Could Kawhi Leonard Break the San Antonio Spurs' Minutes Mold?

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistOctober 2, 2014

USA Today

SAN ANTONIO — After playing just 29.1 minutes per contest during the 2013-14 regular season, San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard averaged 37.3 minutes through the last three games of the NBA Finals.

The result?

A combined 71 points, 28 rebounds and plenty of defensive contributions—oh, and those Finals MVP honors.

It was a glimpse into the 23-year-old's vast potential and a compelling argument for the minutes needed to reach that ceiling. While expectations remained relatively muted during his first three seasons, the hope Leonard would evolve into a legitimate star is nothing new.

Indeed, that hope originated with head coach Gregg Popovich, who hinted at big things for the San Diego State product all the way back in August 2012.

"I think he's going to be a star," Popovich said in an NBA.com Q&A with fans at the time. "And as time goes on, he'll be the face of the Spurs I think. At both ends of the court, he is really a special player."

"And what makes me be so confident about him is that he wants it so badly," Popovich added. "He wants to be a good player, I mean a great player. He comes early, he stays late, and he’s coachable, he's just like a sponge."

Fast-forward two years, and those bold predictions appear to be all the more well-founded. Only this time, they also come with something of a mandate.

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SAN ANTONIO, TX - JUNE 15:  Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs celebrates after being named the MVP following Game Five of the 2014 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat at the AT&T Center on June 15, 2014 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expr
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"I'm probably going to talk to him more about consistency now," Popovich told reporters at the team's media day in September. "He's reached a certain level, and if you look at those last three games [of the Finals] he played, they were pretty special."

"But to be in that top echelon of players in our league, it's a huge responsibility to have to come and do that every night," Popovich added. "The Duncans, the Durants, the Jameses and all those kinds of guys do it night after night after night, and it's a huge responsibility."

It's also a responsibility that typically entails ample playing time, something Popovich has been reluctant to distribute in recent years. Nobody on his 2013-14 roster averaged 30 or more minutes per contest, the first time in league history a rotation has been so thoroughly balanced and egalitarian, per NBA.com.

For Leonard to take another step forward, that's a trend that may have to change.

And Leonard knows it.

"In the Finals I'm playing 35 minutes a game, so I'm on the floor more and able to score the ball more and get more rebounds," Leonard explained on media day. "So I'm going to have to get consistent minutes to play at a consistent level like that."

"Like I said, if I'm going to get seven more minutes on the floor, that's going to be important," Leonard added. "We'll see what happens. I mean, my role was supposed to expand last year, and we played pretty much the same basketball. So we'll see what Coach Pop has."

PORTLAND, OR - MAY 10: Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs has some words with Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs in the second half of Game Three of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Portland Trail Blazers during the 2014 NBA Playo
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

There's a strong rationale for giving Leonard the extra playing time. His young career has been marked by elite efficiency, to say nothing of his penchant for making an impact on both ends of the floor. It's the kind of package most coaches would exploit to the last drop.

While Popovich has never done things like "most coaches," extra doses of Leonard may become more of a necessity than luxury.

Leonard made 52.2 percent of his field-goal attempts last season, including 37.9 percent of his attempts from three-point range—both career highs. His .602 true shooting percentage ranked sixth among small forwards and fourth among those who played at least 20 minutes per game (according to ESPN.com's Hollinger Stats).

More broadly, his 19.43 player efficiency rating ranked fifth among small forwards—and not far behind Paul George's mark of 20.16.

Despite his notable per-minute impact, Leonard still operated primarily as a complementary weapon more often than not. His usage rate (17.0) ranked just 33rd among small forwards, an indication that minutes aren't the only factor curtailing Leonard's net production.

His modest averages of 12.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game were also symptomatic of San Antonio's commitment to sharing the ball. Though Leonard had more of a green light to look for his own offense in those Finals, the team's ensemble offensive approach probably won't undergo a radical overhaul anytime soon.

Reduced contributions from aging cornerstones like Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili may naturally create increased opportunities for Leonard, but this is still a team that's fundamentally premised on taking the right shot—regardless of who takes it.

Even with additional minutes, Leonard is unlikely to yield numbers one would associate with a conventional superstar. That's just not how these Spurs do things, at least not yet.

That said, getting more out of Leonard really isn't about statistics—or even All-Star appearances.

It's about getting wins, particularly playoff wins. 

From that perspective, Leonard's presence is no less essential. His two-way acumen gives the Spurs their best solution on the wing to defend elite scorers like Kevin Durant, LeBron James or James Harden. His size and activity around the basket often make it seem as though there's another big man on the floor.

Regardless of touches or the collective nature of San Antonio's offensive system, these are virtues that warrant serious playing time.

More importantly, ample minutes may all but assure Leonard the kind of rhythm he'll need to remain aggressive in the postseason. Rather than expecting him to flip a switch when the time is right, there's something to be said for easing Leonard into the workload—and scoring demands—he'll again encounter in the playoffs.

There's no guarantee the still-evolving swingman will replicate his Finals breakout when those playoffs roll around, but you have to like his odds.

This guy has a knack for good timing.

As SB Nation's Michael Erler recently put it, "To recap, Leonard not only set his career-high in scoring in Game 3 at Miami [when he scored 29 points], but the first time he scored over 20 points in three consecutive games came in Games 3-5 of the Finals against LeBron James. Who does that?"

It's no coincidence that Leonard was the guy who answered the bell this time. Indeed, the effort he's invested in his own improvement is all the more reason to keep him on the floor a little bit longer. 

He's earned this.

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 11: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs stretches during practice on an off day following Game Three of the 2014 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on June 11, 2014 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User exp
Alex Trautwig/Getty Images

"He has a great capacity to absorb things, and he works hard," Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich told reporters in April. "He comes early to practice. He stays after. Our development guys work with him constantly, and he wears them out. So he really wants to be good, and he's got some talents to work with, so that's a good combination."

Even now—with the negotiation of a contract extension pending—Leonard has remained focused on the bottom line instead.

"I'm just playing," Leonard told USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt in June after the Finals. "The Spurs are a great organization. I'm leaving that to my agent, and I'm sure they'll come out with a great understanding and a deal. I'm not focused on that at all."

"The next step is learning how to carry a team and carry the full load scoring-wise," Leonard added. "I know people are going to put the main focus on stopping me, so I need to learn how to make my teammates better by passing and creating opportunities for them."

Sounds about right. 

No posturing. No haggling. No threats of leaving for more minutes and adulation elsewhere.

Just a commitment to taking that next step.

A commitment Gregg Popovich should honor by doing the same.

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