2012 Las Vegas Summer League: Kawhi Leonard expands comfort zone and Spurs beat Hawks
Kawhi Leonard proved to fit the Spurs to a T when San Antonio traded everybody’s favorite, George Hill, for Leonard’s draft rights in June 2011. While showing promise early, the Big Island flourished after Richard Jefferson was traded to Golden State in March and Leonard went on to make the NBA All-Rookie First Team. Any question about Leonard’s future with the Spurs was answered except one: when the big three are gone, can Kawhi carry the load offensively?
Sunday night was step one in finding out the answer to that remaining question. Leonard made his debut for the Spurs’ Las Vegas Summer League team and did so as the go-to guy for the first time in silver and black. Leonard did not disappoint. When all was said and done and the Spurs wrapped up a 82-76 win over the Atlanta Hawks summer league team, Kawhi Leonard put up 23 points on 8-18 shooting with four rebounds, three assists and just two turnovers, despite being the primary ball-handler and playmaker in the second half.
It didn’t start out all positive for Kawhi, though. He seemed content to let the game come to him early, much like he does when playing alongside Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and the rest of the Spurs. These aren’t your typical Spurs though, and being content isn’t what the coaching staff wants to see from Leonard (note: Trevor Zickgraf of Project Spurs has a really good post with David Thorpe along these same lines). Eventually he made a point to get the ball and attack, and while it wasn’t pretty, it was necessary. Leonard started off the game 2-7 from the field and struggled to get good penetration.
It made me think of a section in Chris Ballard’s book The Art of a Beautiful Game. Ballard, along with several other media members, trained at the IMG Academy for a few days under the tutelage of David Thrope and Mike Moreau, getting to know what the offseason workouts are like for some NBA players. One of the things they’re taught is that it’s important for you to struggle, make mistakes and be overwhelmed. You’re not improving if you’re not making mistakes.
We begin with basic dribbling and shooting drills on the two NBA-sized courts. As if by way of apology, at least half a dozen times coach Mike Moreau, director of the IMG Basketball Academy and one of our two main instructors (along with Thorpe), tells us, “Don’t be insulted by the simplicity of what we’re going.” His point is to focus not on what we’re doing but how we’re doing it. So when we yo-yo the ball back and forth with one hand during a dribbling drill, we’re to do it as hard as possible–“HAMMER NAILS!” Moreau shouts, like some crazed foreman–and until we go so fast that we lose the ball. The idea is to simulate a game situation, when a defender is crowding you at full speed. “If you don’t lose the ball, you’re not going hard enough,” Moreau shouts. “MAKE YOURSELF LOSE IT!” It’s a totally unnatural sensation, like speeding up a treadmill until you wipe out. It requires at concerted effort, perhaps even more so, I imagine, for NBA players conditioned to feel that losing the ball is a sign of weakness. Once accomplished, however, the drill is quite liberating. Rarely does one get to screw up and be praised by a coach.
Henry Abbott of TrueHoop was also at the IMG Academy with Chris Ballard and put it this way:
All throughout, Coach Moreau told us all kinds of interesting stuff. One of the most memorable things to me was the idea that this is a laboratory where it is good to find errors. Just working on what you’re good at … that’s not what the best players do. In this gym, turnovers and mistakes are signs you’re discovering and working on fixing weaknesses. The best players love to discover new weaknesses, although they hate them and work hard to correct them immediately. It’s a good way to think about time on the basketball court.
This is the prism we should view Kawhi Leonard’s summer league through. We shouldn’t want to see him dominate, for him to make it look easy. Mistakes are a good thing, so long as they’re coming in ways that Leonard is unfamiliar with. As Sunday night’s game developed, Leonard seemed to make adjustments and improvements on the fly. Where the driving lanes were clogged early, Kawhi figured out how to exploit them and get to the rim.
On one play Leonard attacked the big man helping on a pick-and-roll, gave him a hard crossover dribble and powered to the rim, finishing the basket and drawing the foul. On another play, Leonard was able to beat his man to the basket by utilizing a behind the back dribble in traffic, again finishing with the foul.
Leonard has said publicly that he wants to expand his game, and his role, with the Spurs. Believed to be molded in the Bruce Bowen 3-and-D role when the Spurs traded for his rights, now it appears the sky is the limit for what Leonard can become. There will be bumps and missteps along the way, but that’s all part of the process. With the mistakes comes the growth.
Other thoughts on Game 1 of Summer League
- Cory Joseph scored 18 points on 7-11 of the field and carried the offense early the game while Leonard got his legs under him. The NBA TV commentators observed that Joseph was playing a very Tony Parker-like game, which is true. Joseph did a lot of penetrating and finishing with contact and pulling up from mid-range for his points. The problem is, Joseph doesn’t possess the same quickness that Parker does and, while Joseph is a good passer, he doesn’t have the vision to go along with it. This is what concerns me about his long-term potential in the NBA.
- Ryan Richards made his silver and black debut on Sunday night. There was a lot to like about Richards’ play and some left to be desired. First and foremost, he didn’t know the offense all that way. His timing we several beats too slow, but that’s something that comes with time in the system. It’s not a knock, just an observation. He doesn’t do a very good job of rebounding outside of his area. Typically, a player goes for rebounds in a three-foot radius around his body position. Elite rebounders are those who can get those rebounds outside of his area. But now the good. Richards is big. He’s every bit 6’11” with more bulk on his frame than I expected. To go along with that, he can move well. He runs the floor hard and fast and even had some nimble feet, catching a pass in the lane on a pick-and-roll and making a nice like side hop to avoid the defender and draw a foul. He hit both free throws too, so there’s that. Richards also wasn’t afraid to mix it up inside. Usually big man with good shooting touches like to hang out on the perimeter, but Richards did well to fight for post position on both offense and defense. I’m interested to see how he performs the rest of the week as his 11 second half minutes on Sunday night weren’t enough for me.
- I’m starting to think that, assuming the Spurs move DeJuan Blair at some point, San Antonio could do worse than have Eric Dawson available as a fifth big on the roster. Dawson had 12 points and 13 rebounds against the Hawks and even flashed some nice passing. At 28 years old, Dawson is maxed out as a NBA player, but that’s not to say he can’t be effective in the type of minutes usually reserved for a fifth big. Ideally you’d want to go for youth and potential with that last roster spot, someone you can assign to Austin for development (Richards?) but if we get to March and that spot is available, I could be convinced that Dawson deserves it for the rest of the season.