Unraveling the Mystery of San Antonio Spurs Swingman Kawhi Leonard

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 15, 2014

USA Today

In the wake of Kawhi Leonard taking control of a series-clinching victory for the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals, it's time, yet again, to try to make sense of the NBA's quietest, most inscrutable star.

We all accept that Leonard is a two-way force, a silent assassin who plays within a high-functioning system but occasionally leaps out of it to flash stunning individual skill.

He has a nose for the ball. He knows his role. He does the little things.

Think about it, though: If you were asked, "What makes Kawhi Leonard a great player, specifically?", you'd probably struggle to make a point that didn't include generalities like the ones above.

Those things are true, but they're not enough. We need to know more about Leonard and, particularly, what he does that makes him such an impactful player. So before he inevitably strides back into the news cycle with yet another breakout performance in the conference finals, let's try to unravel the mystery of Leonard.


Surprising Offensive Impact

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MAY 14: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs drives against the Portland Trail Blazers in Game Five of the Western Conference Semifinals between the San Antonio Spurs and the Portland Trail Blazers during the 2014 NBA Playoffs on Ma
D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images

For a guy whose elite defense draws so much praise (don't worry, we'll get to that later), Leonard grades out as an exceptional offensive player.

Per Synergy Sports (subscription required), he's ridiculously versatile.

Overall, he checked in as the 15th-ranked offensive player in the league in terms of points per play this past season. That figure got a big boost from Leonard's work in isolation sets, where he ranked sixth in the entire NBA in scoring efficiency.

As a pick-and-roll ball-handler, he was ninth. When he posted up, you could expect 1.12 points per play—good enough for the No. 6 overall ranking in the league.

He could use some work as a spot-up shooter, though he still checked in around the 66th percentile there. And of course, he was a beast in transition, rating in the 95th percentile with 1.33 points per play.

Put simply, there's no specific play type in which Leonard isn't somewhere between "really good" and "elite."

Maybe that's why it's always so hard to pin him down as an offensive player. Is he a guy who thrives with the ball or without it? Should he get touches in the half court or in transition? Can he get his own shot, or should he be the recipient of set-ups?

Let's keep it basic. The answer to all those questions is "yes."


The Other End

The story of Leonard's versatile excellence is similar on defense. He ranked in the league's top 10 percent overall, against ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll and in isolation situations, per Synergy.

But those ratings, impressive as they are, probably undersell Leonard's value because he spends the vast majority of his minutes squaring off against the opponent's most dangerous wing.

You can see a lot of what makes Leonard great in the above clip. Guarding LeBron James, Kevin Durant and the rest of the league's best offensive players makes one thing very clear: Leonard's defensive statistics do not come cheap.

He fights relentlessly to prevent the catch and then immediately sucks up space when his man gets the ball. He contests without fouling and always plays intelligently within the Spurs' scheme.

Per Bleacher Report's Zach Buckley:

He crowds shooters on the catch, cutting off their airways and leaving no view of the basket. He'll leave more room against drivers, forcing players into the lanes he wants them to take. He knows where his teammates will be at any given time and understands where and when help is available if he needs it.

He doesn't usually need it.

Perhaps most interestingly, Leonard somehow resists what must be a strong temptation to utilize his otherworldly length to reach in.

Instead, he defends by moving his feet and getting his chest into offensive players. And when he does go for the ball, the results are often breathtaking.

As you'd expect, his impact on the Spurs' overall defense is significant. Their defensive rating was 4.8 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the floor this past season, per NBA.com.


The Tricky Part

Nov 15, 2013; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich talks with small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) during the second half against the Utah Jazz at EnergySolutions Arena. San Antonio won 91-82. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA

One of the reasons Leonard's game is so hard to evaluate is because we don't know how to divorce it from the Spurs' system, which seems to wring every last drop of talent out of everyone who passes through it.

Analyzing a San Antonio player is complicated. It's the best place to learn the "right way" to play (unselfishly and with serious attention to detail), but it's also possible that the system itself makes players look much better than they actually are.

There are loads of examples of players coming to the Spurs and excelling: Marco Belinelli, Boris Diaw, Danny Green and Patty Mills, just to name a few. But there are virtually no instances of the reverse situation; nobody leaves San Antonio and gets better.

And speaking of getting better, that's another thing that makes Leonard so difficult to assess.

He's improved so much over the course of his career that any analysis of where he is now has to build in the uncertainty of where he'll be in a year or two. His trajectory has been a steep ascent toward stardom, and there's little reason to believe it'll level off anytime soon.

Never quick to praise, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich lauds Leonard's greatest asset: his desire to get better.

"Everybody doesn't improve," Pop told reporters in April. "But he has a great capacity to absorb things and he works hard. He comes early to practice; he stays after. Our development guys work with him constantly and he wears them out. He really wants to be good and he's got some talents to work with, so that's a good combination."

It'd take forever to chronicle all of the ways in which Leonard has improved in his short career, so we'll focus on a critical one: his shot.

As a collegiate player, Leonard had no jumper whatsoever. He made 16 triples as a junior and 25 as a senior, finishing his career at San Diego State with an accuracy rate of just 25 percent from the shorter college line, per Statsheet.com.

In three seasons with the Spurs, he's hit at least 37 percent of his treys every year, while increasing his total makes in each season. Clearly, Popovich wasn't kidding about the work ethic.


Arm's Length

May 2, 2014; Dallas, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) battles with Dallas Mavericks guard Vince Carter (25) for the ball  in game six of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jair

Leonard remains mysterious largely because he doesn't seem interested in explaining, well...anything about himself. He barely speaks, and when he does, it tends to surprise most observers.

He keeps everybody at arm's length, which is no small thing for a guy with a 7'3" wingspan and hands the size of dinner plates.

If you think about it, the fact that we don't know much about him is a hint as to why he's so good and so intent on improving. He doesn't care about he spotlight. In fact, he seems bent on actively avoiding it.

Leonard just wants to work. To get better.

Sure, he has a personality. But there's no benefit to him showing it. Maybe he'd collect a few more endorsement deals, but that's not really the "Spurs Way." And he'll cash in either this summer with a massive extension or as a restricted free agent in 2015 anyhow.

He's San Antonio's do-it-all utility man right now, content to fill in the gaps and sometimes flash the takeover brilliance we saw in Game 5 against the Portland Trail Blazers.

But soon, he'll be the franchise star, the guy who'll form a one-two punch with Tony Parker long after Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are gone. Put another way, he's the future. He won't shout about it, though. He's happy to let his game do the talking on his behalf.

It's saying plenty right now, and maybe we'll hear more if he's hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy in a few weeks.