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.

  • TunaDM

    Kawhi Leonard is awesome! Let’s his play do the talking. Great great individual!! Go Spurs!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=796715392 Phillip Mabry

    Love this dude. If Big Island, Icy Hot, and CoJo are actually the future of the Spurs – that makes me happy.

  • jamberg

    If there’s one place Kawhi needs to improve, it’s creating his own shot from distance. He has range, but I think in the regular season he didn’t make (or maybe even attempt) a 3-pointer that wasn’t assisted on. This translates to the midrange game as well. If he’s going to become our second or third creator on offense in the future, he has to make his own offense without driving first or being simply a catch-and-shoot player.

  • Captain Late

    Wasn’t one of the primary goals of the 2012 Summer League for the coaching to have KL work on his individual game so as to be able to create on his own…and that the results were so good he was sent home after like 3 games? Knowing this, then it’s up to the Spurs coaching staff to start designing plays so when there are game mismatches the team isn’t just relying on “the big 3”.

  • DooDooJump

    Did anyone see Joseph’s hit on Curry? I can’t remember the quarter, but the Spurs have the ball, Curry’s turned towards the basket just above the FT line, and Cory’s sprinting towards the paint and just levels Steph. I can’t tell if it was intentional, but it looked pretty severe.

  • Trey

    That was nothing compared to what Bogut was doing to duncan. But come back to san antonio and the refs there are catching all of those cheap shots.

  • jamberg

    He definitely has the talent. I think it might be mostly what this article mentioned: Kawhi always wants to be within his comfort zone, and KD-esk 3’s off high screens aren’t his zone. We’ve seen him create his shot off iso sets (I think it was against Chicago, when Paker sat after his ankle) Kawhi created his own offense. But if he can start creating his shot beyond the arc, his game (and the Spurs) ceiling will be so much higher.

  • senorglory

    Or the hip checks bogut gives Parker.

  • Len

    Kawhi really played a good one in game 5. His efforts aren’t icing on the cake anymore. He’s a vital part of the Spurs success now and they’ll need him to play excellent if they have any shot at ring #5.

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  • F

    Leonard and an improved Splitter will be the difference against the Grisly. It’s payback time.for 2010.

  • F

    Or taking out Barnes legs like Tim Duncan. Not that it was intentional.

  • F

    This year could be all about revenge. Grizzlies beat Clips who beat them last year. Grizzlies beat OKC who beat them 2 years ago. Spurs beat Grizzlies who beat them 2 years ago. Miami beats Spurs who beat them when Lebum was in Cleveland.

  • Budikavlan

    He’s quiet, unassuming, a fount of potential, and a great team player, but Kawhi Leonard is one other thing even more prominent: he’s cute, too.

  • NYC

    That was Boris Diaw. What is your point?

  • senorglory

    What are you talking about, when?

  • senorglory

    Wasn’t even a take out.