Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports
Kawhi Leonard’s breakout performance may have already come in the 2013 playoffs, but with the San Antonio Spurs vying for another title with an aging Big Three, they will need Leonard to be even better in the 2013-14 season to bolster their title hopes.
In 21 playoff games, Leonard averaged 13.5 points, nine rebounds and 1.8 steals while shooting 54.5 percent from the field and 39 percent from three as San Antonio came one rebound away from winning the championship.
Those numbers were improvements over his regular-season stats of 11.9 points, six rebounds and 1.7 steals on 49.4 percent shooting and 37.4 percent from three-point range.
While Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili will all be pacing the floor for the Spurs once again, Gregg Popovich has proven in the past that keeping his veterans fresh matters far more than winning a few regular-season games. Ginobili, in particular, will need the rest to preserve his body, and that will give Leonard more responsibilities on the offensive end.
After struggling as a shooter during his time at San Diego State, Leonard completely revamped his jumper, emerging as a reliable three-point threat and an elite shooter from the corners. He connected on 37.1 percent of his spot-up threes last year and gave San Antonio valuable spacing from the wing.
He also improved as a ball-handler, despite not averaging many assists. In the playoffs he was able to handle the ball in transition and attack the rim at will. He will need to improve as a passer in his third NBA campaign, but he proved last season that he is not just an off-ball threat.
Where Leonard makes his biggest impact though, is on defense and the glass. Leonard uses his absurd wingspan and gigantic hands to be an absolute nightmare guarding the ball, and thanks to his quickness and ability to play passing lanes he was able to cover guards, small forwards and even some power forwards.
According to 82Games, Leonard held opposing small forwards to a PER of just 12.6, and San Antonio was 4.6 points worse on defense per 100 possessions when he was off the floor.
Leonard also dominated the glass from the perimeter. He had nine double-digit rebounding games in the playoffs and was the Spurs' best rebounder besides Duncan in the postseason.
Despite being just 6’7”, Leonard used his length and athleticism to sky for tough boards on both ends of the floor. He kept dozens of possessions alive and against the small-ball Miami Heat was able to keep LeBron James and Dwyane Wade from crashing the boards from the perimeter.
With no quality reserve small forward on the roster, Leonard should routinely be playing 36-plus minutes per game and should contend for an All-Star berth in 2014.