Since his outstanding performance during last season's NBA Finals, the San Antonio Spurs' Kawhi Leonard faces heightened expectations on a nightly basis. He was expected by many to make an all-star-level jump, becoming a top option for Gregg Popovich's team.
Fair or not, Leonard has not reached those lofty goals, especially on the offensive side of the ball. But while his numbers are not eye-popping, the third-year small forward has improved other parts of his game.
The Spurs' success over the past decade has been largely a product of individuals carrying out their own roles and responsibilities to make the team better. And Leonard's improvements are important reasons as to why the Spurs are again contending for the best record in the Western Conference.
Finishing Near the Rim
While Leonard does not necessarily excel at a certain shot, he is a versatile scorer.
Typically, the San Diego State product will either attack the rim or stay behind the arc, passing up deep two-pointers. Leonard has proven he is a smart player, and unless the jumper is wide open, kicking the ball outside or driving into the lane are better options.
Leonard loves the one-handed floater over larger opponents, but he also attacks the basket and may draw a foul. Though Leonard will not overwhelm interior defenders, he takes advantage of open lanes and tries to finish strong.
After spreading his shots among different ranges in 2012-13, Leonard is taking a greater number of higher percentage shots around the rim this year.
Last season, Leonard attempted 54.4 percent of his field-goal attempts within 15 feet, and 64.2 percent of his made shots came inside that range. By comparison, this year, Leonard has taken 58.7 percent inside 15 feet, and 70.3 of successful attempts are converted from that distance.
It's not an exponential increase by any stretch of the imagination, but Leonard is both taking and making higher-percentage shots.
Improved Offensive Rebounding
Leonard will not dominate in the post, but he welcomes contact and is not afraid to battle bigger players for an opportunity at second-chance points.
Even as a rookie, Leonard held his own on the offensive glass, averaging 1.6 per game and 2.4 per 36 minutes.
So far this season, Leonard's offensive rebounding numbers have jumped from 1.1 per outing to 1.4, even while playing approximately three fewer minutes each night.
But not everything is about numbers in the box score.
His stats are not up to par with his rookie season—where he often faced reserves as opposed to starters—but Leonard does the dirty work, eliminating one potential rebounder at a time. As Leonard boxes that man out, Tim Duncan or Tiago Splitter, for example, get an easy putback attempt or a defensive rebound.
The Spurs' dominance has largely been a product of individuals knowing and executing their roles, and Leonard's sometimes-overlooked contributions allow teammates to succeed.
Defensive Presence and Leadership
From Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder, James Harden of the Houston Rockets and the 'Splash Brothers' of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors, the West is full of elite scorers.
Leonard is tasked with the unenviable responsibility of guarding these players, but he has proven more than capable rather often.
Listed at 6'7" with a 6'11" wingspan, Leonard's sheer size poses difficulties for opposing attackers. Add in his quick feet, fast hands and unrelenting determination to get the ball, and Leonard is a nightmare to see.
Just ask that LeBron James guy. And rumor has it, he's pretty good.
Dan McCarney of SpursNation.com notes that Leonard "oozes with potential, even after already establishing himself as an impact player." And if the Spurs have any chance at another finals run, it will be keyed on Leonard's defensive ability.
Of course, San Antonio isn't just improved because of his presence, he is emerging as a leader of a veteran-laden team. How many other 22-year-olds in the NBA can frustrate guards and outphysical forwards by tipping passes, boxing out for rebounds and leading breaks?
The answer? None.
He rarely lights up box scores, but San Antonio has a certain focus when he is on the floor.
The overall team defense suffers when Leonard gets a breather. If the Spurs need a stop, they turn to Leonard, and more often than not, the third-year player steps up defensively.
Follow Bleacher Report NBA Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.
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