Spurs’ quietest player brings the ruckus
AT&T CENTER — He’s the quietest player on the floor for the San Antonio Spurs, even more stoic than long-suspected robot Tim Duncan. He’s so reserved, in fact, that Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich joked earlier in the season that he still hadn’t spoken to half the players on the Spurs roster. And yet, when he starts to make plays he generates the biggest jump in performance in play from his teammates, and the AT&T Center crowd couldn’t be louder.
Kawhi Leonard is the spark plug for the San Antonio Spurs in 2012-13, ironic considering you might think he needs a jumpstart just to get anything more than a blank stare on his face. We often equate inspiring teammates and getting a rise out of them to chest thumping, slapping the floor and Carlos Boozer-esque screams of fury, and yet Leonard does it by simply manufacturing positive plays for the Spurs out of nowhere, all with the same stone-faced reaction.
Whenever the Spurs go on a run, Leonard’s massive fingerprints are everywhere. During the Spurs’ 13-0 first quarter run in their 109-91 Game 5 win over the Warriors, Leonard deflected a pass away intended for Stephen Curry, recovered the ball and found Tony Parker for a transition layup. On the next offensive possession Leonard posted up on Curry, turned and hit a short jumper in the lane. The Spurs scored eight unanswered points after Leonard’s two-possession domination.
When the Warriors cut the Spurs’ lead to eight points in the fourth quarter, Leonard knocked down a big 3-pointer to get the advantage back to 11. Two possessions later he got a steal that eventually led to a Tony Parker midrange jumper and a 15-point lead. Leonard finished the night with 17 points on 7-for-8 shooting and seven rebounds.
All of this while rotating between chasing Curry, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes through an obstacle course of shoulders, elbows, hips and butts, all in the name of getting a hand in the face. After his first half barrage in Game 2 of this series, Thompson hasn’t been heard from much in this series thanks to Leonard’s defense. Oh, and he’s also San Antonio’s second-leading rebounder in the series, averaging a cool nine boards a game from the small forward position.
What makes it all so interesting is how controlled it is. Leonard rarely attempts a play he doesn’t know if he can make, save for the occasional high-flying dunk in transition or on a baseline cut. Every shot he releases is one he feels completely comfortable making. Every loose ball he reaches for is one that he’s totally capable of getting his hands on, which is remarkable considering how few players in the league can make those plays. His discipline in knowing what he is and isn’t capable of doing is impressive for a 21 year-old.
If there’s one criticism you can levy at Leonard, it’s that he’s not assertive enough, especially offensively. If Tony Parker is the Spurs’ barometer for success, Leonard is… well, I don’t know, I’m unaware of many other weather measurement tools besides the thermometer. Just know that Leonard’s disruptive play is just as much an indicator of the Spurs’ success. When he’s taking a lot of shots, it generally means the Spurs are moving the ball well and Leonard is the recipient of good offense. Or it means that Coach Pop is resting everybody.
At times he floats through games with seemingly little impact, though that’s a product of both his insistence on letting the game come to him and his role on the team as lineup caulk as opposed to go-to player, filling in gaps wherever needed. With Manu Ginobili unable to be counted consistently for being anything more than inconsistent, the Spurs would benefit from Leonard taking a step up and being more assertive.
The Spurs are generally a better team when Leonard’s usage rate is up. He shows a remarkable ability to implement skills and moves he works on with Spurs assistant coaches into his game fairly quickly. The Spurs go as Tony Parker goes, but they don’t get far without the all-around contributions of Kawhi Leonard. And while the second year forward does his work in silence, the results are deafening.