It’s Time to Take Notice of Kawhi Leonard

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Kawhi Leonard was the 15th overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft. In the time since then, he’s blossomed into one of the league’s best two-way stars, and his rise to stardom has been nothing short of spectacular. Leonard is only 24, but he’s already put together an impressive list of accomplishments. San Antonio’s soft-spoken small forward is an NBA champion, a Finals MVP, and, recently, the Defensive Player of the Year. This summer, he inked a five-year, $94 million contract, and investment San Antonio’s front office believes will pay off in the long term and see him become one of the premier stars in the NBA.

Now in his fifth season with the Spurs, Kawhi is looking to add more achievements to his NBA résumé. Leonard has gone on the record saying that he wants to be an All-Star and league MVP. That first goal will almost definitely happen this year—it doesn’t take much convincing to make someone believe Leonard has what it takes to be a perennial All-Star. The second ambition is where the discussion opens up a little bit more. The list of other MVP candidates—Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, etc.—might indicate that Leonard doesn’t belong in the MVP discussion just yet. He’s overshadowed by other big names and overlooked because he plays in San Antonio. Leonard probably won’t win the MVP award this year, but he’s as important to his team as maybe any player in the league, and his name certainly belongs in the discussion.

The San Antonio Spurs are the oldest team in the NBA. They are a team full of seasoned, accomplished veterans like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili, who were once stars of their generation, but can’t grind for 35 minutes a night for 82 games like they once could. Leonard injects a heavy dose of much-needed youth and athleticism to an otherwise aged (albeit still pretty good) team. He guards the opposing team’s best wing player every night—and usually comes out on top—and provides increasingly significant amounts of offense on the other end. Think of Leonard as the wing version of Anthony Davis; blessed with ridiculous length, athleticism, and potential, both players are capable of making breathtaking defensive plays and exploding on the offensive end on any given night.

The defense has always been there for Leonard. At 6’7’’, 230 pounds, Leonard is widely regarded as the best perimeter defender in all of basketball. No one is safe coming anywhere near him with the ball. He’s as good getting in the passing lanes as he is stripping the ball, and his length, athleticism, instincts, and reflexes (and giant hands!) make him the ideal model of an elite wing defender. He attacks opposing ball handlers like a hungry, angry cheetah pouncing on its prey. In addition to his perimeter defensive prowess, Leonard is also an outstanding rebounder with has the size and strength to bang with fours or big threes in the post, making him a serviceable small-ball four if Gregg Popovich wants to play him there.

Leonard’s defensive ability has always been second to none, and now he’s realizing his sky-high offensive potential. Every year he’s been in the league, he’s added a new feature to his offensive arsenal: first the corner three, then bursts of athleticism at the rim, then the ability to take people off the dribble and consistently create his own shot. As a result of his improved offensive skill set, Leonard’s share of the Spurs’ scoring load has increased every year.

Year Leonard PPG Spurs PPG %
2011-12 7.9 103.7 7.6
2012-13 11.9 103.0 11.6
2013-14 12.8 105.4 12.1
2014-15 16.5 103.2 15.9

 

This year, Leonard will have to make another offensive leap and be the do-it-all focal point of San Antonio’s offense. Popovich has expressed his intention of making Leonard a larger piece of the Spurs’ offense, and if San Antonio’s first game was any indication, Leonard should be ready for his increased offensive responsibility. Kawhi opened the season with a career-high 32 points on 13 of 22 shooting, scoring from all over the floor and sinking all five of his free throws. (Not to mention playing airtight defense on Kevin Durant.) Through the Spurs’ first two games this season, Leonard has accounted for roughly 23 percent of the offense. It’s still very early in the season, and that figure is pretty high, but you can expect another uptick in Leonard’s offensive production from the previous season. Now that he has LaMarcus Aldridge, a pure scorer in his prime, to draw in defenders and open up the floor, as well as a system that moves the ball at a breakneck pace, Kawhi should get tons of easy looks and expand his offensive game even more.

The San Antonio Spurs stand on the verge of a new era—a transition from one star to another. Kawhi Leonard is the future of San Antonio basketball, and he’s ready to be a superstar. He’s ready to prove to everyone that his Finals MVP award in 2014 was only the beginning of a long and successful career. He wants to be a Spur for life, and with Duncan in the twilight of his career, the Spurs are Leonard’s team. It’s now up to him to lead the Spurs back to the top of the mountain and keep them there for a long time.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.

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