Kawhi Leonard and a sign of things to come

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The player-development strategy in place in San Antonio is as deliberate and methodical as any in the NBA — a convenience made possible by the presence of three future Hall-of-Famers still very much in charge of running one of the league’s best offenses. For young players like Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, there’s been time to refine their game as individuals while learning the intricacies of the team’s system. But the time for a higher level of involvement is nigh; and if the Spurs hope to make yet another run into June of 2014, it’s also necessary.

Green’s progress has been perhaps the most well-documented of the two: a bench player in lowly Cleveland to a starting guard and NBA Finals record-setting shooter in San Antonio. Last season he explained the process outlined by the Spurs’ coaching staff for the team’s young players, and he compared their basketball education to a building-block mentality. Once the base foundation of defense reached a level Gregg Popovich could use, then came other specific freedoms within the flow of the game.

Little by little both players have been allowed longer leashes as they’ve added blocks on top of the ones already in place, and we’ve seen the results of this over the past two seasons. But, while Green’s defense and 3-point shooting were on full display during the Finals, his offensive capacity — at this point, at least — is not at the level Leonard’s appears to be. He isn’t particularly athletic, he struggles to dribble under pressure and any shot outside of a quality 3-point attempt is typically cringeworthy.

But the fact that he is an outstanding shooter from deep and continues to look tremendous defensively means he’ll always have a place in San Antonio. He is the epitome of a 3-and-D (3-point shooter/defender) role player, which has become arguably the most valuable fringe-starter type in the league. Still, if the Spurs want back in the NBA Finals, it’ll likely rest on exactly how high Leonard’s blocks have been built.

Plenty has been written of Leonard this offseason. He is, after all, San Antonio’s most valuable asset moving forward beyond the Big 3 era, and he gave us a delectable taste of what could be on the horizon with his performance against Miami in June. If you’ve paid attention along the way, the progress in his game has been fairly easy to track. Again, the Spurs have moved along diligently with their young players, so the subtleties in the Leonard evolution have been interesting to watch in slow motion.

As a rookie out of San Diego State, San Antonio knew he could defend, rebound very well at his position and be effective inside as a “hustle” player, but we’ve seen him become quite a bit more than that. In his first two years he’s essentially been an elite 3-and-D role player, flashing an outside shot in Year 1 that he’d never before demonstrated, and adding a pull-up jumper in Year 2 that seemed like the next logical step as defenses extended out to defend him on the perimeter. But it was the behind-the-scenes stuff that began to manifest itself during the Finals when the Spurs were in dire need of an injection of youth and energy.

When Popovich glows to the media about his young small forward, it’s not a show. The Spurs view Leonard as a special project, and the results of the work that’s put in were on full display late in the series against the Heat.

Once the practice doors open to the media at the Spurs’ practice facility on any given day, the scene is both random and familiar. Typically, several different groups of players will be playing shooting games at various baskets while others can be seen in the weight room in the background. Sometimes there’ll be some light-contact full-court drills going on with nearly all players involved. But each day one thing remains the same: Leonard going through specific individual drills with two or three assistant coaches at his side.

Left-handed hook shots out of the post; baseline dribble-drives to reverse lay-ups; pump-fakes to pull-up jumpers — one after another after another. The Spurs have a template, and they’re trying to build a prototype.

Everything San Antonio has implemented into Leonard’s arsenal takes advantage of his assets. He’s not one of the league’s most explosive athletes, but his physical measurements more than make up for that. It’s nearly a foot from the tip of his pinky to the end of his thumb (on one hand), he’s got a 7-foot-3 wingspan, and his 6-foot-7, 225-pound frame and excellent body control make him a nightmare matchup for wing players when he takes them into the paint. This became evident late in the playoffs.

Half a decade ago the Spurs could isolate with any one of their Big 3 and destroy you off the dribble. Whether it was Tim Duncan on the left block or Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili on the perimeter, they could attack from all angles. That’s not the case anymore. Duncan is more of a spot-up shooter than ever, Ginobili’s physical restrictions became painfully evident in the Finals and Parker, though still in his basketball prime, will be a 32-year-old, 13-year NBA veteran next season (which is unreal to think about).

But the 21-year-old Leonard was a different story. He became much more than the spot-up shooter he was as a rookie, and he all but abandoned his highly effective mid-range pull-up jumper in the Finals. Instead, he elected to attack the rim when the 3-point shot wasn’t there, and when the ball went up in the air he was all over the glass. The San Antonio system relies heavily on ball-movement and motion to generate high assist numbers. But rather than relying on his teammates to create the majority of his opportunities, Leonard went after them himself.

Kawhi was assisted on 65.4 percent of his baskets during the 2012-13 regular season, but that number shifted considerably in the Finals. Over the course of the final seven games, more than half of Leonard’s field goals were unassisted as he began to create more often for himself. What’s even more impressive: 45.6 percent of his 2-point field goals were unassisted during the regular season, but that number exploded to 63.6 percent in the Finals, a massive jump in that category.

Now, this doesn’t mean he took the ball in half-court sets and ran a bunch of isolation. The scoring manifested itself in several different ways. Popovich said prior to last season he wanted to see Leonard grab rebounds on the defensive end and push the ball on his own in transition. His size and athleticism in space are weapons the Spurs haven’t had in the same capacity in a long time, and he truly began to realize that potential at the right time.

In this screengrab, Leonard did just that. Once he got in the paint, he was able to stop on a dime and elevate for the easy shot a couple of feet from the basket.

 

Leonard transition floater

 

While Leonard isn’t on the same level athletically as some of the league’s elite young small forwards, his dimensions set him apart. He doesn’t seemingly defy gravity in the same vein of a Paul George, and he doesn’t hit his head on the rim after destroying it the way LeBron James does. But the length of his arms and the size of his hands allow him to utilize the space around the basket in a very similar way. Because of these factors, he’s able to absorb contact while still maintaining distance between the arms and hands of the defender. And because he can hold a basketball in one hand like it’s a grapefruit, he’s developed a one-handed jump shot that he doesn’t release until he’s at the peak of his jump and any contact from the defender has subsided.

Furthermore, his size enables him to create contact and still find separation. Chris Bosh is four inches taller than Leonard, but his extended arms mattered little on this baseline drive that resulted in a basket plus the foul. Leonard was able to cock the ball back and blow through the initial contact without any problems after Mike Miller closed out too hard on him in the corner.

 

Leonard And-1 baseline

 

And Leonard has become more creative when getting into the paint. Simple, but creative. Because of his length, defenders have to overcompensate with their positioning. Players similar in size can’t contend with Leonard’s shot attempts if they’re bodied up directly; they must extend beyond their normal zone and overplay slightly in whichever direction he’s headed. Even James, the 6-foot-8, 260-pound freight train (Andrew’s note: 260 lbs.? C’mon man. Gotta be 280.), had to defend accordingly, and Leonard took advantage.

In this shot, James closed out hard on Leonard at the 3-point line, and Kawhi immediately began to drive left.

 

Leonard drive James

 

James is already in chase mode. But the league’s MVP has made a living off of chase-down blocks and is very aggressive in situations like these. Leonard knows this already. While he’s not overly athletic, he’s very, very controlled in his actions. With LeBron on his hip he stops on a dime, completely loses James and rotates 360 degrees on his left leg for a turnaround jumper before his defenders can even react.

 

Leonard turnaround

 

However, what really makes Leonard different from most players at his position is his rebounding ability. He understands the angles and the necessary positioning beautifully, and his size (have I mentioned his size at all yet? Yes? OK, moving on) gives him a major advantage. The Spurs’ small forward averaged MORE THAN 11 REBOUNDS PER GAME in the Finals, which acted as another source of unassisted field goals when they came on the offensive glass.

Leonard was incredibly aggressive around the rim, both offensively and on the boards, and the work he put in resulted in a bunch of easy baskets. And remember, he was doing all of this on a balky knee, yet he still made it look easy at times. In this picture, Dwyane Wade has great defensive block-out positioning along the baseline on the opposite side of the basket as Gary Neal takes a 20-foot jumper (The Gary Neal Special).

 

Gary shot

 

But in a split second, Leonard tosses Wade aside and is in perfect position for the put-back. Wade’s strength has been a major part of his success in the NBA as a slightly undersized guard (height-wise), but this was too easy for Leonard.

 

Leonard rebound

 

In matchups similar to this in terms of size mismatches, the Spurs hope to utilize Leonard’s length out of the post. Even in a situation like the one pictured below, Leonard is able find a way out. In this frame, Leonard is smothered underneath by Bosh and Miller but is able to find an escape route.

 

Smothered

 

With one pivot away from the basket, he loses the length of Bosh and puts the still taller Miller on his hip. Miller contests the shot, but Leonard’s feel around the basket is wonderful for a player his age. This is the kind of thing Spurs coaches hope he can develop on a consistent basis given the matchups he’s likely to see throughout the course of his career. This is a difficult and less-than-ideal attempt, but a refined hook shot in the repertoire could do wonders.

 

hook

 

Much of Leonard’s NBA Finals success and most of the numbers he put up were a result of necessity as the Spurs needed his youth and energy to keep up with the relentless Miami attack. His aggressiveness on the boards and the consistency with which he attacked the paint kept San Antonio alive when its aging core really began to wear down late in the series, especially in Parker’s case.

There are two lines of thinking here: either we’re going to see a whole lot more of Leonard in a similar capacity during the regular season in order to save the legs of the Big 3 for when the time is right, or we’re going to see a similar approach to what we saw last season and hope the health of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili holds up. I’m guessing it’ll be the latter. Remember, it was a small hamstring tear that really brought Parker down in the final games of the season, along with the inevitable pressure of James’ defense in critical situations.

But what might be even crazier to think about is that it could be Leonard’s health that’s most important of all. He showed the way he can impact a game when he’s let loose, and after a season that saw him struggle through knee tendonitis, San Antonio might like to see what it can get out of a completely healthy player in the postseason. With a little more isolation play and freedom offensively, his offense might be just what the team needs to save a little more tread on the Spurs’ tires.

Regardless, the progress we’ve seen from Leonard and the rest of this team’s young stable of players lends reason to believe that even as the Big 3 decline with age, the improvement of the role players can balance things out. And it’s a big year for Kawhi. He’s got a team option in 2014-15 worth nearly $2.9 million — a price tag the Spurs will almost assuredly pay barring some major change or event — and restricted free agency beyond that. Though San Antonio will likely offer him a major extension next offseason if all goes as planned, making him the face of the Spurs as they head into a new era. That’s the plan for now, at least.

Away from recorders and microphones, one prominent head coach said last season he believed Leonard would be the Spurs’ best player in 2013-14. We’re a month and a half away from finding out.

Screengrabs courtesy of NBA.com.


  • Matthew Swenson

    Kawhi Leonard was the can’t-miss draft pick that everyone passed on. Looking at his college stats, especially rebounding and scoring efficiency, it was clear Leonard could play. There’s always at least one guy in a draft who drops way further than he should because he isn’t the prototype for his position. As a Spurs fan, I’m happy about that, as San Antonio is more likely than most to actually pick that guy.

  • STIJL

    Not to mention if Belinelli can perform this season as well as he played for the Bulls and now in Eurolegue, that too should help ease the tension (stress) on the big three as well as not have to wear out Leonard during the regular season process. So many options next season to incorporate different back court sets. Looking forward to see what happens.

  • stiegforge

    Can’t remember last time Belinelli played in Euroleague to be honest, but certainly not this year!

  • merkin

    How much was the improvement in rebounding during the Finals due to KL playing the 4 where he didn’t have both Duncan and Splitter clogging up the paint and stealing those rebounding opportunities?

  • Tim in Surrey

    I’m sure he meant Eurobasket (obviously…).