Why 2012 Will Be Kawhi Leonard's Time to Shine in the NBA
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The San Antonio Spurs may be nearing the end of what many would argue is a dynasty. The "Big Three" continue to age. Yet there's still plenty of optimism in the Alamo about this year's team. That's in large part due to the emergence of Kawhi Leonard, last year's 15th pick overall.
The Spurs thought they knew what they were getting when they traded George Hill to the Pacers for Leonard and the rights to Erazem Lorbek and the 42nd overall pick Davis Bertans. They were getting a player with good length and a high motor who would help on the boards and the defensive end.
What they didn't expect was for Leonard to shoot 37.6 percent from three-point range and end up as the starting small forward by season's end.
When Leonard showed up for training camp in December with an NBA-ready jumper, the Spurs were amazed. On his own during the long lockout summer, he diligently had applied a few pre-lockout lessons from Spurs shooting coach Chip Engelland.
Ahead we're going to discuss several factors that should lead Kawhi Leonard to have a breakout campaign in 2012-13.
He Plays for a Coach and a Franchise That Reward Hard Work
"Pop" demands effort at both ends of the floor.
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Playing for the Spurs is not easy in a league rampant with one-dimensional players. You'd better be prepared to play defense if you want to have success in Gregg Popovich's system.
Luckily for Leonard, he was already known for his hard work and defensive ability when he came out of San Diego State as a sophomore.
Sometimes, NBA fans forget the Spurs have won four titles since 1999. Last year, they set a league record with their 13th consecutive 50-plus win season. In a city where you're literally the only show in town, selfish me-first type of players aren't part of their winning culture.
Try to think of a prima donna that's played for the Spurs? You can't...because that kind of behavior isn't tolerated.
Kawhi landed in the perfect spot. As a mid-first rounder, he didn't have the pressure that top-5 picks inherit to try to lead what are usually bad teams. He went somewhere where they appreciate his constant motor. Somewhere he had a chance to grow as a player and not have to do it overnight.
Entering his second season, Leonard will likely be the starter at small forward. He still has really good players around him, so that should only aid in his growth.
His Offensive Game Will Continue to Blossom
Leonard gets up against Oklahoma City in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.
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We briefly discussed earlier that Leonard was a defensive and rebounding stalwart coming out of SDSU. However, his ball-handling skills and his ability to create his own shot were big questions.
No one could have foreseen a 25 percent three-point shooter in college doing what Kawhi did from long range last year. The increase in efficiency showed a player humble enough to understand the areas of his game that needed improvement.
With his outside shooting now a strength of his game, Leonard will also look to improve his off-the-dribble offense. Few could think of two better teachers on how to get to the basket than Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
Summer league games have seen Leonard handling the ball more, especially in the pick-and-roll. This should result in him doubling his scoring average of 7.9 PPG in 2011-12.
The Spurs' Aging Stars Need His Help
Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan can't shoulder the load on their own anymore.
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As with most older teams, a lot of the Spurs' success will be determined by how healthy they can stay.
Ginobili missed almost half of last year's shortened season and had his lowest scoring average since 2004. Tim Duncan is not the 20-and-10 guy he was in the mid-2000's. Parker shot a career low 23 percent from three.
All of these things lead to an increased role for Kawhi Leonard. His overall offensive involvement will be key, and he'll see a lot more isolations as his ball-handling continues to improve.
After a season that saw Leonard finish fourth in Rookie of the Year voting, expectations are high coming into 2012-13. Kawhi seems poised to exceed those expectations.
When Mike Monroe of Spurs Nation at sanantonio.com asked Gregg Popovich if he was excited about Leonard for the upcoming year, "Pop" said, "We’re wild with anticipation. We can’t wait to see what he’s going to be like next season."
Combining all these factors, Kawhi Leonard is poised to shine come Halloween night.