Kawhi Leonard has emerged as both a scoring threat and defensive linchpin for the San Antonio Spurs in 2013-14.
Maybe it’s because he doesn’t talk much.
Perhaps it’s because he’s paired with three future Hall of Famers and a deified head coach, but Kawhi Leonard has surreptitiously improved drastically this season. Not just improved, but acceded to the defensive fortress and fourth scoring option on offense the Spurs needed in last year’s NBA Finals.
After 17 straight playoff berths, 15 consecutive 50-win seasons, and four NBA titles since 1999, Gregg Popovich’s team should be past the point of revelations. Yet here we are—desperately trying to understand the astonishing emergence of their youngest player.
His stoicism complements Tim Duncan placidity perfectly—and he’s often the quietest player on any court.
— Josh Planos (@JPlanos) May 15, 2014
While second-year marquee players Damian Lillard, Andre Drummond, Bradley Beal, and Anthony Davis blossomed and grossed shoe deals, Leonard quietly flourished. It’s almost poetic that he didn’t make the All-Star Game this season, despite making the largest transformation.
Leonard shed his cherubic rawness, replacing it with fortitude and maturity in 2013-14. Three years into his career, he’s continually shattering his ceiling; he’s no longer latent, Kawhi has arrived.
Offensively, you name it and Leonard has improved, posting career highs across the board: points (12.8), steals (1.7), assists (two), blocks (0.8), rebounds (6.2), 3-point percentage (37.9 percent), field goal percentage (52.2 percent), and games started (65). That last number is most important: Popovich has trusted Leonard repeatedly this season, allowing Ginobili to continue captaining the second unit. The Spurs went 54-12 with Leonard in the lineup, 8-6 without him.
Latency is still justly affixed to his shoulders, though—and it’s because we truly don’t know what he’s capable of yet.
Here’s what we do know.
He has the best jumper in San Antonio
Leonard was a brick-chucker in his standout days at Riverside King High and San Diego State. As CBS Sports’ Zach Harper mentions:
“In his two college seasons, he made 41 3-pointers in 164 attempts (25.0 percent).”
He was labeled a project on the offensive end and a defensive savant who would willingly crash the glass. Since, he has ballooned into a range-specific marksman. The irony of his efficiency lies in Leonard shooting with just a handful of bullets each night. In many ways, Leonard is the antonym of volume-shooters like Monta Ellis and J.R. Smith; he exclusively takes the shots he knows are worth the risk.
Fifty times this season, Leonard cracked double figures, alongside seven double-doubles.
In the regular season, Leonard shot 50.5 percent when positioned more than 16 feet from the basket on 2-point field goal attempts. That number surges to 57.9 percent when you encompass the other respective 2-point zones—by far the highest mark of anyone on the San Antonio roster. His reluctant trigger finger matches his reserved demeanor with the media, but he’s working on it.
“I just have to keep working into wanting to be that guy,” Leonard said in an interview with the Los Angeles Daily News in May. “It’s all mental. I just have to worry about my game.”
Lest we forget the Spurs’ most prominent prospect is 22 years old, just now able to buy a legal drink. Although Leonard has shed the training wheels that follow everyone into the league, the notion of offensive deference has habitually popped up this season, and Popovich has taken note.
“He’ll catch it on the post a little bit more and actively take a mismatch down there and try to use it. Before he wouldn’t do that, he would just get rid of the ball and defer to Tony or Manu or somebody. He’s becoming more demonstrative with the basketball and making moves.”
He’s a defensive linchpin who stomachs challenging matchups
With or without Serge Ibaka in the Western Conference Finals, Leonard was bound to be the best defender on either team. He suffocates perimeter scorers, and his defensive intelligence dwarfs length and power. He’s rarely out of place—as is the case with Popovich’s fortress that couldn’t be less sieve-like—and his spacing doesn’t allow for blown assignments.
He very well could be the best perimeter defender already. On a team with minimal wrinkles, Leonard has flattened even the most minutiae of hiccups.
As was the case his first year in the league, Leonard is matched against the reigning Kevin Durant in a playoff series. In the first two games, he’s held Durant to 16-35 from the field (46 percent). We’re talking about a guy who has two inches on Leonard, is equipped with cables for arms, and is the reigning MVP. If Leonard isn’t pestering Durant until he passes it away, he’s crowding his shots or closing out on rebounding attempts.
Kawhi Leonard is harassing Durant, and it’s working.
His floor presence elevates San Antonio to the uppermost tier of league defense. And the Spurs’ 97.7 defensive rating when he’s in the game is astonishing considering the difficult matchups he draws every night.
An elite defender has split-second acumen and complementary athleticism. Luckily, Leonard has both in droves. With the minutes he’s being asked to play, it would be a reasonable expectation that his production would drop. It hasn’t. As Popovich told Spurs Nation last month, his minutes are only going up from here.
“We want to up his minutes. He’s going to play more minutes (in the playoffs) than Tim Duncan does probably, more minutes than Manu Ginobili probably. This is his stretch run and he needs to be in shape for it. He’s never really been able to do this because it was a lockout season or we had to limit his minutes last year. This is the first time he’s been able to lay it out there.”
He’s the future of the Spurs
On a team of ancient frescoes, Leonard’s paint hasn’t begun drying. His canvas isn’t complete. The Spurs will continue to reign for the foreseeable future, and that reassurance is perhaps what’s sparking Leonard on his climb through a ceiling we attempted to create for him. He doesn’t know where it will lead, but hell, we’re just happy to watch.