2012 Las Vegas Summer League: Kawhi Leonard expands comfort zone and Spurs beat Hawks

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Remember the name. (Photo credit: Andrew Smith)

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.

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MOAR PLZ (Photo credit: Andrew Smith)

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.
  • DBW

    When the Spurs came to Portland for that disappointing game where the big three sat, I did get to see Dawson live, and I was quite impressed. In the first quarter, he got beat a few times, but he was very smart about figuring out which tricks his opponents used, and he changed up his game to become a lot more effective as the game went on.

  • ThatBigGuy

    Our coach would tell us this Lincoln quote every day in our pre-practice huddle: “My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.” Kawhi seems to have taken that to heart.

    I would agree with your statements about Joseph and Dawson. However, I’m not as optimistic about Richards. He seemed lost more often than not, and I don’t think it was a lack of familiarity with the system. Kawhi didn’t know the system last season, but he made tons of basketball plays: cuts off the ball, rebounding in traffic, the extra pass. Richards didn’t show me that. He also played way too tall defensively in the post. Twice his man made a spin move and Richards was left lunging away from the basket. In all fairness, it’s a really tiny sample size, but I would have liked to see just a bit more natural basketball IQ.

  • http://48minutesofhell.com Andrew A. McNeill

    Good points. I think I’m not as concerned about Richards’ negatives in one game because of his lack of basketball stability over the last couple of years. Basically, I just want him to play well this week and then go somewhere with a relatively high level of competition and play the entire season there. Whether that’s in Austin or Spain or Italy, doesn’t matter. Just good comp where he can develop and have some of these things hammered into him.

  • GoSpursGo

    Pop is one of the best coaches in the league, but I do wonder if he is the best for developing young talent. Yawn went from unable to get minutes here to a very serviceable backup big in Dallas just by getting consistent minutes. I am usually the last to second guess Pop’s approach to developing young players, but I wonder if a sink or swim period of several games for players like Blair, Richards, or Tiago, where the Spurs are allowed to lose games to find out if these players will step up, would be a good idea. I can’t help but think that the turning point of last season was the Mavs game where Pop basically let his second unit sink or swim. The lost the game, but the team was much improved afterwards

  • yzzerdd

    I just want kawhi to lose the braids.

  • SAJKinBigD

    Why? That’s ridiculous! I’m not trying to troll, but I love his braids. They’re distinctive and HIS. Let’s not make him into someone else. GO Kawhi GO! GO SPURS GO!

  • grego

    The guy just turned 21 and he’s very young/raw still. There is still time. Anyone expecting anything interesting at the moment, is being foolish. 2-3 years from now, sure, but he’s your definition of a project.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/GPGPDOZBJODOJLIDUI3YZ3W4HU Little_Steve

    Yeah, I never noticed his hair. To busy watching him school the rooks! If all we get out of Vegas is more floor time for CJ and KL I am happy. Great seeing CJ start where he left off in D-league. If Dawson or RR impress then it’s just gravy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1183770625 Jon Richey

    Kahwi is my favorite new Spur…….not my new favorite Spurs though, that will be TD ’til the day he retires and then some.

  • STIJL

    Great analogy of failing to succeed. So many deem failure as being worthless when all it can do is improve one’s greatness once they figure it out. Now granted some make the same mistake over and over…and some try very hard but don’t have the tools…but the great ones learn from their mistakes and rise to greatness. Kawhi seems to be of the intellect AND talent to rise.

    As far as Dawson and Richards…Dawson could be a 4th (perhaps 3rd) big on a less than talented team if awarded time to play more minutes. Richards has a long path of improving but as pointed out seems to have the physicality and talent to improve.

    Joseph?…if Mills proves to be a viable back up, Joseph just might play himself to being a good trade asset which might help enable the Spurs to land somebody of need. Young, first round pick, that would do well backing up say…Kyle Lowry? http://espn.go.com/nba/tradeMachine?tradeId=bus5j5v

    I mean…what are the Raptors going to do with all those big men when needing a back up point guard? :)

  • lvmainman

    I get the same feeling. Pop has a big reluctance to rely on rookies. But, he does seems to be improving by letting Leonard play.
    Pop in my mind did Green (and the Spurs team) a disservice by benching him in the playoffs. The Heat had the same situation with Chalmers being 2 for 18 after 3 games and he DID NOT get benched. Chalmers scored 25 pts in the next game. No way should Green have been benched. Had his minutes reduced, maybe, but benched? No way.

  • Rad E Cool

    Knowing the Spurs have a pretty much full roster, I’ve been getting a little antsy when I’ve seen all these wing players I’ve been hoping the Spurs would pick up the last couple of seasons become available to sign or get traded for not much – guys like Ronnie Brewer, Josh Childress, Dorrell Wright, Mickael Pietrus, and Kelenna Azuibuke – but then I remember that we’ve got Kawhi and not Richard Jefferson as our SF. And Kawhi is cheaper, has a better future and meshes better with the rest of the Spurs than I can imagine any of the aforementioned guys doing so.

    Thanks for the article and the Summer League wrap

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  • Tessa

    Dawson would be a useful addition — it would be nice to have more of a banger we could go to.

    Personally, I’d like to see us use our 5th big on a guy who play real minutes if he needs to. With Duncan’s minutes ramping down and Tiago’s injury history, we need someone who can step in and play if he needs to. In a perfect world, it would be someone who could challenge Bonner for the #4 big man spot, but for the minimum, that may not be practical. I’d be okay bringing Blair back in this spot if we can’t move him and can’t find anyone better, but Dawson might be a better choice, and I’d also like to get a look at Ajinca this week.

    If we decide to carry Ryan Richards as a developmental player (or, say, JaMychal Green), I’d rather either carry him as a 6th big — and clear the roster somewhere else if need be — or just sign him to a D League contract.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Blair had plenty of time to prove himself starting and getting the lion share of minutes during the last two seasons but Tiago was a victim of sporadic bench minutes. At this point he should be getting the lion’s share of the front court minutes after Timmy. Hate to say it but in this system pop should have him involved in the offensive scheme of things more than he is. He would flourish greatly in another system that focused on his game’s strength’s in the PNR. He’s just a screener and that’s what pop wants out of him. If pop doesn’t use him in the PNR capacity in the majority of the time on the court than why did he bring him over? With his footwork I don’t know why he’s not being used more to his abilities on offense. And on defense he hangs tougher than Bonner or Blair. Enough said give this kid a break or ship to a good team. I’d like to see him play when he’s getting 25-30 minutes every night he steps on the court. And as for all of you Diaw fans let’s see what he does again in the playoffs against bigger and better front courts. I don’t need to tell you or remind you about that. Anybody on the court with Timmy looks good until they have to face up one on one with better trees. By the way Tyson Chandler got away with 6 fouls that I saw when he played Brazil. And Carmelo just plain sucks.

  • Titletown99030507d

    For the last two seasons everything is humming along during the regular season then pop does it again in the playoffs totally looses confidence in some of his players. Nice one pop. Talk about winter shoes 2.0

  • Titletown99030507d

    Nothing to do with basketball.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Richards should be put on the Toros and let him rippen. He can shoot free throws. His outside shot in one game does not determine what he really is. That was the first taste of any respectable competition he has had ever! He’ll get it.

  • DorieStreet

    The last thing a fan should be concerned with. Stick with how the man plays.

  • DorieStreet

    I second that. All this information about him floating from team to team, league to league- I see that has being a hinderance to Richards improving his skills and eliminating errors and weaknesses. Toros won the DLeague championship; put Ryan in that achieving team environment.

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