Clippers guard Luke Kennard could return as soon as Thursday

Los Angeles Clippers guard Luke Kennard drives during an NBA basketball game against the Minnesota Timberwolves Friday, Jan. 6, 2023, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King)
Clippers guard Luke Kennard drives during a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Jan. 6 in Minneapolis. (Andy Clayton-King / Associated Press)

Luke Kennard approached his locker inside Crypto.com Arena on Tuesday evening and, with the exasperated smile of a man tired of waiting, shook the black jersey dangling on a hanger.

It has been a while since the reserve guard donned his Clippers jersey. Eighteen days, and nine games, to be exact, since a calf injury he’d first irritated Nov. 15 flared up again after a Jan. 6 game against Minnesota.

The wait could soon be over. Kennard and the team are leaving open the possibility that the 46% three-pointer shooter could return as soon as Thursday if his recovery continues to comply.

“I’ve been doing on-court stuff and playing live so it’s just making sure that it’s gone 100%,” Kennard said before the Clippers' 133-115 win over the Lakers. “I left the last road trip to come back and speed it up a little bit more. I’m ready. It’s frustrating, it’s annoying, so it’s time to come back.”

Kennard traveled with the team on its most recent three-game trip with the belief he could return but left the trip two games in after he was “still feeling it a little bit,” he said, and because he wanted to get on the court more consistently. He dressed for the team’s shootaround Tuesday morning before a game against the Lakers and he said he has played in live games of three-on-three.

Kennard’s expected return brings a significance that extends beyond having one of the NBA’s most consistent shooters at coach Tyronn Lue’s disposal again. It would also allow the coach to begin implementing changes to his rotation that he hinted at in recent weeks — shifts in which guards play and how often, decisions that Lue said hinged on Kennard being back.

“We have a plan in place,” Lue said Jan. 8, “but until Luke just gets healthy, we won’t see it yet.”

What might be seen could include lineups where Kennard or reserve Norman Powell act as the lone guard alongside four wings, which Lue on Sunday called “some good lineups for us.”

Kennard this season has averaged 8.7 points while shooting 53% inside the arc, to go with his 46% shooting on three-pointers, nearly 4 percentage points higher than his career average.

With Kennard not in uniform, the Clippers still had a surplus of shooting against the Lakers, their 15 first-half three-pointers one off the most made in any half of any game this season. It grew the Clippers’ lead to as many as 23 points, with their 77 points the most they’ve ever scored before halftime against the Lakers.

The team next plays San Antonio on Thursday and hasn’t ruled out Kennard, with any return likely hinging on Kennard being able to practice to gauge how he responds to a full-scale workout. The team still considers Kennard day to day, and the guard said it will be the team’s call to clear him for his first game back. But he feels ready, he added.

“Just getting comfortable and getting those game-speed reps back,” Kennard said. “I’m getting more comfortable with it. It’s going really good, though. Faster than we thought.”

If Kennard does return as soon as he hopes, the Clippers — who have battled injuries all season, able to play with its roster fully available only four times — won’t be entirely whole.

Starting forward Marcus Morris Sr. suffered a contusion of his ribs in the first half and did not return. Reserve guard John Wall missed his sixth consecutive game with an abdominal injury, though he did take part in a portion of shootaround open to reporters.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.