It’s fun to go back and look at old scouting reports of NBA players. Sometimes, the reports are dead on, sometimes they’re totally off and other times they were right at the time, but have become wrong due to a player’s growth.
Kawhi Leonard falls into that third category, especially regarding his offensive abilities.
“Does not have one aspect offensively that stands out or which allows him to consistently score the ball.”
“With his size and frame, will almost certainly be a perimeter player at the next level, but he lacks the polish and skill necessary to consistently operate on the wing.”
“He does not have a great touch around the basket, and unless he can get inside position on the defense, he struggles finishing when contested.”
“Leonard is not only an average ball-handler, but he also struggles to make shots consistently from beyond the arc.”
“Leonard’s most notable weakness is his lack of jump-shooting ability”
“Leonard will need to continue to hone his shot-creating and finishing ability to become a far more efficient player than he was in college, as he ranks amongst the worst prospects in the draft in the true-shooting percentage and effective-field goal percentage categories.”
Crazy, isn’t it? Just over four years ago, all of those were fair criticisms of Leonard. He projected as a defensive and rebounding specialist who could provide offense occasionally due to his length, massive hands and solid athleticism. NBADraft.net listed Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (a career 6.8 points-per-game scorer) as his top player comparison and Leonard was drafted just outside the lottery at No. 15 in the 2011 NBA Draft.
Now, in season No. 5, Kawhi is arguably going to be the No. 1 offensive option on a San Antonio team that features LaMarcus Aldridge, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Tony Ginobili. A 2014-15 Defensive Player of the Year Award suggests he’s made plenty of strides on the defensive end since being drafted, but he’s made so much more progress on the other end of the court.
Let’s track Leonard’s offensive development throughout his career and project some more areas where the versatile 24-year-old can improve.
Where Has Growth Occurred?
Kawhi revamped his shooting stroke heading into his rookie season, thanks to Spurs shooting coach Chip Engelland. His first campaign saw him make 0.6 threes in 24.0 minutes per game on 37.6 percent behind the arc, which immediately brightened his NBA future.
Instead of a defensive hustle guy, he’d be a valuable 3-and-D starter who’d find great looks on spot-ups and cuts in the Spurs’ offensive system. Great. That would be enough to make the Spurs look smart for trading away George Hill to acquire Leonard on draft night.
But Leonard worked and worked over the next few years, and he slowly but surely developed some of the main skills he was lacking in heading into the 2011 NBA Draft: ball-handling, shooting off the dribble, finishing at the rim and setting up his teammates for scores.
The 2014 NBA Finals showcased Leonard’s improvements. He was hampered by foul trouble in Games 1 and 2, affecting his aggressiveness on both ends of the court, but he just took over in Games 3 through 5, scoring 23.7 points per game against the Miami Heat while needing just 11.7 shots to get those points.
A lot of those points were unassisted, out of the mid-range and tough finishes in traffic:
Even though eye and hand injuries hampered the first half of Leonard’s 2014-15 season, there was even more growth. He became a weapon on the low block in isolation situations, where he used his length, strength and soft touch to execute a variety of step-throughs, step-back and fadeaway jumpers and hook shots.
If opponents double-teamed him, which became more and more common, he’d find the open man for an assist or a hockey assist.
He blossomed into the Spurs’ top offensive option, averaging 17.9 points in 31.4 minutes per game on a 52.1/36.3/80.0 shooting slash after the All-Star break. All was going well for Kawhi until Game 5 of the Spurs’ first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers.
But suddenly, he shrunk from the moment.
In the final three games of the series loss, he shot just 29.5 percent from the field and scored 14.3 points per game. His attempts weren’t in rhythm, the Clippers had adjusted to give him more defensive attention and he didn’t demand the ball in the post like he’d been previously. Was Kawhi too tentative of a personality to be a full-time No. 1 option on a contender?
Not if this year’s preseason is any indication.
Leonard has dialed up his aggression to the max, showing off a new “I’m going to lead this offense” attitude that he’s had only in spurts previously:
For quantitative evidence of this, check out some advanced numbers on the tremendous offensive growth Kawhi has made:
Comparing his rookie year with his 2015-16 preseason, Kawhi has more than doubled the amount of Spurs’ possessions he uses (usage percentage) and more than doubled the amount of looks he creates for his teammates (assist percentage). He’s creating more of his own looks (percentage of field goals unassisted) and shooting much tougher shots (percent of made field goals that are from mid-range), yet has still maintained great efficiency (true shooting percentage) all the way through.
All that to say, Leonard is now the type of player who can be the primary scoring option on an NBA team.
We’ve gotten to the point where calling Kawhi a “role player” or “system player” is essentially the same as admitting to never watching the Spurs play. And that’s sad, because every basketball fan should watch the Spurs.
Where Can Kawhi Go From Here?
Kawhi, despite the tremendous growth he’s made offensively, is by no means perfect, or a finished product.
The four main ways he can improve moving forward are trickiness with his ball-handling, drawing more fouls, improving his passing and becoming an off-the-dribble threat from three-point range.
James Harden is great at all four of these things, and therefore is a perfect example for Leonard to follow as he moves into his prime during the next couple of years. The Beard is a wizard with the ball and uses a variety of hesitations, spins and crossovers to get his defender off balance:
Leonard is still pretty vanilla with the way he operates on offense. If he tries to score on his defender, there are no tricky sleights of hand to get his man off balance. He’ll attack a driving lane and finish once he gets near the rim, but he’s not great yet at creating space for himself with his ball-handling. In terms of passing, he’ll make safe passes and rarely turn the ball over, but he won’t make viewers “ooh” and “aah” with pretty finds very often.
Asking Kawhi to become a Harden-caliber offensive player is a bit unreasonable, and there’s next to no chance he ever reaches that level. But even just a couple steps in The Beard’s direction would place Leonard as a perennial contender in the MVP discussion.
The NBA’s best defender from last season has improved his offense so quickly and consistently throughout his career that expecting him to suddenly stop is unreasonable. I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if Kawhi averages 20 points per game in 2015-16 and gets several lower votes in the MVP selection process sixth months from now.
The point is this: it’s not just one end of the floor where you need to be terrified of No. 2 anymore.