Kawhi Leonard Has Finally, Officially Joined the NBA's Superstar Ranks

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 9, 2015

Jan 25, 2015; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) watches a free throw during the first half against the Milwaukee Bucks at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Kawhi Leonard's ascent to superstardom happened quietly.

Of course it did.

Perhaps sensing the need to explain how one of the league's most notoriously taciturn talents made the leap, the rest of the San Antonio Spurs have been speaking plenty.

Tony Parker, simultaneously revealing the keys to San Antonio's sustained greatness and singling out the guy who'll be driving the dynasty in the future, offered this up to Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News:

It's like me and Manu back in the day. You have to share and wait your turn. Sometimes I don't see the ball for a long time, but Kawhi i splaying unbelievable. And it's going to be Kawhi's team anyway. Like Timmy transitioned to Manu, Manu transitioned to me, now it's going to be transitioned to Kawhi. I'll try to do my best to stay aggressive and be involved. But Kawhi's going to be the man.

One point of contention on Parker's comments: Kawhi's not going to be the man.

He already is.

Leonard's play of late has been, well, loud. Take his seven steals in a 107-92 romp over the Golden State Warriors on April 5 as an example. He dominated that game on both ends, leaving little doubt about his place among the game's current two-way forces.

But typically reserved head coach Gregg Popovich saw fit to heap praise anyway, per Jeff McDonald of the Express News:

He stole it from Curry the other night, just took it from him and went down and dunked it, and his expression did not change. He didn't raise his fist or look cool to the crowd or do any of this stupid-ass stuff. He didn't do a thing. He just goes the other direction, like he's bored to death. I love that about him.

Leave it to Pop to characterize "bored to death" as a laudable quality.

Perhaps because of Leonard's unblinking, unspeaking approach to becoming a superstar, his rise has been inconspicuous. Or maybe everyone just assumed he'd already made the jump by winning the Finals MVP last year.

That was a milestone, sure, but a rough start to this season made it feel as though Leonard's breakthrough was more of a peak than a checkpoint on the path to the summit of Mt. Superstar.

The month of March proved last year's achievement was only the beginning, per an across-the-board offensive breakdown from Synergy Sports:

Note, too, Leonard's improved accuracy from all over the floor. Here's his February shot chart from NBA.com:

Courtesy NBA.com

And here's March:

Courtesy NBA.com

It's not as though Leonard simply flipped the switch, sensing the Spurs needed a push down the stretch, even if his production uptick has resulted in the most impressive run of San Antonio's season, as the Spurs have gone 17-3 since the beginning of March. Instead, Leonard's rise has two main sources: He's finally healthy after losing a full month with a hand injury, and he's enjoying far more offensive freedom.

That liberty is evident in his shot distribution, which is now so evenly spread that opponents simply can't isolate any particular area of the floor as Leonard's "spot."

Leonard's Career Percentage of Field-Goal Attempts by Distance
Year0-3 Feet3-10 Feet10-16 Feet16 Feet-3P3P
2011-1236.917.69.29.427.0
2012-1332.912.29.312.533.1
2013-1430.414.711.914.728.2
2014-1520.818.218.718.124.2
Basketball-Reference.com

This newfound unpredictability makes Leonard more dangerous than ever, as does the fact that he is creating more of his own offense at a career-high rate. San Antonio is still a team that prizes ball movement and facilitation more highly than most, but Leonard has logged a lower percentage of assisted field goals this season than ever, per Basketball-Reference.com.

He can do things on his own now, and the fact that Popovich is willing to let him says everything about the trust Leonard's improvement has earned him.

All that offensive talk is fine, but we know Leonard's true greatness is on the other end.

Per Kevin Pelton of ESPN.com:

Since returning from a hand ligament injury in January, Leonard has been a defensive terror, leading the Spurs—an average defense in his absenceall the way up to second in defensive rating. His career-high steal percentage (3.8) ranks third in the league, and opponents can't even dribble in front of him without risking a turnover. Leonard's defensive RPM (plus-5.2) actually ranks second in the NBA, and he'd have a strong case for Defensive Player of the Year if not for the time he's missed.

Leonard's Finals MVP was a reward, in part, for making LeBron James work for his numbers. Lately, he's made it a point to do the same to the league's top offensive stars.

Notable Recent Efforts vs. Scoring Stars in 2014-15
DateOpponentPoints2014-15 PPGFG %2014-15 FG %
March 25Russell Westbrook1627.531.3%41.9%
March 31Dwyane Wade1521.530%47.7%
April 7Russell Westbrook1727.543.8%41.9%
April 8James Harden2227.640%44.3%
NBA.com

Granted, Leonard isn't matched up on the likes of Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Dwyane Wade for the entire game. Danny Green deserves recognition, too. But there's no doubt that Leonard, based on the stats and highlights, is among the league's absolute best defensive players.

Noted NBA gambler Haralabos Voulgaris has noticed this, and he offered fans and undecided MVP voters some food for thought:

That brings us to a notion that has cropped up a few times in recent seasons, but one that rarely gets the traction it logically deserves: If defense is half the game, and if a guy like Leonard is arguably the best player in said half, while also being really good at the other half, can't we say he's as valuable as someone like Harden, who's great on offense but merely decent on D?

If your answer to that question is no, you're basically saying defense is less valuable than offense. And I'm not sure where the evidence is to support such a position.

Leonard's ascent comes at the right time for a Spurs team suddenly (though not coincidentally) profiling as a serious contender. If the rest of San Antonio's title-defending roster is intact and Leonard has reached another level, well, it's not crazy to throw around the "favorite" label.

And long term, a Spurs franchise that has been nothing but dominant for almost two decades is now assured of a lot more success in the future.

All thanks to Leonard, who's done enough to prove he's on the short list of the game's best.

If he's not going to talk about it, we should.

 

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