Kawhi Leonard: Round peg in a round hole?



Photo credit: Dirk Hansen

Over at NBAplaybook.com, our good friend and recently-acquired drinking buddy Sebastian Pruiti has been posting scouting reports of all of this year’s draft picks, starting with the top pick and working his way down. Today Pruiti got to the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard, he of the freakishly long arms and facehugger-like hands. There’s a general curiosity as to how Leonard is going to alter, impact and downright fit in with this Spurs team, not just because of his addition but with the loss of George Hill in acquiring Leonard.

If I were to pick out Leonard’s biggest strength, it would be his on ball defense. Maybe the biggest indicator of how good he is defensively is his ability to force turnovers when defending ball handlers, both in isolation situations and in the pick and roll. When in isolation situations, Leonard forced a turnover 23.8% of the time, holding opponents to 37.5% shootings. In pick and roll situations where he defended the ball handler, Leonard 23.7% of the time, giving up a PPP of just 0.658 (putting him in the top 35% of all college players).

Have you wet your pants with excitement yet? In his post, Sebastian has a video cut together of several plays with Leonard isolated on his man. Watching said video can be considered both satisfying and enjoyable.

Because of the nature of acquiring Leonard, trading everybody’s favorite George Hill, the two will be compared to each other some, even though they are different players. Hill was the Spurs’ top perimeter defender last year, tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best perimeter player. I sharply remember Hill working his butt off chasing Ray Allen around the floor for significant portions of games against the Celtics, and George doing his best to make life a little tougher for Kobe Bryant. Because of Leonard’s length, I think we can expect similar duties for Kawhi next season.

As Pruiti pointed out, Kawhi has extremely long arms for his size and that helps him defend quicker players. But not only that, Leonard’s foot speed is excellent. Looking at their pre-draft measurements on DraftExpress.com, Kawhi Leonard timed quicker than George Hill in the lane agility drill. And the whole point of the lane agility drill is to measure quickness. Coupling Leonard’s length and foot speed could make for one destructive force on the defensive perimeter.

There’s also the matter of rebounding on the defensive end of the floor.

Last season, Kawhi Leonard was one of the best defensive rebounders in college basketball, not just for his position, but as a rebounder in general.  When looking at the top players in terms of Defensive Rebounding Percentage, Leonard finished 13th among all college players, grabbing 26.6% of available defensive rebounds according to KenPom.  Leonard isn’t the most fundamentally sound rebounder, but he uses his physical attributes well enough to allow him to get his hands on opponents’ misses

If we learned anything from the Spurs drafting DeJuan Blair, it’s that rebounding is one of those attributes that translates well from college to the NBA. If the big man rotation is shored up in whatever free agency period the team has post-lockout, controlling the glass could suddenly move from a bit of a question mark to a significant strength for the Spurs.

For every bit of polish Kawhi Leonard has on the defensive end of the floor, he’s every bit of rough on the offensive end. Pruiti goes down the checklist to detail Leonard’s weaknesses: namely shooting and decision-making.The decision-making I don’t anticipate to be a huge problem, because Leonard won’t have the ball in his hands enough to make any decisions.

Shooting could be a problem, however.

I expect Leonard to be used exactly the way Richard Jefferson was the last two seasons. The Spurs will get out and run and look for Leonard in transition, with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili finding Leonard in spots where he will be tasked with simply putting up the shot. In the half court, Leonard will do a lot of swing-and-replace. He’ll get the ball in a spot, look for someone to get it to in a good position and, if nothing is there, swing the ball and replace someone’s spot on the perimeter. Very rarely do I expect to see Leonard running a pick-and-roll, looking to attack the lane.

Parker and Ginobili will be the main catalysts in the penetration game; Kawhi will primarily spot-up in the corner. If the reports of his improved jump shot are true, he may fit the Spurs offense better than Jefferson. The main responsibility Leonard will incur is to not think too much. Hopefully he will have the ball in the right spots where any and all decisions have already been made for him, Kawhi will only have to react. If we’ve learned anything from watching Richard Jefferson the last two years, it’s that a finisher having to think does not make for impeccable execution.

  • Bob

    I really like Leonard. It looks like he has the tools to be a better Bowen. He also gives the Spurs a defensive forward that can probably guard 2-4. It’s hard to fault RJ on offense. He plays best in the open court which also helps the Spurs. The Spurs asked to sit in the corner and hit open 3’s and he hit a career high 44%.

  • Ryan McShane

    Is it weird to say that RJ might be a good mentor to KL??? (at least on offense)

  • Ryan McShane

    (a bonus for possibly keeping RJ… that, and RJ would be owed a crap ton of free money if the Spurs just bought him out with a potential amnesty clause)

  • andy

    the quality i hear most about leonard is the one i think will make us happiest: hard working. apparently the guy is non-stop motor, and if so, that bodes well for him with the spurs. from bowen to hill, we can mold guys who work hard (though i wonder if his work ethic is your average gym rat or bowen/kobe insane). his strengths are exactly our biggest weakness right now, and that also bodes well.

    honestly, i feel that if he can just hone his 3pt shot in this downtime, he stands a chance at seeing some real court time if/when the season starts. too bad chip can’t get his hands on him.

  • Atsmith

    I’m an SDSU season ticket holder and a 20 yr Spur fan. Y’all will love Kawhi! In three years he can be as good a defender as Bowen and a better rebounder and ball handler, and he is not as bad a shooter as people say. He will work his a** off and is team first. 

  • Tyler

    If any amnesty clause includes salary cap savings in addition to lux tax savings (one of the things I’ve heard talked about), I think RJ is a sure thing to get the axe. It’s one thing to overpay someone. It’s another thing to have an overpaid guy (with 3 more guaranteed years no less) you can’t move for anything of value. Contracts like his will also be more of a drag under a harder, more restrictive CBA.

  • Ryan McShane

    $30 million (or whatever he’s owed) is a lot of money to throw away on someone you can’t get re-sign on the cheap. The Spurs might just be stuck with him if the Spurs FO decides to start penny-pinching instead of trying to win. Spending $5-10 mil over the cap is not the Spurs’ style, and spending $5-10 mil over the cap + $30 mil to get rid of a bad asset that isn’t totally useless is even less the Spurs’ style. 

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree with your argument. I just don’t think it’s such a clear-cut decision for the Spurs FO. 

  • Tyler

    Good point. I agree that paying $30M on someone to not play isn’t the Spurs style. But it’s not just the $30M in salary that you have to take into account, it’s the lux tax penalty as well, which should bring the total cost to near $40M (under the last CBA that is, could be more in a new deal). For that $10M difference (over 3 years), can the Spurs sign someone to help fill the void and save a few dollars? I’m inclined to think so, but you never know. You’re right that it’s not cut-and-dried; RJ isn’t a sure thing to get waived.

    Either way, any amnesty argument regarding RJ has as much to do with Kawhi Leonard as it does with RJ. If the organization believes Leonard can step in and be a contributor immediately, it makes the decision a little easier. 

  • ZeusVizzle

    I’d say an apt comparison for Kawhi is a defensive ace like Bruce with a mixture of what RJ was supposed to be for us. Here is proof (2:29 mark): http://youtu.be/uXQxhUH6vJE 

  • GMT

    I don’t think so at all. Leonard might mentor RJ on D, though, haha.

  • Famous Amos

    Ii can’t believe you said “Better than Bowen” Bruce Bowen was the only player in the league who could shut Kobe down and completely frustrate him to the point of wanting to fight Bowen. Kahwai should be good with his natural tools but you shouldn’t compare any to Bruce Bowen, he was a non-flashy but spectacular baller. I’ll never forget all his cluch 3 pointers from the corner.

  • Ryan McShane

    Here’s a question – how soon do the Spurs have to use the amnesty clause? Could they keep RJ for a month and see how KL is faring? I think we can all agree that KL is eventually going to be NBA-good, but is he going to be NBA-good during a season Tim Duncan’s “wheels” haven’t fallen off? As ‘terrible’ as RJ is (especially for the money), I’d still take him over KL at the present time. 

  • Ryan McShane

    I just said what you said. 

  • Bob

    I am not comparing them. Bowen was definitely a defensive ace and clutch three point shooter. I am just saying Leonard has a higher ceiling and it looks like he has a good work ethic too. But you also have to remember as good as Bowen was defensively it got to a point where his limited offense started to hurt the team. In fact that was a big part of the reason for getting RJ.

  • Anonymous

    Sometimes it just feels unfair that the Spurs are so freakishly good at drafting basketball players. No team organization in the NBA has demanded my respect like the Spurs have.

    *Hat Tip*

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  • JOE

    God damn right.