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Kawhi Leonard’s Ascension To Superstardom

Hector Gabino/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

It’s crazy to think that anything Spurs-related could be underrated; I mean, you can’t really watch a Spurs game or have a Spurs conversation without hearing about how consistently good they’ve been over the last 18 years or so.

Since 1999, they’ve won five titles, have won at least 50 games in every non-lockout season (with a comparable winning percentage in the season that there were only 50 games played), and mostly have the quartet of Tim Duncan, head coach Gregg Popovich, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker to thank — in that order, by the way.

Fast forward to now, and the Spurs are back to their slow, plodding style of the early 2000s before they started pacing-and-spacing teams to death (the evisceration of Miami in 2014 still hurts).

Their offense is humming along to the tune of 106.5 points per 100 possessions (offensive rating), good for 5th in the NBA. Their defense, based on defensive rating (93.9), is the best the NBA has seen since 1974. In fact, they’re on pace to be the first team ever to finish with an offensive rating north of 105 and a defensive rating under 95 in the same season.

The seemingly unpopular truth about this team that more people should recognize: neither of those marks would be possible without Kawhi Leonard, who is, at this point, unquestionably the Spurs’ best player on both ends.

You can scream “Pop”, “Big Three”, and “SYSTEM” until the cows come home. And sure, it wouldn’t be fair to pretend that Pop and his philosophies on both ends of the floor or San Antonio’s supporting cast haven’t helped Leonard be successful this year. On the flip side, it’s time people stop shouting “system” as the end-all explanation for all things San Antonio:

  • First and foremost, that’s lazy analysis. We have to watch Charles Barkley every Thursday—we don’t need anymore lazy analysis out here
  • It does an incredible disservice to San Antonio’s players. A system can be wonderful, but without talented players executing said system, there won’t be much success. Just look at Brett Brown and the Sixers for example

Back to the matter at hand, Kawhi Leonard is the real deal and has taken The Leap this year:


Leonard’s role has increased, with his usage rate and shot attempts per game going up from 23% and 12.8 attempts last year, to 25.7% and 16.3 attempts this year. Typically, when a player’s usage rate and shot attempts go up, their efficiency dips.

Not the Kawhiet Assasin, though.

(I’m sorry you had to read that, but I had to get that in somewhere)

Leonard’s True Shooting percentage (TS%) is a career-high 60.5. Among players averaging 10 shots per game this year, Leonard’s TS% would rank 5th in the NBA behind Stephen Curry (70.7), Kevin Durant (64.6), CJ Miles (61.2), and Dirk Nowitzki (60.7).

So, not only is Leonard shooting a lot more, but he’s also scoring a lot more and doing so more efficiently.

His off-the-bounce game has grown leaps and bounds over his career, and he now has no issue knocking down pull-up jumpers from the elbow or from three. He’s a smart cutter and a strong finisher at the basket, converting 69.8% of his shots inside of three feet for his career, and 73.3% this season via Basketball-Reference.

Heck, he’s even been running a good bit of pick-and-roll this year, producing 0.88 points per possession (77th percentile).

My favorite part of Leonard’s game is his in-between game. As mentioned earlier, Leonard has shown comfort stopping-and-popping. Via NBA.com shot tracking data Leonard is shooting 40.5% on pull-up jumpers this year, good for 12th in the NBA among players averaging, at least, four pull-up attempts per game.

When Leonard wants to slow things down, he goes to the post and takes souls.

Leonard is shooting a cool 55.8% (24-43) on post-ups this year, 2nd in the league among players with at least 50 post possessions, only behind Kevin Love (39-58, 67.2% FG). Leonard may never be a flashy creator off the bounce like a Jamal Crawford, but he has enough wiggle in his game to get to the basket, and is skilled enough to shoot over defenders or bully smaller ones on the block.

His offensive game has come together like I never imagined it could. It’s a major testament to how much Leonard has worked on his game, and smart on Pop to invest in Leonard the way he has over the years.

Then there’s the matter of Kawhi Leonard’s defense.

He’s the NBA’s best perimeter defender. I don’t necessarily want to disrespect Jimmy Butler, Paul George, or anyone else and say Leonard has that title by a considerable margin, but, I mean, he’s just scary on that end:

Among players defending, at least, eight shots per game, Leonard’s opponent field goal percentage of 34% ranks first among wings, and fourth overall behind Austin Rivers (underrated defensively but not THIS good), Goran Dragic (uh…no), and Victor Oladipo (a very good but not great defender).

This season, opponents have only shot 3-13 against Leonard in isolation, 18-53 (34%) as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, 2-7 (28.6% FG) in the post, 3-8 (37.5% FG) on dribble hand-offs (DHOs), and 15-43 (34.9%) on spot-up jumpers. The only way players have really had success against Leonard is running off screens, where they’ve shot 12-26 (46.5% FG) on such plays.

Leonard combines aggressive play, solid lateral quickness, and his huge-but-unfairly-fast hands to wreck total havoc on offensive players. The even scarier thing about Leonard is that his offense is catching up to his defense.

You won’t find many players that match Leonard’s impact on both ends of the floor. Because of that, Leonard has led the Spurs to the second-best record in the league and is knocking on the door of entering the very top tier of players in the league if he hasn’t done so already.

Considering the size of his hands, he probably left pretty sizable dents in that door.

And considering his personality, that’s probably as much noise as Leonard will make this year—and that’s only figuratively.

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