Player Capsules (Plus): Kawhi Leonard and Throwing the Haymaker
Hey, all. Aaron McGuire here, the sometimes stat guy. I have my own NBA blog, called Gothic Ginobili, at which I’m currently writing a 370 part series profiling almost every player in the NBA. As part of a cross-posting effort, when a capsule goes long, I’ll post the extended version elsewhere. Today? I’m discussing Kawhi Leonard
You know what really gets me about Kawhi Leonard? I was really high on him coming out of college. Extremely high, even. Back before the season began, I wrote one of the most gushingly positive posts I’ve ever written about a basketball player. I outlined why Leonard was the most exciting question for the Spurs going into the 2012 season and explicated his potential. He was the straw that stirred the drink, the single ghost in the machine that could transform the Spurs’ worn out difference engine into a sparkling new Macbook. The world is his, so to speak, and I was expecting a brilliant experience his rookie year. The thing is, I wasn’t expecting exactly the experience I got, and that’s partly what makes it so absurd. Some of the things Leonard obviously had a clear capacity for in college (lockdown defender, posted up as a primary big man, and passed extremely well) manifested little or not at all so far an NBA level, despite being the core of what most people thought would make him valuable.
Sure, some oversights were moderately expected — while his size dominated in college, it doesn’t do anything close to that in the NBA. Others weren’t — despite the rookie learning curve, Leonard’s defense wasn’t really a huge asset to the Spurs at all this year, and every single statistic you can find on it indicates Leonard performed as a below-average defender this past year. But that’s part of what makes Leonard’s performance so remarkable. Despite falling short in multiple places where everyone expected he’d exceed, he was still an absolutely phenomenal rookie. And he did that because he took all these perceived holes in his game — his shooting, his versatility, his lack of a clear position — and completely filled the criticisms. He erased them. With the help of the Chip Engelland, Coach Pop and the rest, Leonard was able to turn flaws into assets. Dust into gold. And thinking on that, you start to get a bit greedy, and wonder where exactly the carousel ends. What happens when Kawhi delivers on the potential we thought he had, if he’s already exterminated his few perceived flaws as a player in such an efficient way?
You start to wonder the obvious. Could he be better than anyone expected — even me?
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Most people know that Kawhi is a great 3-point shooter. At least, he was one in the NBA — it’s worth noting (once again) that he was absolutely atrocious from behind the arc in college, hence why nobody expected he’d suddenly be good at it on the NBA level. One of the notable things that most people don’t realize, though, is that Leonard isn’t your everyday corner-bomber. While he takes a lot of 3s from the corner, he also takes (and makes) more from above the arc than most would expect. In particular, in the 2012 NBA playoffs, Leonard shot 13 of his 40 3-pointers from above the break. He made seven — 54%, for those counting. Yes, he took more corner 3s — 27 of his 40 threes were corner shots, but he doesn’t only shoot corner shots. In fact, during his first regular season, he took far more above-the-break 3s than corner 3-pointers, and his lack of hesitation with the shot is one of the reasons the Spurs offense moves so fluidly. It’s easier to camp on the corners when you know for a fact every shooter makes their home there. When you have a shooter or two who regularly moves out and shoots on a dime or a break, the defense becomes that much more disoriented. There’s that much more space they need to cover if they want to muffle your team. And while the Spurs use a lot of corner 3-pointers, with Neal and Leonard and Manu in the fold, the Spurs offense relies almost as much on effective use of wide open above-the-break 3s.
Which actually leads into a point I think is important, and deserves special emphasis. The corner 3 is a fantastic shot, but it’s primarily made that way because of the worse 3-point shots and long 2-pointers that came before it. I like to think of it as a haymaker shot, in a way. Have you ever watched boxing, or mixed martial arts? The haymaker is a relatively ubiquitous concept, but in case you’re at a loss, it’s the classic punch delivered by whipping your shoulder back and throwing your full weight into a forceful wind-up. It’s extraordinarily strong, and just about anyone can deliver it, primarily because it doesn’t rely on muscle contraction. It relies on momentum, weight transfer, and taking your opponent by surprise. And it often works. The haymaker is an usually an incredibly effective punch. When you see it or a punch of its brood used, it’s regularly the glorious cap to an unfettered barrage, and the shot that gets all the attention. It’s so strong, so efficient, so overpowering. And the corner 3 is like that too. It’s incredibly important to an efficient offense, and arguably the best shot in the entirety of basketball. It’s the closest 3-point shot, and among the best “one trick pony” shots out there — it’s a very well defined area of the court, one that you can practice a specific form on to make that single specific shot. No creativity required, no calculation of the angles, no real challenge. There’s a reason offensively defunct players like Bruce Bowen became artisans of the corner 3.
But context matters. If you walk into the ring and just start throwing haymakers, your foe might get caught off guard for the first. Perhaps you can get a second hit in too. But after a while he’ll just block them and stare in bemusement while you feebly try and pound the same rock over and over again. And then he’ll throw his own uppercut, knock you off guard, and throw his own haymaker. Game, set, match. You’re done. What really makes a haymaker effective? Coupling it with a strong array of moves to disorient the opponent, and get them off their guard. That’s when it hurts. When it’s not simply an unyielding and brutal display of power and might, rather the sprig of mint in the mint julep. That’s when the haymakers really get you — when they’re reserved, steady, and planned. Part of the program. In the same way, a team that simply tried to shoot all their shots at the rim or in the corners would quickly find themselves run off the court by any defense worth half its salt. Predictability is the bane of a complex offense, and in some ways, it almost feels like we’ve as a collective deified efficient shot distribution to the point of incongruity. Not every shot can be a beautifully efficient shot — the reason the Spurs offense works so well is the numerous options buried in every play, and yes, some of them aren’t naturally efficient.
The reason it works — just as it worked for the mid-aughts Suns — is that the Spurs are always a threat to convert a shot from anywhere on the court. That everyone knows their pet spots, the right movements, and the right pass. That the ball isn’t simply being forced into some “efficient” shot. Good offenses take efficient shots. Great offenses develop efficient shots — they turn the inefficient into the most efficient shot they possibly can, let it rip, and reap the benefits two possessions later when the defense shades hard to avoid the shot that just killed them and leave the true killing shot on the table. Good offenses focus on getting the corner 3 — great offenses focus on all the reasons why they get the open 3. The gradual development of the Spurs into an offensive dynamo has relied on many things, but above all, it’s relied on the players gaining a true understanding of why the shots that are efficient are as such. And this past season, Kawhi Leonard’s natural ability to pick up on the underlying philosophy that made the Spurs so deadly was one of the big reasons the Spurs managed to make a WCF in dominating form despite Manu’s tepid playoffs.
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To the 2012 Spurs, Kawhi Leonard was the means of delivery. He spent more of his time as the man on the Spurs who threw the haymaker rather than the man who made the intermediate shots, or the man who set up the shots. He spent more time delivering the corner 3s and finishing off their foes than he spent battering them in the intermediary. The question going forward, and the one I can’t wait to see, is how he acquaints himself with the finer moments. The open midrange shot that makes the opposing team’s best defender shade towards the elbow instead of the corner. The perfect pass to an invisible cutting Tony Parker, ready to slice the team up and force them to collapse on the next possession. Not merely taking the above-the-break 3 but commanding the above-the-break 3, displaying efficiency in form and function beyond simply a developed adherence to the efficient over the inefficient. A philosophy rather than a dictum, a predilection rather than prescription.
And you know what? Leonard impressed me in many ways his rookie year, but perhaps most impressive was his attitude. For most players, I’d look at the previous paragraph and wonder if I wasn’t expecting a little too much. With Leonard, I don’t really feel that way. As I said paragraphs earlier, Leonard displayed a natural ability to pick up on the Spurs’ underlying philosophy of offense, and better yet, there seemed to be a distinctive understanding of why. While he wasn’t converting those plays, it seemed less like he couldn’t and more like he viscerally understood it wasn’t best for him to be taking those shots right now. But what happens when it becomes best for him to take those? What happens when his defense rounds into form, his midrange shot makes itself passable, and he’s developed into the roster’s core player, an all-star talent that runs the engine?
I don’t know. But I’ve got a good feeling about it, and I’m terribly excited to find out.
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