goal attempts from 3-point range. As a sophomore, he has been much more apt to mix his shot selection up with drives and pull-ups for midrange shots. This season, Kennard has only taken 42 percent of his total shot attempts from behind the arc.
And with Allen playing more at point guard recently, Kennard has become a favorite target for assists.
"He's scoring the ball so well, and there's so much attention drawn to him," Allen said. "Really, when I'm driving, now I'm looking for him, looking to find him whenever I can, because I know if I find him open, he's going to knock it down."
Kennard's position as the go-to scorer is a familiar one. As a scoring point guard in high school he averaged nearly 40 points per game and passed LeBron James on Ohio's prep career scoring list. As a quarterback during his junior year of high school, Kennard was named the state's Division II Offensive Player of the Year.
And as a parting gift for his athletic achievements, the town of Franklin surprised him with his own sign planted at different city entry points: "Welcome to Franklin, Ohio, Home of Luke Kennard."
Despite those accolades, he wasn't overconfident.
"I don't think he knew how good he could be," said New Mexico State guard A.J. Harris, who transferred from Ohio State.
Harris has known Kennard since they were AAU teammates in grade school and added: "I'm not surprised by what he's doing. If Luke put his mind to it, it didn't matter [which freshmen] were coming in."
By his own admission, Kennard had trouble adapting to the pace of the game as a freshman and, as a result, he second-guessed his every move. Krzyzewski implored him to stop passing up shots.
Kennard said his freshman year was characterized by his inconsistencies. After dropping 30 points against Notre Dame, he went scoreless on nine shot attempts the next game in a loss to Syracuse.
Even during Kennard's struggles last season, Duke assistant coach Jon Scheyer would help boost his confidence with a reminder repeated often enough to become a mantra. The conversations would take place with Kennard, his dad, Mark, and Kennard's high school coach. Scheyer reassured all of them, "We didn't bring Luke here to be a basketball player; we brought him here to be a star."
"Last year my confidence wasn't always there," Kennard said. "I wasn't very comfortable. I wasn't being myself. I was somewhat nervous to make a mistake, and I've kind of learned that now. You have to be who Coach K recruited you to be. That's what I've kind of focused on this year."
Kennard has seen double-digit increases in shooting percentage, up from 42.1 to 53 percent from the floor and from 32 to 43.8 percent from 3-point range. His rebounding average improved from 3.6 per game to 5.5, and his assists went from 1.5 per game to 2.5.
Kennard has arguably been Duke's most valuable player, and his name is in the mix for the Wooden Award.
"It's really cool to hear that, but at the same time it's not my main focus. ... I want our team, I want us, to become who we're going to become. That's a big thing," Kennard said. "We had guys out with injuries, and it's kind of hurt us. We've struggled a lot."
Freshman forward Jayson Tatum missed all of November while recovering from a foot injury. Freshmen post players Harry Giles and Marques Bolden missed a combined 19 games to start the season. Forward Amile Jefferson, who was forced to medically redshirt last season, missed two games after suffering a bone bruise in the same foot he injured last year.
Injuries, even when they come in bunches, are part of every season. But Allen's third tripping incident in a calendar year? And Krzyzewski being forced to miss up to four weeks because of midseason back surgery? That's the kind of stuff that, in addition to trying to compensate for injuries, can make players wonder if it simply wasn't meant to be this season.
Kennard is a big reason why the Blue Devils haven't lost faith.
"Everyone knew he had it in him. ... He stepped up amazingly," Jefferson said. "Luke's always been the same person for us, day in and day out. And it's good to have someone who's dependable. That's the word that comes to mind when you think of Luke. He's been dependable for our group. We wouldn't be here without him."