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Can Kawhi Leonard's Ascension Cover for Aging Manu Ginobili in 2013-14?

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Can Kawhi Leonard's Ascension Cover for Aging Manu Ginobili in 2013-14?

Somewhere around Manu Ginobili's seventh or eighth turnover in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, San Antonio Spurs fans had to begin doubting whether this one was meant to be.

They also had to be a little worried about Ginobili. Even Ginobili was worried about Ginobili. 

He told Argentinian paper La Nacion that a rash of unprecedented strains had him contemplating the end of his NBA career (translation via Pounding the Rock):

By the end of the season--and I mean the regular season and not the playoffs-- I thought about it a lot. I was so tired of it. I hadn't suffered a muscle strain in my whole life and I went through three in four months. I felt negative, fed up. And I thought about retiring. ... But when I recovered physically I started to feel better about it all. When the season ended I grieved for 48, 72 hours and I didn't feel retired. I knew something was missing, that I still wanted to play.

The real kicker for the 36-year-old was the rigor of continued rehabilitation and "having to play with the parking brake on" each time he returned to action. Between the physical toll and repeated disruptions of rhythm, Ginobili's postseason contributions were a mixed bag at best. 

He never played more than 20 minutes in any of his first-round games against the Los Angeles Lakers, hoisting up a modest total of 30 field-goal attempts during the whole series. So when Ginobili's role increased significantly against the Golden State Warriors a series later, he wasn't prepared to play like his old self.

Instead, he just played old—making a hair over 34 percent of his field-goal attempts in the six-game series. Despite making just five of his 20 attempts in Game 1, the fan favorite earned himself temporary reprieve with a double-overtime, game-winning, three-point bomb for the ages.

In San Antonio's final 11 games of the playoffs, however, Ginobili scored in double-figures just four times. He got playing time and continued averaging well over four assists in both the conference and NBA Finals, but the dynamic scoring ability just wasn't there.

Of course, one man's loss is another's gain and in the last two games of the Finals, the gain was all Kawhi Leonard's. He scored a combined 41 points in Games 6 and 7, attempting 14 field-goal attempts in the former, 17 in the latter—both veritable explosions after attempting just 9.1 shots per regular-season contest.

It wasn't enough to get Tim Duncan ring No. 5, but it was enough to raise the eyebrow of anyone who still thought this team's best players were all nearing geriatric futility. If Ginobili is indeed set for a trajectory of steep decline, San Antonio will need more from Leonard.

At least if he's ready.

 

Finding New Ways to Score

There are sweet spots, and then there's Kawhi Leonard's corners. He took over 23 percent of his field-goal attempts from those corners in 2012-13:

Leonard's 2012-13 shot distribution.

And he made a combined 43 percent of them:

To be sure, Leonard is far more than just another spot-up shooter. He frequently finds himself at the rim either by way of driving, cutting or snatching offensive rebounds. Better yet, he knows how to finish when he gets there, converting nearly 66 percent of his attempts in the restricted area.

Going forward, however, there's little doubt Leonard needs to diversify his game before establishing himself as San Antonio's principal third option—at least on any consistent basis. Historically, much of Ginobili's value has come from his ability to put the ball on the floor and either pull up for a jumper, score in the paint or get to the free-throw line.

According to NBA.com, almost two-thirds of Leonard's baskets were assisted last season. That has as much to do with his penchant for cutting as it does his comfort level catching the ball in that corner.

But San Antonio needs another scorer who can create his own points off the dribble. Tony Parker has his quickness (and a knack for pulling up when screens free him to do so). Tim Duncan can post up. But when those two sit down, the Spurs are dangerously dependent on collective ball movement and long-range shooters remaining on point.

Leonard has demonstrated more versatility to that end than you might think. He just hasn't been given many opportunities. And as Bleacher Report's Jared Johnson notes, when Duncan, Parker and Ginobili sat against the Chicago Bulls last season, we saw a whole new side of Leonard:

One game isn't a template for a whole season, but Leonard clearly has demonstrated the ability to pull up from 15 feet or work from the post. As he grows more comfortable scoring from different spots, there's nothing stopping Leonard from emerging as San Antonio's second-leading scorer.

 

Becoming a Legitimate Triple-Threat

Leonard's second challenge won't be quite as easily surmounted. His assist ratio ranked 44th last season—among small forwards alone. In other words, he's a long way from taking over Ginobili's job creating for others. That doesn't necessarily mean passing will forever remain absent from Leonard's skill set.

But a lot depends on how much he improves his handle. The more comfortable he becomes attacking off the dribble, the easier it'll be for him to keep his head on a pivot and all his options open in the process. Leonard will probably have to develop a different mindset and more appreciation of what it's like to be on the other side of all those bullet passes to the corner.

It may not happen overnight, but there are reasons to be optimistic. Leonard has the physical tools (length, athleticism, great hands) to become a complete, All-Star-caliber offensive weapon. 

On the other hand, Leonard won't be a point-forward—at least not anytime soon. As much as San Antonio needs help getting the offense rolling, it also needs a guy in the corner who's a threat to nail threes and drive the baseline.

For the time being, that's more important than duplicating every aspect of Ginobili's game.

 

Wishful Thinking? 

Kawhi Leonard has been surprising everyone since he made almost 38 percent of his three-point attempts as a rookie. Billed as a defensive and rebounding specialist, San Antonio initially believed it had finally found a more athletic version of Bruce Bowen. And initially, that's exactly how he was used.

Fast-forward to the aftermath of the Finals, and Gregg Popovich has seen all he needs to know we still haven't seen the best of Leonard, per USA Today's Alex Kennedy:

I just talked to Kawhi and told him he was absolutely amazing. Nobody expected him at this young age to play the way he has through the whole playoffs. He really is a star in the making. He's just beginning to feel what he has. He's like a little baby learning how to walk, as far as NBA basketball is concerned. He (could be) a senior in college this year, and he's come so far, and a lot of that credit goes to [Spurs assistant coaches] Chip Engelland and Chad Forcier what they've done in developing him.

We've heard this story before. Engelland was the guy who turned Tony Parker into a credible mid-range threat, and you have to suspect it's only a matter of time before he does the same with Leonard.

Though there are important differences between Leonard's and Paul George's playing styles, the latter's third campaign may be a useful illustration of what we can expect from Leonard this season.

In each of their first two seasons, Leonard and George shared virtually identical stat lines. Each averaged just under eight points as a rookie, and both averaged within a tenth of a point of 12 points as sophomores. Though Leonard received slightly more playing time than George in each of those first two years, he also attempted fewer shots and scored on them more efficiently.

Does that mean Leonard is due for a George-like year three, averaging over 17 points and playing nearly 38 minutes a game? 

Not necessarily, but the potential is there. The real question will be to what extent the Spurs actually try to exploit it. Popovich has never been one to shy away from shaking things up, readily making this Parker's team when it came time to prioritize Duncan's health.

Whether Pop's ready this time or not, we should rest assured Kawhi Leonard will be. 

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