Kawhi Leonard has improved his game each and every year of his NBA career. Now, about to start his sixth season, the 25-year-old San Antonio Spurs forward is a full-fledged MVP candidate and one of the top players in the league:
But his maturation process isn’t done. It never is with a work ethic like Leonard’s and a coach like Gregg Popovich.
Leonard already perfected a spot-up jumper from the three-point line and just inside. He mastered the art of defense once he learned how to maneuver pick-and-rolls, be more disciplined in his gambles and position his body correctly in individual and team defense. He figured out how to create his shot consistently in the last couple of seasons using his polished post game and a reliable pull-up jumper from mid-range.
The next step for “The Klaw” is developing into a true point forward and someone who can find a good balance between generating offense for himself and others on a consistent basis.
Most of the best small forwards in the league (LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Carmelo Anthony, Gordon Hayward, Giannis Antetokoumpo and Nicolas Batum, for example) are guys who handle the ball a lot for their teams. They’re counted on to make plays for themselves with crafty dribble moves, or break down the defense and find teammates consistently for good shots.
It’s not an indictment on Kawhi to say he’s below the level of the aforementioned guys as a playmaker. It’s just one relative weakness in his game, and if you take the skill of playmaking out of the equation, I don’t think it’s too insane to say he’s the best player not only on the aforementioned list of small forwards, but the entire league.
Leonard, however, did lag noticeably behind his fellow elite small forwards in time of possession per game, assist chances and assists per game last season:
Leonard’s main role in the Spurs’ offense last year was to post up, spot up frequently and occasionally handle the rock. Most of those ball-handling opportunities were quick-strike chances that Kawhi used to score, though. He did thrive in that role, shooting extremely efficiently and turning the ball over just 1.5 times per contest.
Tony Parker remained the primary initiator throughout the season, even though he’s several years past his prime. If 2012 TP randomly shows up in 2016-17, there’s no need for Kawhi to blossom into a full-fledged point forward.
But with an older, slower Parker finding his way to the rim a lot less than he used to, there was very little drive-and-kick action in the Spurs’ attack. Manu Ginobili also has lost the burst that made him an excellent penetrator and facilitator in his heyday, and he can’t do that as much for the second unit anymore.
The Spurs’ lack of consistent dribble penetration was a huge weakness for the team, especially against the Oklahoma City Thunder’s athletic defense in their second-round series. If the Spurs are going to go have even a puncher’s chance at beating the Golden State Warriors for the Western Conference crown this year, they’ll need someone who can break down his man off the dribble and deliver on-target passes to spot-up shooters and cutters.
Kawhi has occasionally shown the skills to be that guy. He’ll just need to do it a lot more. I expect Popovich to transfer more of Parker’s playmaking responsibilities to Leonard in 2016-17:
Considering Leonard’s proven ability to deal with an increasing workload and his thirst for improvement, I think it’s reasonable to expect him to take some modest strides as a playmaker next season. I’ve officially set an over-under for his assists per game this season at 3.5.
Becoming a true point forward won’t happen all in one season, though. He’ll still have to carry a monster load on defense that will get bigger without Tim Duncan’s leadership. Keeping up his Defensive Player of the Year-caliber stopping ability while handling the ball more frequently won’t be easy.
If he gets the playmaking skill set down, as well as finding a proper offense/defense balance with his new skill set, there’s no reason he can’t become one of the scariest all-around players in recent memory.
The final stage in his development would be adding that killer instinct that comprises truly great offensive players. Leonard’s career high in scoring is still only 33, which speaks volumes about his consistency but also indicates that there’s some room for more aggression.
But if Kobe Bryant is keeping in touch with Kawhi, as he promised, it’s only a matter of time before some of that #MambaMentality transfers over to the young Spurs stud.