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Mining Gems, Part 2: Luke Kornet could be latest homecoming for Phoenix Suns

Vanderbilt center is NCAA’s all-time leader for made 3-pointers by a 7-footer

NCAA Basketball: Iowa State at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

This series examines overlooked players in the NBA Draft who might be available at No. 54 for the Phoenix Suns or be worth signing as undrafted free agents.

The Phoenix Suns added Alan Williams, a Phoenix product, to its roster late in the 2015-16 season in part because he was a feel-good story, but Williams stuck around because he proved he was more than that — he was the Phoenix product who brought something the team needed.

Luke Kornet might just tread that same path.

The 7’1 center, who spent a sizable chunk of his childhood in Phoenix before his family moved to Texas, spent his four-year college career with the Vanderbilt Commodores, where he evolved from bit player to key contributor. A back-to-back All-SEC Defensive Team honoree and 2017 All-SEC First Team member, Kornet holds the distinction of being the NCAA’s all-time leader for made 3-pointers by a 7-footer in a career (150).

But with his college career in the rearview mirror, he has headed out on the road to ply his wares for prospective NBA employers at pre-draft workouts. Kornet’s workout on May 30 brought him back to the Valley.

“It’s really incredible, especially being a little kid, you want to play in the NBA but it’s kind of so far-fetched,” Kornet told reporters after his workout. “To actually be able to come out and, like, play on the Suns, just be on the court that you watched players on, it’s something that when you do take a step back you can just truly appreciate.”

Kornet, who grew up a Suns fan and whose favorite player is Steve Nash, would certainly love to swap out his old Jr. Suns jersey in favor of the real deal, but he must earn that opportunity by excelling somewhere the team itself is deficient — 3-point shooting.

Shooting, fortunately, is where Kornet will hang his hat, as he is the embodiment of a stretch five even at 7’1 and 250lbs. Last season, just over 45 percent of his field goal attempts were taken from behind the arc, where he converted at a 32.7-percent rate. That isn’t all that impressive for his envisioned role, but he didn’t play alongside the best playmakers at Vanderbilt, either, and many times looked like an afterthought in the offense despite averaging 13.2 points. That being the case, it is fair to wonder how his game would benefit in an NBA system where spacing is emphasized and drive-and-kick plays are the norm. When his teammates did find him for a good look, his shot came away smoothly and was rarely challenged thanks to his height. His 85.7-percent shooting from the free throw line speaks to his form and potential as a shooter overall.

But Kornet can also put the ball on the floor…to a degree. He is mobile for his size and isn’t afraid to give the defender a pump fake and drive by, understanding defenders will close out hard on him due to his shot. He’s shown the ability to shoot on the move somewhat and can even finish strong at the rim with deceptive athleticism given an avenue. But Kornet is not comfortable handling the ball for long, and if he is challenged by the defender or has his initial move cut off, he will look to pass. It is good for a player to be aware of his limitations, but you’d like to see some semblance of offensive counters in a four-year player.

As for his inside game, umm, he shoots well. Frankly, Kornet doesn’t have the strength yet to hold his own against more physical centers, and it is fair to ask if it would even make a difference considering his passiveness towards scoring around the rim. Get him an easy putback or dunk, and he’s fine. Just don’t expect him to be an offensive threat at two levels.

For as passive as he can be on offense down low, though, he does a solid job defensively. He understands that he is 7’1 and does such a terrific job of staying vertical and making opponents shoot over his skyward arms that it would bring a tear to Frank Vogel’s eye. This tactic is how he blocks a majority of his shots, but he can also use his mobility to come from behind for blocks as well, as he averaged 2.0 blocks per game for the Commodores last season. Kornet doesn’t offer much defensively beyond that, however. He never appeared especially comfortable defending away from the basket, and while he possesses mobility, it’s nowhere near the upper limits for someone his size. Basically, he’s a well-schooled post defender who needs to get stronger to more effectively battle down low.

And then there is rebounding, where watching Kornet is akin to watching someone throw a hacky sack at a saguaro. If the ball comes directly to him, he’ll snag it, but if it’s even slightly outside his area, it’s just not happening. For someone with his size, he doesn’t show much desire for coming away with the ball and will surrender boards to more aggressive teammates. His 6.2 rebounds per game bears this out. It would be nice to see more pursuit from him — similar to highly touted bigs like, say, Zach Collins — but it doesn’t appear to be in Kornet’s mental makeup.

Kornet isn’t a name that pops up on mock drafts, but it does keep popping up in pre-draft workouts. Why? Every GM wants to find big men who can present a threat out to the 3-point line in the spacing-centric NBA. Kornet can do just that. The question is whether he can do enough elsewhere to justify him being on the court. The answer was yes in college, but the jury is still out at the next level.

The ceiling for the 21-year-old Kornet is probably something similar to Channing Frye with a floor similar to Alec Brown. Where he ultimately settles, nobody knows, but Phoenix’s Ryan McDonough has shown a fondness for gambling on players like Kornet in the past. Perhaps another Phoenix homecoming is in the cards for the 2017-18 season.

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