The word "next" implies that he isn't one already. And after he successfully held his own against LeBron James for the San Antonio Spurs during the 2013 NBA Finals while still finding time and energy to emerge as an offensive force, Leonard is certainly deserving of the "stopper" tag.
A 22-year-old small forward, Leonard has shown all the tools necessary to remain an elite defender throughout the next decade, and he doesn't have to grow much more in order to assert himself as such in unquestionable fashion.
Don't believe me? Let's ask Grantland's Zach Lowe:
You'll note we haven't discussed Leonard's defense. There isn't much to discuss. The guy is already insanely good, though I'm sure the San Antonio coaching staff finds places to nitpick here and there — an ill-advised gamble, a back screen that catches him peeking at the ball and unprepared, a less-than-urgent response to a cut.
Later in the article, Lowe would also write, "Bottom line: His defense is already elite."
There is no hyperbole here. No need for exaggeration exists. Leonard is a defensive enforcer right now, and he'll reinforce that perception throughout his third go-around with the Spurs.
Ability to Guard Multiple Positions
To be an enforcer, a player can't be pigeonholed into guarding only one position. What good is having a shooting guard who can only guard other 2s when the opposing team features a great small forward? Is it as useful to have a small forward who can't guard power forwards when the need arises?
Positional versatility is important, especially in the current NBA landscape, one that features more and more a-positional schemes. To win a title, the Spurs will inevitably have to go through a team from the Eastern Conference which features a player capable of lining up in multiple spots.
The most likely candidate is LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
James almost defies the concept of a position, playing small forward and power forward in large quantities, guarding everyone on the court and running the show as a de facto point guard.
Leonard must be able to adapt and corral all types of wing and post players. Guarding centers isn't necessary because Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan can both do that, and he's a little too big to match up against point guards with any sort of frequency, but the other three positions are all fair game.
And last year, 82games.com showed that he looked pretty good whether he was lined up at shooting guard, small forward or power forward:
Remember, the league average for PER is 15.
Leonard beat that mark rather significantly at the 3, and he was only on the wrong side while lining up at power forward. Part of that stems from the fact that he allowed 3.4 assists per 48 minutes to opposing 4s, far higher than the number at either of the other two positions.
That's a reflection on the players around Leonard, not the San Diego State product himself. As San Antonio adjusts to Leonard being the second-biggest player on the court, he'll look even better from an individual standpoint.
No comment necessary.
Knack for Contesting from Behind
This was pointed out by Lowe, and it's a fantastic observation: Kawhi Leonard is incredible at recovering and getting around screens because his long, lanky arms allow him to contest shots from behind. Here's what Lowe had to say:
Every perimeter defender in the NBA falls behind now and then; that's the entire point of a pick, after all. But Leonard stays closer than almost anyone, and even when he has to trail a guy around a pick, Leonard's arms are so long that he can challenge shots from behind.
Those arms help out Leonard when covering pick-and-roll ball-handlers more than anywhere else. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), the San Antonio Spurs standout allowed only 0.71 points per possession to ball-handlers in pick-and-roll situations, giving him the No. 58 mark among qualified players.
But he's not just able to challenge shots from behind.
His lanky arms also give him the ability to go under a screen and still recover in time to contest the jumper that he just gifted the ball-handler. You can see that here:
Leonard starts the play isolated against LeBron James, but that's quickly going to change. As you can tell from the arrows, here comes that pick-and-roll that LeBron thrives in, especially when serving as the primary ball-handler.
As Mario Chalmers sets the screen, Leonard is faced with a tough decision.
Does he go over the pick and stay with LeBron, hoping that Tim Duncan rolls over to play help defense as he chases down the MVP from behind? Does he go under and dare LeBron to shoot a jumper for what seems like the millionth time in the series?
Ultimately, he's going to choose the latter, but look at how much more ground he has to cover. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and there's no way Leonard can travel as the crow flies.
You can still see just how much ground Leonard has to cover.
And despite the long path, he gets there in time to provide a strong contest on the LeBron jumper. It went down in the box score as a missed shot, but Leonard may as well have blocked it. It's tough to force the Heat MVP into a shot that catches nothing but air, as the Spurs forward does here.
This length also helps Leonard in the post, where he often gives up size to power forwards. That came into play during the NBA Finals as well:
And Bosh sets up in the paint with pretty deep positioning.
Once he gets the ball, he almost immediately spins, and the abrupt finishing move catches Leonard off guard. He can't react fast enough, and Bosh is en route to the rim.
But not so fast.
Leonard is quick enough to recover, and his long arms are able to contest the shot. He gets a piece of it, slowing Bosh down, and Tim Duncan finishes the sequence with an emphatic block.
Get used to plays like this. Leonard will provide them with even more frequency as he continues to hone his skills, making use of those lanky arms and hands that look as though they belong to a homunculus.
Great at Both Team and Individual Defense
A great defender excels both as an individual stopper and a quality team defender.
Even after just two seasons in the NBA, Leonard already qualifies as both. He shows great principles when playing help defense, covering the passing lanes, switching at all the right times and sliding over to cut off drives to the basket without fear of slow recoveries.
According to Basketball-Reference, the Spurs allowed 103.3 points per 100 possessions when Leonard was on the bench, and that number plummeted to just 99.1 when he stepped onto the court.
That's a massive difference in every system, but the San Antonio principle is to minimize the impact of any one defender by universally playing help defense. It depresses individual numbers for the most part, but it also makes everyone on the team at least give the illusion of solid team defense.
Take a look at the on-court points allowed per 100 possessions numbers for each player who spent at least 1000 minutes on the court in 2012-13:
Tiago Splitter posted the best mark on the team, but Leonard wasn't far behind. It's abundantly clear that the small forward has become the defensive centerpiece of the team (yes, even more so than Tim Duncan is) because of his versatility and veteran savvy.
Did I say veteran savvy when describing a player with two seasons of professional experience to his name? Yep.
In fact, the NBA should be terrified of what happens when the 22-year-old actually has a few more years under his belt. What happens when he's turning 27 and hitting his athletic prime?
On top of that, Leonard thrives in individual settings.
He was clearly gaining more confidence as his sophomore season progressed, and the beginning of the campaign made his overall numbers less impressive, but Synergy still shows that he allowed only 0.82 points per possession, good for No. 87 in the NBA among all qualified players.
For a player tasked with guarding guys like LeBron James and other top wing scorers on a regular basis, that's quite an impressive figure. He could get much better in the post, and that will come with time, but he was nothing short of excellent whenever he was asked to move around the court and tail an offensive player.
All you have to do for evidence of his individual prowess (particularly when it comes to thievery), is go to YouTube and type in "Kawhi Leonard steal." The results are rather impressive.
And this one.
And this one.
And I'll let you find the rest on your own, because this should already be sufficient.
If you want a defensive tool, chances are good that Leonard has it in his arsenal. You're better off going to him than Home Depot. He showed that quite often during his second season at the professional level, and the third go-around will be no different.
In 2012-13, Leonard wasn't selected to either of the All-Defensive teams. LeBron James, Serge Ibaka, Tyson Chandler, Joakim Noah, Tony Allen and Chris Paul were selected to the First Team, while the Second Team was comprised of Tim Duncan, Paul George, Marc Gasol, Avery Bradley and Mike Conley.
There are 11 names there (thanks to a tie in the voting between Chandler and Noah), and none of them belong to Leonard. Expect that to change in 2013-14.
You don't have to sit around and wait for the future to get here in San Antonio.
Leonard has already arrived.