Better than a blockbuster: The growth of Kawhi Leonard

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Kawhi Leonard might the the bridge between the current Spurs core and the next wave of Spurs stars. (Photo credit: Andrew Smith)

Kawhi Leonard showed at the 2012 Las Vegas Summer League that he’s not out of his element when the team relies up him for the bulk of its offense. The competition he faced in Vegas wasn’t up to NBA regular season standards, much less those of he Western Conference Finals, but any comfort Leonard gained as a playmaker will make an already top-notch Spurs offense better.

The Big Island spent most of his rookie year spotting up in the corner, making the occasional drive to the basket if the defense was slow to rotate. Leonard has said publicly that he’d like to have a greater role offensively and the Spurs have embraced that. This isn’t the case of some role player trying to shoot outside his range, Leonard has possible star potential and the Spurs are willing to do whatever they can to help him reach that ceiling. That it can make the current Spurs team better as well is just gravy.

For Leonard, it really does seem that the sky is limit for what he can become. He’s just 21 years old and joined the Spurs after a couple of years in college (not one year as Coach Pop has said publicly a couple of times). He’s young and has plenty left to learn. Despite his youth, Leonard is already one of the more physically impressive Spurs. He had an NBA-ready body coming into the league at 20. Admittedly, I thought his explosion was going to be greater than it is, though I’m not trying to knock him in that area. For every bit of disappointment I had for his aerial exploits (which wasn’t much), I was twice as excited by his surprisingly good ball handling and shooting. This is what I get for not watching college basketball.

Even more than Kawhi’s fit worked in a basketball sense, was how he integrated into the Spurs culture. To put it plainly, he was perfect. Leonard’s quiet demeanor, both on court and off, meshed with exactly how the Spurs as an organization like to go about their business. Leonard worked hard and stayed out of trouble; they couldn’t ask for much more from a rookie.

San Antonio should be excited about where Kawhi Leonard can go because of what he lacked last offseason. Leonard had just a handful of days after he was drafted to work with Spurs coaches before the NBA lockout cut off all communication between the two parties. In that time, Leonard was able to take the instruction he got from Spurs coaches, specifically shooting critiques from Chip Engelland, and incorporate those into his game while being cut off from the rest of the franchise. Kawhi went from a 29% college 3-point shooter to a 38% NBA perimeter shooter in about a year.

Leonard then went through an abbreviated training camp and preseason in preparation of his rookie year. With everything he faced at such an inexperienced point in his career, you could forgive Leonard if he didn’t impress in his first go-around. But he did. He played so well the Spurs had the flexibility to trade Richard Jefferson. When Leonard slid into the freshly-opened starting small forward spot, he thrived. As the playoffs came around and the Spurs rolled through to the Western Conference Finals, you never got the impression that the moment was too big for Kawhi Leonard. No, he looked like he belonged. All this after two years of college ball and a lockout-shortened season.

Despite the successful first season and the improvements it appears he’s made since, Leonard is lucky to have a ways to go. Coach Pop made the comment a couple of times over the second half last season that despite some of Leonard’s positive performances, he doesn’t even know the plays yet. While Pop was exaggerating, it’s true that the Spurs have plenty of offense left to teach the young swingman. Early in the season Pop admitted that the Spurs were using a limited playbook because of the lockout-shortened preseason. With a compressed regular season schedule that didn’t afford the team much time to practice, it’s not a stretch to think that there’s plenty more to the Spurs offense that Kawhi Leonard can learn. Add to that his individual growth as a player — especially one looking to make a second-year jump — and improvements from Danny Green, Boris Diaw and Patty Mills, and the Spurs elite offense can be even better this season.

What about defensively? When Kawhi Leonard was drafted, most expected him — myself included — to be severely limited offensively and a borderline lockdown defender on the other end. What we got was a player a little farther along on offense while not quite the defender we hoped. That’s not to say Kawhi Leonard is a bad defender. He pulled the assignment on Kevin Durant during the Western Conference Finals and while he made his share of mistakes, he had effective stretches limiting one of the best scorers in the NBA.

Leonard has a ways to go to have the same impact on defense that Bruce Bowen did. Bowen is a Hall of Famer on one end of the floor and coming close to his impact isn’t guaranteed. But Leonard is no slouch. According to Synergy Sports, Leonard allowed .86 points per possession overall on defense last season. He gave up the same number when defending the ball handler on pick-and-roll situations and allowed .75 PPP on spot-ups. These are solid numbers for a rookie, numbers you can expect to improve with time.

The question thrown around some over the last two or three seasons centers around when the Spurs are going to blow things up and rebuild. When are the Spurs going to bottom out and start over? Maybe it won’t be for a while. Maybe Kawhi Leonard is indeed the future star some in the Spurs organization think he is, and instead of bottoming out the Spurs going to to transition smoothly from one era of the franchise to another. I can’t think of many players Spurs fans would like to see make it happen more than Kawhi.

  • ThatBigGuy

    Coming out of the draft, we compared him to Bowen, which was a somewhat lofty comparison for such an unheralded rookie. One year later, I think comparng him to Bowen is selling Kawhi short. Who do we compare him to if he’s dropping 18ppg while making All-Defense teams in 2 years? Is he Joe Johnson 2.0? LeBron Lite?

    85% of Bowen’s D with 85% of Joe Johnson’s offense would sure make for one hell of a player.

  • http://48minutesofhell.com Andrew A. McNeill

    I believe Basketball Prospectus Kawhi Leonard’s similarity score comparing him closely to Joe Johnson at the beginning of last season. Not sure where he’s at this year.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=173600134 Ryan McShane

    “According to Synergy Sports, Leonard allowed .86 points per possession overall on defense last season. He gave up the same number when defending the ball handler on pick-and-roll situations and allowed .75 PPP on spot-ups.”

    For reference (since most of us don’t have access to synergy), in what percentile are .86 PPP overall and .75 PPP on spot-ups (for rookie SFs, all-time rookie SFs, all SFs, and all-time SFs)? How did Bruce look as a rookie (PPP and percentile) and over his career?

  • ThatBigGuy

    Coming in to the league last season, Hollinger compared him to Shawn Marion. I think that the best way to explain Kawhi’s potential is some hybrid of Marion and Johnson.

    I’m not sure if that sort of player can be the best player on a championship team, but the combination of character and talent that Kawhi brings to the table now and in the future will help continue the Spurs’ legacy as an organization which does things the right way. Until we grab a HOF big man in the 2019 draft, that is…

  • http://48minutesofhell.com Andrew A. McNeill

    For the record, I can’t find either of the pieces where Pop jokes about Kawhi not knowing any of the plays and where Pop says that they used a limited playbook last season. So take that info with a grain of salt for now.

  • rj

    no doubt he has tremendous potential, but i don’t see him being an effective shot creator. will we see another “blockbuster” article about tiago splitter? we’ve acknowledged in the past how important it will be to have him availible for an entire training camp. or have we seen enough ugly jump hooks…..?

  • STIJL

    I will tend to error my opinion on the side of “we’ll see”. Kawhi probably had rookie butterflies causing him to not be as good a finisher as his explosions to the rim warranted. His ball handling, though good for a person his size, was indeed with flaw. But…if he can continue to keep or improve his three point shooting AND become better at driving the lane with efficiency…look for the Spurs to incorporate him more in their offense.

    On defense. I wouldn’t say he was bad though points per game allowed while he was on the court certainly wasn’t an inspiring number. (And granted that could be attributed to his pairings) But that and whatever he can improve upon on offense will be the biggest measuring stick which will differentiate him being a future “all star” or solid starter/role player.

  • DorieStreet

    I look forward to seeing Leonard starting his 2nd season in the league–how much improvement he has made in his game, and the expansion of his role in the Spurs’ system.

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  • Nima K.

    Sorry folks, but in my opinion, KLs not going to be enough to pull off a WCF win. This is especially guaranteed if we’re relying on TP to carry the team. Trade or die.

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