Hurry up and wait: Leonard on unorthodox path to stardom

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Kawhi Leonard’s developmental curve is on a path that’s more difficult to predict than those of most young players drafted in the middle of the first round. Where many of his peers are selected by, at best, fringe teams in the top half of the draft, Leonard was absorbed by a Spurs team focused on reloading rather than rebuilding. And instead of being forced to quickly advance as a young leader on a growing roster — as many 15th overall picks in a good draft must do — the soft-spoken 22-year-old has had the chance to sit back and learn from the NBA’s most businesslike organization.

But the next step is right around the corner.

Young players of his caliber rarely find themselves in an early career situation as unique as playing alongside three future Hall-of-Famers, and because of this don’t often find themselves taking a back seat in the offensive game plan. But Leonard embraced this role through his first two seasons as a professional, implementing new facets of his game in the process and learning more skills that he’ll adapt at a later date.

Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News mentioned to Leonard in a recent interview session that Gregg Popovich said he was “actually going to design some plays for (Kawhi) this year.” And in a rare moment for the Spurs’ small forward, Leonard broke the silence that followed with a laugh.

“Well, yeah that feels good. (That’s coming) a long way from him telling everybody at practice, ‘We’re not running a play for Kawhi,'” Leonard said. “So for him to say that is a great feeling, and that all my hard work pays off and that I’m getting better.”

The third year of a player’s career is often a good benchmark for measuring progress in the NBA, and as Leonard takes the leap into this territory, the most likely evolution we’ll see is a higher usage rate — or number of plays “used” by a player per 40 pace-adjusted minutes — with more sets designed to put him in position to score. And really, we’ve already gotten a preview of what this might look like going forward.

During the NBA Finals, Leonard was arguably one of the best four or five players on the floor at all times. As his usage rate grew (15.2 in the Finals), so did his effectiveness. When Kawhi was used to attack and initiate his own offense more often than he was to feed off the Big 3 and others, his shooting numbers improved, his turnover ratio dropped and his rebound percentage skyrocketed*. And what’s even more interesting: Leonard remained incredibly efficient as a scorer despite the number of assisted attempts dropping dramatically.

*During the regular season, Leonard grabbed 11 percent of available rebounds. That number blew up to nearly 19 percent in the Finals, where he averaged more than 11 boards per game. 

Leonard’s first two years have been spent primarily as a beneficiary of the ball-movement in the San Antonio system. While he did develop a one-dribble pull-up jumper in the mid-range area when defenders closed out to the 3-point line, he was still mostly relegated to taking advantage of opportunities his teammates afforded him. That changed drastically in the Finals.

More than 65 percent of Leonard’s made field goals were assisted during the 2012-13 regular season, but that number dropped nearly 17 points during the last seven games of the Spurs’ season. He was as individually aggressive in the Finals as we’ve ever seen him, scoring more than 51 percent of his baskets without the aid of an assist. And as he scored with less help, he actually made better decisions in terms of his shot locations.

At 48.3 percent during the regular season, Leonard was one of the NBA’s most efficient mid-range shooters. Still, he all but abandoned the shot against Miami. Of the 80 shots he put up in the Finals, only nine of them (11.3 percent of his attempts) came on mid-range jumpers**. These shots, most often judged as the least effective in the game, made up nearly a quarter of his offense during the regular season. But in the Finals, Leonard rarely stopped before getting to the rim. Relentlessly, 60 percent of his shot attempts came inside the paint, and once he got there he converted 62.5 percent of the time. (See shot distribution chart below.)

**In this case, the mid-range area is the space outside of the paint but inside the 3-point line.

 

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And when the cards were on the table, Leonard was often at his best. His NBA Finals fourth-quarter true-shooting percentage of 74.5 was by far the best on the team, and as the games wound down the Spurs showed more and more confidence in their future star. It’s a good sign for the franchise when a second-year forward gets noticeably better as the pressure grows more and more immense. The Spurs’ offense as a whole began to crumble around Leonard late in the latter games of the series as Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili faltered, but without the former San Diego State Aztec San Antonio would’ve been long gone by the time the final minutes rolled around.

Leonard’s usage rate grew slightly from Year 1 to Year 2 in San Antonio, and his role is expected to expand even more heading into the 2013-14 season. For comparison’s sake, there are quite a few young stars that share his position in the league, but the one I keep coming back to — though they certainly have their differences — is Paul George.

Similar in age and defensive acumen, George entered a situation more typical for a player selected from his draft slot. The Pacers were a rising young team looking to add talent and potential to a roster perhaps a couple of years away from being a legitimate threat. George — drafted No. 10 overall in 2010 — was an explosive and talented athlete, but his raw skill set needed a little bit of time to mature.

But the Fresno State product has blossomed in Frank Vogel’s system, taking a Pacers team toe-to-toe with the NBA’s best and nearly helping lead Indiana to a Finals berth over the Heat after an Eastern Conference Finals bloodbath. George’s third year in the league was a breakout one by definition, and it coincided with a definite spike in usage rate.

There’s a difference though. Given Indiana’s dependence on George to create offense early in his career, the high-flyer’s rookie usage rate of 16.1 is higher than Leonard has achieved in either of his first two seasons in the league. And since then, George has gone from an 18.1 in Year 2, to a 22.4 last season. That translated to a Most Improved Player award and a spot in the conversation of the best young forwards in the game.

But as George’s usage rate increased, his efficiency dropped a few points, which is typically par for the course for wing players. Still, while his shooting numbers weren’t elite by any means, George has a very well-rounded skill set. He can pass, rebound and defend, and he’s only improving in these categories. As he continues to grow along with the team around him, I expect it will be easier for him to put the ball in the basket more efficiently.

Leonard is a different player. He was more of a small-ball power forward in college, and he has a long way to go to become the passer and facilitator George has become. And who knows, he may never be that guy. But his ability to score at a high percentage and take care of the ball are two areas the Spurs can build upon.

And the thing about Kawhi: He might be quiet, but his thoughts are loud.

“I’m going to put in this work in the offseason and hopefully come back strong, better than I was,” he said at a recent Spurs basketball camp appearance. “I’m just trying to be an NBA superstar.”

It’s odd hearing those words out of the mouth of someone whose average sentence could likely fit two or three times over within the space of a tweet, but he’s been consistent about his aspirations. He wants to be great. Slowly but surely, he’ll have his chance.

Leonard’s path to the stardom he seeks isn’t normal. He’s taking the scenic route, stopping to read and learn from the historical markers along the way. But he knows he’s almost there, and from what it sounds like, he’s got plans in San Antonio once the old guard is gone and the road trip ends.

“When that time comes, I’ll be ready to step in.”

Stats courtesy of NBA.com.

  • David Salazar

    nice work, Kawhi is a great young player.

  • Hilda Orduno

    I see this team becoming this young man’s in the near future, he is a true talent.

  • Matthew Swenson

    Kawhi Leonard is making the leap. Right now, he’s the second best player for the Spurs, and in the future, the team’s offensive philosophy will be built around him. Saw him play in college and knew he had what it tales to be great. It also seems Pop has taught him not to talk to reporters.

  • Graham

    I’d say more like 3rd best, but he’s got every bit the chance to be the 2nd best in a couple of years, or even the best in about 4 or 5. As of right now he’s not quite at Tim or Tony’s level

  • STIJL

    These are some very revealing stats. I applaud and have some since of jealousy when it comes to people who can delve into this facet. Above the numbers. Which I like to implement as well as the coordinates that suggest one way or the other. Is the persona a player represents on the court. That being, not of the numbers, but of the ability to put up the numbers. Many players through out the league have data that says they will or will not be a type of player. But to me what Kawhi possesses as most favorable is his ability to adjust and become as the need of the team requests. He’s definitely more than one dimensional. And proving he can, and will, become what a team needs at it’s greatest time of need is the most compelling aspect of his game. I wouldn’t doubt he eventually develops some 2G aspects of his game that will make him even more valuable when it comes to roster line ups during a game.

  • Phil Banks

    Khawi just needs to work on his ball handling and he will pretty much be unguardable.

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