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What’s the Ceiling For Kawhi Leonard?

Last Thursday, in the disappointment of the San Antonio Spurs’ 125-128 overtime loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, there were a couple of main bright spots for the losing team. One was the continued resurgence of Tony Parker, who contributed 31 points, five rebounds and six assists.

The other was Kawhi Leonard. Yes, the man who missed three consecutive free throws in the closing seconds of regulation to open the door for Kyrie Irving’s overtime-forcing three-pointer.

Leonard scored 24 points, grabbed nine rebounds and dished out seven assists in the game while playing typically outstanding one-on-one defense on LeBron James. His excellent performance throughout the contest wasn’t overshadowed by a few late-game shooting miscues.

In the second quarter of the game, TNT announcer Charles Barkley even went as far as calling Leonard “one of the top 10 players in the world.”

Now, I can’t say I agree with that assertion. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol and Blake Griffin immediately come to mind as 10 players who have an edge over “The Claw.”

But the 6’7″, 225-pound Leonard is closer to that exclusive group than people might think.

Let’s look at the 23-year-old small forward’s performance to date on both ends of the court and evaluate where he can (and will) improve by the time he hits his prime.

Defense

Leonard is arguably the NBA’s best defender right now.

He’s the total package on the less glamorous end of the floor, with a 7’3″ wingspan, massive hands, terrific lateral quickness and almost psychic instincts. Every night, he takes on the opponent’s best perimeter player, and sometimes even checks post players.

In fact, I believe he’d be the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year if he hadn’t have missed 18 of the Spurs’ games so far. Check out the difference Leonard’s presence has made on the Spurs’ defense this year.

Defensive Rating Opponent Effective Field-Goal % Steal % Block %
Leonard On Court 100.4 47.5 9.5  9.5
Leonard Off Court 105.6 49.6  7.2  7.7

In addition to his impact on his team’s defense, he also averages a league-leading 2.2 steals per game and forces his opponents into just 43.8 percent shooting from the field.

There’s not too much extra work Leonard will have to put in to reach his defensive ceiling. The main ways will be continuing to learn the intricacies of defensive positioning and possibly adding a little bit more upper-body strength to help him defend the post.

Offense

Coming into the league, scouts doubted about Leonard’s offensive ability.

Here are a few snippets from his NBADraft.net profile: “Lacks the polish and skill necessary to consistently operate on the wing,” “His jumpshot (while definitely improved) is still very inconsistent” and “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 has resoundingly proven his doubters wrong throughout his NBA career, but especially as of late.

In his last eight games, The Claw has been an absolute force offensively. Check out this table comparing his per-game statistics from the past eight contests to his career averages:

Minutes Points Assists Turnovers True Shooting %
Past 8 games 35.0 21.0 2.4 0.9 .605
Career 28.8 11.8 1.8 1.1 .579

Notice how Leonard has put up 21.0 points per game while turning the ball over fewer than one time per contest. The Spurs star’s eight-game sample size is small, I realize, but out of every player who has averaged 21 points per game in a season, the lowest turnovers per outing belongs to Michael Redd, who coughed the ball up 1.4 times per night for the 2003-04 Milwaukee Bucks while putting up 21.7 points per game.

Basically, Leonard’s ability to score in volume while protecting the ball is remarkable.

He’s increasingly becoming a jack-of-all trades offensive player. First of all, he has the size, strength and athleticism to finish at the rim with authority. He’s drawn a career-high 81 shooting fouls already this season, despite logging the fewest minutes of any of his four seasons in the league.

And I’m just going to leave this here.

He’s also developing a strong mid-range game. Just last season, only 26.6 percent of his field-goal attempts were between 10 feet and the three-point line. This year, that number is up to 35.9. His accuracy from that area has taken a slight dip, but considering the increased attention he’s getting from opposing defenses, that is understandable.

Leonard’s main negative this season has been his three-point stroke. He’s drained just 32.2 percent of his looks behind the arc, a career low. Part of this could be due to his early-season eye infection and his hand injury.

But in my opinion, the main reason Leonard’s three-point accuracy has decreased is due to his increased role in the offense. In past years, he had fewer touches and could often camp out by the three-point line, waiting for a pass and an open shot. Now that the Spurs rely on him to make plays for them, his three-point attempts often come after a tiring offensive possession.

Looking forward, however, the 2014 NBA Finals MVP will get used to his increased workload and drain more of his three-point looks.

In addition to slight improvements finishing inside and on pull-ups, Leonard does need some work on his ball-handling. He doesn’t yet have the skill to quickly change directions or consistently break opponents down with his dribbling. Hopefully, that ability will come with time.

He’ll also have to work on his court awareness. Too often, he draws a double team and, instead of making a pass to an open teammate, he takes a contested fadeaway jump shot. Experience receiving double teams should help him learn how to make better reads in those situations.

Conclusion

The Spurs have every intention of re-signing Leonard in restricted free agency this summer. They’re extremely likely to match any offer another team gives him, as ESPN’s Marc Stein noted.

Head coach Gregg Popovich also treats the team’s future with Leonard as a foregone conclusion. As he told NBA.com’s Ian Thomsen, “Someday Timmy, Tony and Manu are not going to be there. And Kawhi is going to be the most talented kid on the team, unless we come up with somebody somewhere who is going to be more talented. But I don’t think we’re going to.”

Considering the league’s best coach has said repeatedly Leonard will be the Spurs’ franchise player and No. 1 option for the future, I think it’s safe to say he’ll be a superstar. He’s already a top 20 player in the league, in my humble opinion.

An MVP he’ll probably never be, but he could be one of the league’s top 5 players one day with his dominance on both ends of the floor. The Claw will win at least one Defensive Player of the Year award and make several All-NBA and All-Star teams before his career is over.

 

Note: All statistics are from Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com and accurate as of March 17 unless otherwise indicated.

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