Re-Evaluating Kawhi Leonard's Superstar Ceiling After Breakout 2014 NBA Finals

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Re-Evaluating Kawhi Leonard's Superstar Ceiling After Breakout 2014 NBA Finals
Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

San Antonio Spurs swingman Kawhi Leonard used the 2013 NBA Finals to introduce himself to the basketball world.

A year later, the championship round served as his springboard into the history books.

Leonard, who won't turn 23 until June 29, shook off a forgettable start to the title series and secured Finals MVP honors with three straight dominant performances: 29 points on 10-of-13 shooting in Game 3, 20 points and 14 rebounds his next time out, then 22 points and 10 boards in the series clincher.

Players like Leonard aren't supposed to capture this type of historic hardware. Not ones who are this young:

Not ones who are so short on accolades:

Even the do-it-all forward seemed surprised about the honor.

"Everybody is just living in the moment right now," he told reporters. "Really don't know what's going on."

What's going on is nothing less than the birth of a star. For a player who has long carried the hopes of San Antonio's future, he has forced hoop heads to ask one important question: Kawhi wait?

Leonard isn't a numbers guy. His 2013-14 campaign was the best of his three-year career, yet his stat sheet lacked the wow factor the hoops world expects to see from its brightest stars: 12.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.7 steals.

For the most astute observers, though, his star power was absolutely evident.

It was seen in the minuscule 36.2 field-goal percentage he yielded to opposing isolation scorers, per Synergy Sports (subscription required), a staggering statistic given that San Antonio's toughest defensive assignments always came his way. It was present in his 52.2 shooting percentage, a superb mark considering 54.8 percent of his field goals were attempted at least 10 feet away from the basket, according to Basketball-Reference.com.

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Yet even reading between the lines isn't enough when it comes to San Antonio's rising star. His is an art form that cannot be grasped solely in its results. The real beauty surfaces in the process.

"Leonard has to be seen for a whole game, a whole series, to be fully appreciated because he's not a highlight-reel guy," CBS Sports' Gregg Doyel wrote. "His game is like his personality -- understated. Quiet. He'll throw in the occasional follow-jam, but the stuff he typically does is more subtle than that."

Leonard has an instinctive feel for knowing what buttons need pressing and when.

Some nights, the well-balanced Spurs need only lockdown defense, which he'll provide at an elite level (he was an All-Defensive second-team selection this season). On others, they'll ask him for some offense, and he'll go about shredding nets from distance or soaring through the skies for powerful putback jams.

His star is already shining, an impressive feat with all the real estate he's willingly ceded in the Alamo City skies to his Hall of Fame-bound teammates Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

A team-first player in a typically me-first league, Leonard's sluggish start to the 2014 Finals—he averaged 9.0 points on 42.9 percent shooting over the first two games—had less to do with ineffectiveness than it did a gas pedal waiting for his touch.

As Spurs coach Gregg Popovich explained to the media, his young forward needed a reminder of the green light in his possession.

"I just talked to him about not being in that defer sort of stage," Popovich said. "The hell with Tony, the hell with Timmy, the hell with Manu, you play the game. You are the man."

Not a second after that message was delivered, Leonard started looking like the man.

Soon, like next season soon, those pokes from Pop will no longer be needed. Leonard already runs a lot deeper in the self-assurance department than his spotlight-deflecting personality suggests.

"He wants to do it all, and he plays with a confidence that is just amazing," Duncan marveled in his post-Game 5 press conference. "I’m honored to be on this team right now because he’s going to be great for years to come."

Greatness, not merely goodness, is what now clearly rests in Leonard's future. 

Defensively, he's already emerged as one of the league's premier perimeter stoppers. Offensively, he's proven to be a reliable contributor away from the basketball, whether as a spot-up shooter (career-high 37.9 three-point percentage this season), explosive slasher or rim-rattling offensive rebounder.

Over the last three games of the Finals, he looked more than comfortable creating his own offense. He converted a team-high 11 unassisted field goals on 57.9 percent shooting over that stretch, per NBA.com's SportVU player tracking data.

With top-shelf athletic tools and a coach's-dream mental approach, he'll only raise his ceiling (and his basement) going forward.

"Kawhi just wants to get better and better and better," his mother, Kim Robertson, said, via ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne. "He does not want to be a superstar. He does not want to be in the limelight. He just wants to be good at what he loves to do."

Superstardom is coming. As much as he'd like to avoid it, so too is the limelight.

People have pinned Scottie Pippen comparisons on Leonard's shoulders. In terms of length, size and quickness, plus the defensive versatility those physical attributes bring, the two do have a lot in common.

Offensively, there are some significant differences.

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Pippen averaged 5.4 assists his third season in the league and 5.2 for his career. Leonard's two dimes a night were a personal best, and while there's some room to grow those numbers, it's hard to imagine he'll close that type of gap.

Leonard has also proven to have more range than Pippen. The former Chicago Bulls great shot above 37 percent from distance once in his 17-year career. Leonard has yet to shoot worse than 37.4 percent from three.

When it comes to roles, though, a Pippen-style existence may be Leonard's ultimate calling card. The latter is more role player than alpha dog, but one of the few who has mastered his craft to the point he's now an indispensable piece of his franchise's puzzle.

Players like Leonard rarely come around in the basketball world. He's a superstar Swiss Army knife, a player capable of scratching so many different itches for his team.

Leonard doesn't look, sound or even play like a typical NBA star. But ultimately, he'll be held in a such a favorable light—by those who haven't anointed him already.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

 

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