How Kawhi Leonard Can Take His Game to Superstar Level for Spurs

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How Kawhi Leonard Can Take His Game to Superstar Level for Spurs
Danny Johnston/Associated Press

Kawhi Leonard is going to be a stud. Well, actually, that ship has sailed.

The San Antonio Spurs are tied 2-2 with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, and Leonard is part of the reason the Spurs made it this deep into the playoffs.

He isn’t yet San Antonio’s best player, but it’s just a matter of time. Leonard will only be 23 years young when next season starts and it’s quite possible that he will be among the league’s top players.

Before delving into the layers Leonard must add to his game, let’s quickly take a look at the package that’s already available.

 

Almost Mr. Everything

Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

Leonard is a wonderful complementary piece in San Antonio because he seemingly does it all without ever overstepping boundaries.

Leonard is more than happy to blend in with his teammates and operate within the confines of head coach Gregg Popovich’s motion offense. Generally, his shots are created by others who feed him for open looks.

Check out the percentage of assisted field-goals for Leonard and other notable small forwards this year:

2013-14 Percentage of Assisted FGs for Notable SFs
Player % Assisted FGs
Kawhi Leonard .576
Paul George .494
Kevin Durant .472
LeBron James .416
Carmelo Anthony .386

NBA.com

Leonard moves around the floor and waits for passes to come his way, at which point he simply rises up and shoots. This works out beautifully for the Spurs, as evidenced by his career 50.5 percent field-goal mark. Just for good measure, he’s drilling 37.6 percent of his treys through three seasons.

It gets better.

At 6’7’’, Leonard is tall and strong enough to back down players in the post and create high-percentage shots. San Antonio will use this option every now and then to throw defenses off.

Leonard likes going either to a right-handed hook shot or floater that appears indefensible given his length and wingspan. His willingness to mix it up down there at such an early age suggests that he will probably work on this facet going forward and become a great option in this setting.

Danny Bollinger/Getty Images

San Antonio doesn’t go to it on many occasions76 post-up shots this year, according to mySynergySportsbecause the team relies on ball movement, cutting and screening.

Post-ups can slow down an offense if the ball simply goes down to the block and the four other players just stand and watch. Thus, the Spurs rarely overdo it with post touches.

It’s worth noting that even if the Spurs believed in a predominantly low-post-oriented offense, Tim Duncan would likely get the lion’s share of touches down there.

Nonetheless, it’s a wrinkle the Spurs like because it allows Leonard to use his athleticism. Indeed, his length is certainly problematic for defenders, and the same is true of his leaping ability.

Leonard uses it in post-ups, but it’s far more apparent in fast breaks and drives to the hoop, as Serge Ibaka of the Thunder can attest to:

As good as Leonard is on offense, there’s an argument to be made he is equally problematic for opponents because of his rebounding and defense.

Kawhi does a good job of pursuing the ball after misses both on the offensive and defensive glass. For his career, he’s averaging 7.4 rebounds per 36 minutes.

On defense, his size, long arms and understanding of the capabilities of his primary assignment make him a huge deterrent, which Duncan noted to the San Antonio Express-News’ Buck Harvey after Leonard bothered the Miami Heat’s LeBron James in an early-March win.

Kawhi was a pest. He stuck his hand in there and knocked some balls away, got some steals, contested shots ... we need him to be that kind of guy,” Duncan said.

Bleacher Report’s Zach Buckley echoed those sentiments in early April and added some additional observations:

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.

As a result, he rarely gets badly beaten at the point of attack. Leonard is really good at chasing players through screens and closing out under control to contest shots.

Grantland’s Zach Lowe elaborated further coming into this season. “He is like a phantom, slithering between and around bodies, appearing on the other side of screens that looked to be insurmountable a half-second ago,” he wrote.

In addition, his on-ball defense is stellar because of his lateral quickness, and he uses his hands to take away passing angles.

Unless the coaching staff asks Leonard to reduce his defensive ferocity going forward in an effort to get him to concentrate on scoring, he should be a fixture on the All-NBA defensive teams.

 

Superstar in the Making

D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images

Leonard could end up being a better version of the Indiana PacersPaul George.

I’m not referring to the iteration that’s been mostly subpar during the Eastern Conference Finals, throwing teammates under the bus and complaining about a lack of calls. The comparison in this case pertains to George in last year’s conference finals, when he battled LeBron in a seven-game series.

In order to reach and surpass that level, Leonard must become a more active ball-handler and superior playmaker. He does a fine job of weaving through traffic in transition, but the Spurs will need more.

It appears as though he is open to giving the coaching staff whatever it needs going forward, based on thoughts Popovich shared with CBSSports.com’s Zach Harper in April.

“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,” he said.

It’s easy to think that Leonard isn’t an accomplished ball-handler because he rarely demonstrates it. The ball rests mostly with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Make no mistake, though, all he’s missing is opportunities.

According to mySynergy Sports, he’s only attempted 86 field goals in the pick-and-roll, but he’s been quite efficient at it judging from his 50 percent shooting in these instances.

Watch him display his handle against the Thunder during the Western Conference Finals:

With added reps, Leonard will get an opportunity to create and finish plays at the rim in a manner similar to the league’s top wing players.

Watch here as George flashes his skills in the screen-and-roll action in the first round of the playoffs:

Once the coaching staff entrusts Leonard with creating more offense in this manner, his solid off-the-dribble jump shot will cause a lot of damage. Big men defending pick-and-rolls will either trap him or hang around the free-throw line to concede the mid-range jumper.

SportVU's data tracking indicates he converted 42.5 percent of his pull-up jumpers during the 2013-14 campaign, which is fairly close to the mark of Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (43.6 percent).

What’s more, NBA.com shows Leonard hit 45.4 percent of his mid-range field goals during the regular season. As a reference point, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant made 44.4 percent from the same area.

In other words, Leonard’s jump shot is money.

Given our collective infatuation with points, it’s only natural for us to pay more attention to Leonard and lob accolades his way if he increases his offensive output. The players surrounding him have begun to decline, and it will be Leonard’s job to carry them going forward.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Newsflash: That’s what superstars do.

It warrants mentioning that an increased offensive burden means that Leonard will be tasked with scoring in isolation situations against his primary defender or versus a big man that switches onto him in the pick-and-roll.

When these situations arise, the first option will be taking the ball to the basket. However, if defenses pack the paint, he will have to invariably rise up for an off-the-dribble shot.

Of note, Leonard is a low-turnover player, and he would have to remain as such to make the leap. He avoids miscues (1.2 per game) because his usage rate (17.0) is nowhere near that of an elite player, and also because he does a fine job of protecting the ball.

An increase in usage could result in an uptick in turnovers, but the Spurs will happily take it provided that it’s a small increase and not a huge spike. That’s important because his passing game needs work.

Leonard is a good stationary passer, but getting to the next level will require making some pinpoint passes on the move. Ginobili, LeBron and Kevin Durant have mastered that skill, and it’s turned them into dangerous perimeter players.

George, on the other hand, has not, and as a result his game wavers some.

Thus, Leonard needs to work on seeing the floor and hitting teammates in stride while on the move. Ultimately, that will be the difference between simply being an efficient scorer or a bona fide superstar.

 

Striking Thunder

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Leonard might have to save the Spurs against the Thunder and their athleticism.

Serge Ibaka missed the first-two games of the Western Conference Finals with a calf injury, and San Antonio dominated the basket area as a result. Per NBA.com, the Spurs made 43-of-56 field goals (76.8 percent) in the restricted area with Ibaka sidelined.

His return completely altered San Antonio’s game plan. With Ibaka back on the court, the Spurs only made 28-of-54 shots (51.9 percent) near the rim. The basket protection has slowed down Parker and Duncan.

Ginobili was sensational in Game 3 because of his long-range shooting (six-for-nine from downtown), but disappeared in Game 4 when his jump shot betrayed him.

That should shift some of the focus towards Leonard. He struggled in both games at Oklahoma City, but that was more so because he relied a bit too much on the long ball.

This might be the time to increase Leonard’s workload based on the plays he was successful in small doses during the regular season: post-ups, isolations and pick-and-rolls. The strategy would give the Spurs a different offensive attack, one the Thunder might not be ready for.

Also, it’s one way to attack Durant. KD has struggled in one-on-one defense against Boris Diaw, especially in the low post. For those wondering why Diaw keeps gaining weight while Durant can’t put on any, it’s because Diaw keeps eating pieces of the scoring champ.

Consequently, it might not be a bad idea to throw the ball into Leonard with his back to the basket, just to see if he can take advantage of Durant.

The Spurs can also go to Leonard in the pick-and-roll within the frame of their motion offense. Kendrick Perkins simply does not have the mobility nor the discipline to consistently thwart pick-and-rolls, which might give an athlete like Leonard an opportunity to explode at the rim or to take mid-range jumpers.

The Thunder’s energy and athleticism was on full display in Games 3 and 4. San Antonio needs someone to help combat that back in San Antonio, and Leonard certainly fits the profile.

Leonard already has some of the tools necessary to take on a bigger share of the Spurs offense and play the part of “the man.” He is simply biding his time for the day Popovich gives him the reins. Game 5 might be a place to start.

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