Kawhi Leonard: Round peg in a round hole?
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.