The long arms of Kawhi Leonard

by

AT&T Center–It does not to take much to induce a profanity laced rant from San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. Just ask Richard Jefferson, who was on the receiving end of a particularly nasty one for relaxing on a Kyle Lowry three-pointer that put the Rockets back in striking distance in the final minute of regulation.

But after the win against Houston, Popovich voluntarily let slip the rarely used five-letter “B” word in describing Spurs rookie Kawhi Leonard’s first start. And by “B” word I am of course referring to Bowen, or Bruce Bowen–which is still, in fact, a dirty word across many NBA locker rooms.

“It’s huge for us to have a guy on the team that can do similar things to what Bruce [Bowen] did in the past,” Popovich said. “This young man’s got a lot to learn, but he’s very willing, very versatile, and I think he’s got the ability to be one heck of a player.”

That is not to say Leonard is now, or ever will be, the quality of defender Bowen was for the Spurs. But the versatility, the ability to legitimately guard four positions on the basketball court, is certainly something the Spurs have lacked since Bruce Bowen’s retirement.

Over the past several games Leonard has been thrown in the fire while the Spurs have come away, for lack of a better word, torched. Kevin Durant 21 points on 5-9 shooting, Stephen Jackson a season-high 34 points, and time spent chasing Kevin Martin (18 points) and Kyle Lowry (22 points).

Each matchup has been a lesson. In defending Kevin Durant, Leonard learned a lesson in humility–that sometimes even the best defense can be beaten. For Bowen each night was a thankless job, some nights getting lit up by a Kobe Bryant without an opportunity to return the favor. But it was a short memory that allowed Bowen, and so far Leonard, the ability to maintain the same focus and effort each defensive possession without a hint of discouragement.

Against Stephen Jackson, Leonard learned that all the length in the world matters little if one does not get his hands up guarding a streaky shooter. And against Kevin Martin, Kawhi Leonard learned when you stick your arms out you’ve already fouled Martin, you just don’t know it yet. But the most important lesson?

“Well he’s learning the better defense you play, the more you’re going to be on the court, and the more you’re on the court the more opportunities you have to hit shots,” Spurs forward Richard Jefferson said. “And when you’re a rookie you get so much thrown at you. With no summer league, with no real training camp, to come into a really complicated system. He’s learned it’s just pretty much play defense.

“I think early on he was still trying to justify himself on the court by hitting shots, shooting threes, trying to make an impact on the game that way,” Jefferson added. “Now he knows that if he just goes and plays defense consistently, he’s going to get those minutes, and those minutes in turn are going to help lead to some good offense.”

Leonard’s quick education has been rewarded over the last three games to the tune of 30-plus minutes and key four quarter court time. In return Leonard posted his first double-double against the Oklahoma City Thunder (13 points, 10 rebounds), a career-high 19 points in Milwaukee, and 11 points and eight rebounds in last night’s win against the Rockets.

More importantly in the fourth quarter and overtime, matched minute for minute with Kevin Martin at 12:29 each, Leonard held Martin scoreless and pulled six rebounds, making the kind of stops that would not have been possible (certainly not the rebounds) with a three guard lineup including George Hill.

“Guarding the best player always helps your game,” Leonard said. “It involves being physical and playing at a high level every game.”

The San Antonio Spurs will need Kawhi Leonard to play at a high level defensively if they wish to reach their goals this season. As a defensive-minded rookie with untapped potential, Leonard’s development represents the best chance for improving a defense that ranks in the 20s in most important statistical categories.

“Ten games in now and you can start looking at [the defense] and we’re in the 20’s. High 20’s in field goal percentage, low 20’s in points per game,” Popovich said. “That just won’t get anything done. That’ll portend to a very mediocre basketball season if that doesn’t improve.

“He’s one of the guys in our group that is making a good honest minute-to-minute effort to show that he knows what we want.”

 

  • Anonymous

    I’ve been saying Kawhi could become the next Josh Smith but I take that back….if he keeps this up he could become better than Josh Smith.

    He must be really something if he can come in and play that many minutes, as a rookie, on a team that is notorious for not playing rookies in a system that takes a year or two (by veterans mind you) to learn.  Oh…I’ll mention it again… throw in no training camp to the mix and that he’s only 20 years old.

    FINALLY….a player the Spurs have drafted that actually can come in and produce immediately.  The last player the team drafted that looked that promising was Manu Ginobili.

  • TD BestEVER

    While I’m pretty high on KL ,T. Prince like upside I think we still need to be patient and not anoint him like we have many of our other players(Green,Splitter, etc) until he has shown the ability to sustain what he is doing now and after other teams learn his game and start to defend him differently.  But I think Prince from Detriot is a good player for him to model his game after.  Not that great a shooter but good from the corners and a lock down perimeter defender.  

  • Icewater21

    I think KL could be a third banana on a contender within a year or 4. 17 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 2.5 apg and lockdown D. Hopefully that contending team will wear black and silver….

  • TD BestEVER

    I think 17 is a little high unless he really learns to shoot 3 very well

  • bakedroll

    agreed 17 is a bit high but nothing short of his highest potential ceiling. it could happen. but in all honesty 12-14 is about right for him. he should with a bit more experience be a guy you should expect to get around 2 or 3 trips to the ft line per and a few wide open looks from 3. not to mention the amount of trash points he will be getting with his great rebounding and slash’y’ness (couldnt think of a better word). if we can get him into gazelle mode which is running up and down the court on fast breaks he could certainly turn that 12-14 into 17. and i honestly dont think it will take him 4 years to get to that point.

  • Anonymous

    With KL as the third option, it’s unlikely you’d be a contender. He can be a vital piece though, the highest mpg starter, a real glue guy, and part of a big 4 like you saw in DET and BOS when those teams got to their last trophies and finals appearances.

    I don’t care I’d he gets 17, if he becomes a perennial 1st team defender!

  • Icewater21

    I think 17 is possible when on a running team; 2.5 ppg/ft, 4.5 ppg/garbage, 5 ppg/break, 4 ppg/halfcourt, 0.7 ppg/3pt. something like that. Maybe 4 years is a little bit pessimistic indeed.
    If KW could be a hybrid of Prince, Josh Smith and Josh Howard…wouldn’t that be awesome? The future immedeately looks a bit brighter doesn’t it? 

  • Anonymous

    He’ll be making National commercials if that happens.

  • Wambofilo

    So which one a bright future? Green or Leonard?  So some have already nicknamed Green as D, Leonard as the Lion?

  • Kingofamericans

    His rookie numbers actually do compare to Manu’s rookies numbers-maybe even better…

  • Kingofamericans

    His rookie numbers actually do compare to Manu’s rookies numbers-maybe even better…

  • Bankshot21

    Truth be told I’m just happy all the Danny Green hype has ended. I don’t know how many of you guys said he was the teams best wing defender when both Kawhi and RJ are better. I still miss G.Hill, but Kawhi is proving his worth more and more.

  • TD BestEVER

    The only problem with your comparisons is that Josh Smith is WAAAAAAAYYYYYYY more athletic and Josh Howard has a WAAAAAAAAAYYYYYYYY better offensive game.  Go back and look at those players their rookie years and compare them to KL.  It’s not close, but he does compare to Tayshaun and athletic ability and offensive game.

  • grego

    Pop actually was mad at RJ because they had a foul to give and didn’t use it. 

  • grego

    He worked out with RJ a lot over the summer which is very cool. 

  • grego

    Well Leonard has the higher upside. But both have bright futures. 

  • grego

    I like RJ’s improved defense, but I think if we are thinking pure D, Green is better. RJ’s a little bulkier for forwards, but on guards, Green is a better choice, more often. Green’s the best choice for guards. He was too overhyped, but he still is a great pick up. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Craig-Thomas/1541940034 Craig Thomas

    Who cares what his offensive stats are going to be, Kawhi will be a great player. His defense was spectacular last night on Kevin Martin who lit us up last year to the tune of probably 30 ppg. Kawhi’s defense noticeably effected Martin’s threes (0/5) and he harassed him all the way into the paint. 

    This is not even to mention Kawhi’s offensive game which continues to show improvements. His outside shooting will improve will work over time, but his cuts to the basket were great. He asserted his size against Martin and Lowry while bullying his way to the basket. If we played the same kind of frenetic defense we did against the Rockets in the 4th and OT for longer period of the game, the Spurs will be a great defensive force. 

  • Icewater21

    First you say you don’t care about KL offensive stats and than you write 4 sentences about his offensive game?

  • Icewater21

    I wrote about KL offensive stats because I believe that will be important for the Spurs in the near future. With Manu aging and TD almost retiring…would be nice and big if KL could become a scorer, next to him becoming a Bowen type of defender, too.

  • grego

    17 this season? Not going to happen. 

  • Pingback: The Point Forward » Posts Court Vision: Lakers’ tweaks help Kobe «()

  • Anonymous

    If you look at just their rookie seasons…Kawhi is very comparable to both.  And this being done without a training camp or a pre-season.  I’d say he has a great shot at either matching or surpassing both for his rookie season.

    But you’re correct.  It’s best to temper the expectations.

  • Bob

    He seems alot like Marion in that he is a good rebounder as a small forward. He might not be as athletic or strong.

  • Anonymous

    If it’s already been posted somewhere else on this site, forgive the double post.

    Congratulations in order to Tim Duncan for surpassing Larry Bird in the all time scoring list.

  • Spursfanatic2

    Kawhi Leonard will be a star. I think he will be the face of this franchise when Manu and Duncan leave. Trust me thats what the spurs have been looking for. Yes, the spurs philosophy is defense, but the Spurs organization is smart enough to know they are going to need a star after Duncan leaves. They are probably giving this guy more attention then anyone else. After that article that said Chip was working with Kawhi’s shot its apparent that he’s putting in a lot of time on his offense because his defense comes naturally. Now all of a sudden he’s becoming a scorer. I think James Anderson might turn out a good player as well but he needs a lot more development. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Craig-Thomas/1541940034 Craig Thomas

    I said I didn’t care about his offensive stats. I really only wrote 2 sentences about it, learn to read bro.

  • Bankshot21

    Very sensible analysis. No arguments with that. I was thinking in terms of small forwards such as LeBron, Melo, KD, etc.

  • bakedroll

    perfectly good reason to be mad at a player. same thing happened to me in highschool during 1st round of the playoffs. guy i was guarding shot a three towards the end of the game while we had a foul to give that wouldve put them up 1. coach signaled it but i caught it late and didnt foul. he missed the shot so all was good =)…had he made it i wouldve never been forgiven….

  • Bankshot21

    I inquired about a retrospective piece on that very topic for Timmy in the El Conclusione piece.

  • Ch500634

    Malcolm Thomas is also going to help. SDSU had the best front court in the country last year because of Kawhi and Malcolm Thomas. Kawhi may not be the star we are looking for but the defensive guy is just as important and he certainly is that. I’m still worried about the future though because I don’t know if championships will come if Splitter and Green and James Anderson have to one day become starters.

  • DorieStreet

    This squad is a work in progress. Green, Leonard, Anderson will have ups and downs in this shortened, lack of training camp & preseason.
    Don’t anoint them as saviors- or busts, nor predict their ceilings.

  • TD BestEVER

    I don’t mean in Stats, but in their games or skill sets.

  • guest

    thought the reporter rather than Pop was prompted to draw the Bruce-Leonard similaries

  • Bankshot21

    so Rasheed Wallace wants to come back to the NBA. I know he has 15 seasons under his belt, but at 6’11/7ft and capable of hitting the 3, he would be a better rotation player than Bonner (whom I love on our team). Thoughts anyone?

  • Justin-ray

    Why not? In regards to rasheed wallace. He would be an upgrade to bonner… so yeah why not…

  • TD BestEVER

    He would be a perfect fit IF HE IS IN SHAPE AND WANTS TO BE HERE.  Those are very big IF’S

  • Anonymous

    The right price for a one year stint?  Perhaps.   One would have to be concerned about the rigors of this schedule if a person of his age would be effective on the roster.  Though I’m sure he still has that “charming” personality.

    It would be a gamble.  If he could at least play as well as in his 08-09 season with the Celtics then yeah.

    That would be a front court of Duncan, Wallace, Thomas, Splitter, Blair and Bonner.  Six bigs on the roster?    That would leave Parker, CoJo, Ginobili, Neal, R.J., Leonard, Anderson, Ford and Green.

  • Anonymous

    Rethinking.  Injuries have been dealt to the Warriors and Hawks big man rotations.  Horford and Brown out for 3 to 4 months.  Nets lost Lopez (not sure of the duration).  There are several teams out there short on big man rotations due to injuries that might “clamor” about getting Rasheed more so than the Spurs.  But that’s not to say the Spurs won’t inquire about Wallace just that some other team’s out there might offer him more than what the Spurs are willing to pay.

  • Anonymous

    Interesting read regarding Duncan and his possible all-star (non)appearance.
    http://hangtime.blogs.nba.com/2012/01/12/all-star-spotlight-on-rubio-duncan/?ls=iref:nbahpt1

  • Tim in Surrey

    Josh Smith isn’t “WAAAAAAAYYYYYYY more athletic”. He’s way more focused on dunks and blocks, so everybody tends to notice his athleticism more than they would if he focused on other things. But Kawhi’s quite an athlete, too. And, by the way, Josh Smith as a veteran still isn’t the shooter that Kawhi already is as a rookie. (Of course, Josh would disagree. But his love affair with his own terrible outside shot is probably his biggest weakness as a player.) Finally, one thing you’re also forgetting is that Kawhi is quite a lot stronger than any of those guys were as rookies, without sacrificing quickness. So he does have some advantages. I definitely think he’ll a generally similar kind of player  to those three guys.

  • Tim in Surrey

    With all due respect to Danny Green, it’s not even close.

  • Tim in Surrey

    Thomas is alright. And SDSU was good but please… they didn’t remotely have the best frontcourt in the country last year. North Carolina had three frontcourt players who would’ve been drafted ahead of Kawhi if they hadn’t returned to school.

  • Anonymous

    Could it be Justin Dentmon is better than Corey Joseph.  Anybody that hasn’t been following the D-league might want to take a gander at the Austin Toros best guard on the team.

    Also a player the Spurs might want to call up is Marcus Lewis.  6’8″ PF who is playing phenomenal ball.  Best comparison IMO would be a Paul Milsap type of player.

  • Tim in Surrey

    For one short season, during which he’s still figuring out the Spurs’ system and causing havoc in the locker room. And even if not, he’s not longer a difference maker. Even though they came into the ACC the same year, Wallace is two years older than Tim Duncan. He’s done, forget him.

  • 48 minutes of Bacon

    Im surprised more hasnt been posted on Malcolm Thomas, I know were kind of spoiled this year in terms of young talent (as the Spurs go at least) but I think the kid could contribute on the defensive end. He is only 6’9 but he plays taller than that, he had some great defensive moments during the Tournament last year, looked pretty damn good against UCONN. Sure he needs to put on some weight but that will come, I think he can be that athletic back side help defender we have lacked down low since Robert Horry first came to the Spurs. Id liek to see him get some burn against Portland’s frontcourt, give him Bonner’s minutes as he does’nt seem to want them. Im pretty sure Thomas can give us at least 7 boards and at least a block a game in short spurts. Thoughts?

  • 48 minutes of Bacon

    Im surprised more hasnt been posted on Malcolm Thomas, I know were kind of spoiled this year in terms of young talent (as the Spurs go at least) but I think the kid could contribute on the defensive end. He is only 6’9 but he plays taller than that, he had some great defensive moments during the Tournament last year, looked pretty damn good against UCONN. Sure he needs to put on some weight but that will come, I think he can be that athletic back side help defender we have lacked down low since Robert Horry first came to the Spurs. Id liek to see him get some burn against Portland’s frontcourt, give him Bonner’s minutes as he does’nt seem to want them. Im pretty sure Thomas can give us at least 7 boards and at least a block a game in short spurts. Thoughts?

  • 48 Minutes of Bacon

    Probably closer to 5-6 boards, got excited there for a sec.

  • 48 Minutes of Bacon

    Probably closer to 5-6 boards, got excited there for a sec.

  • Pingback: Game 16: Kings at San Antonio Spurs « Evil Cowtown, INC: A Sacramento Kings blog()