The Evolution of Kawhi Leonard into 2-Way Star

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistApril 14, 2015

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He could always defend with the best of them. Now he's scoring like an All-Star, too.

Students of recent history will recall that Kawhi Leonard's offense looked pretty good during the 2014 NBA Finals. But they'll also note that he didn't build upon that display in the early goings of his 2014-15 campaign. The 23-year-old only averaged 14.9 points per contest in November before a hand injury derailed his December and January.

And even after Leonard returned, he posted just 13.5 points per game in February, making an uncharacteristically low 41.8 percent of his field-goal attempts in the process. 

Then something happened.

Beginning with a 22-point outing against the Phoenix Suns on Feb. 28, Leonard topped the 20-point mark in six consecutive games for the first time in his young career. Earlier this month, he tied his career high of 26 points in consecutive games—games in which he played just 24 minutes apiece. 

Things have been going well, with averages topping 19 points per game in March and April. Leonard made 53.1 percent of his field-goal attempts during the former and an even gaudier 57.3 percent with one game remaining in the latter. That's crazy efficiency for a guy who suddenly gets the lion's share of his buckets from the mid-range and beyond.

And it hasn't happened by accident.

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Some Background Is in Order

John Raoux/Associated Press

Leonard entered the league as a solid defender with a knack for rebounding the ball. The San Diego State product got by on speed and physicality at the college level, so no one expected a well-developed and diversified offensive repertoire from the outset.

If anything, onlookers were quickly impressed with the swingman's corner three. Leonard made 37.6 percent of his three-point attempts as a rookie, and this is in fact the first season in which the fourth-year veteran has made less than 37 percent of those attempts (at 34.9 percent). As a three-and-D specialist with a gritty interior game, Leonard quickly excelled.

Even then, however, some believed he could be far better.

This is what head coach Gregg Popovich predicted during an online Q&A back in 2012, heading into Leonard's sophomore season (via NBA.com):

I think he's going to be a star. 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. 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. When you consider he's only had one year of college and no training camp yet, you can see that he's going to be something else.

For a skipper who can be slow to trust his young talent, the effusive praise spoke volumes. So when one fast-forwards to Leonard being named the 2014 NBA Finals MVP, no one around San Antonio was particularly surprised.

This was supposed to happen, forecasted by the wisest of coaching legends.

The other giveaway required a little more guesswork. Esteemed general manager R.C. Buford liked Leonard enough to acquire him from the Indiana Pacers on draft day. It cost San Antonio team favorite George Hill, a popular sixth-man type who gave it everything on both ends of the floor.

That said plenty about what the organization saw in Leonard. Buford and Co. believed so strongly in his upside that they parted ways with a sure—and very good—thing.

Painless Growing

Darren Abate/Associated Press

Two things held Leonard back during his second and third seasons: a lack of opportunities and a still-developing in-between game. He averaged 11.9 and 12.8 points per game in those two seasons and figured prominently into the club's supporting cast.

It didn't take long for him to inherit premier defensive assignments against the likes of Kevin Durant and LeBron James. And sure enough, Leonard continued to pass his defensive tests with relative ease, at least slowing down the league's very best perimeter scorers.

But that whole "face of the franchise" thing hasn't happened overnight. 

Kawhi Leonard's Career Progression (Per Game)

His minutes haven't seen a significant uptick, but Leonard's production has increased dramatically this season—namely because of his performance after the All-Star break. The principal cause for the surge in statistical activity seems to be assertiveness.

Leonard has been more aggressive in virtually every phase of his offensive game. He's attempting twice as many free throws as he did a season ago, signaling an increasing willingness to drive in pursuit of contact.

The even more impressive trend is Leonard's quickly developing in-between game. He's got moves—moves in the post, turnaround jumpers on the wing and a number of floaters and push-shots when in the lane. There's a distinctive playmaking ability that just wasn't there a year or two ago, not on any consistent basis.

It shows in the numbers, too. Check out how many shots Leonard attempted between 10 and 20 feet out a season ago.


Now note the increase in those attempts this season.


Better yet, Leonard is far more efficient at that range than the league is on average.


It's a testament to his work off the dribble, an improved handle and footwork, quicker decision-making, all kinds of good stuff. This is what happens when a player is entrusted with the right to take over and carry a scoring burden. The Spurs aren't a one-man show, but even the best ensemble casts need leadership.

Leonard is finally giving them just that.

Here to Stay?

Eric Gay/Associated Press

It was the question Popovich and Leonard both addressed at the beginning of the season at San Antonio's media day—whether the impressive young player would adopt an increased role after a breakout performance against the Miami Heat in June. 

"I'm probably going to talk to him more about consistency now," Popovich told reporters at the time. "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. 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."

A responsibility that Leonard has increasingly accepted. He lobbied for more minutes just moments after Popovich delivered that statement, but minutes haven't proved to be the difference.

Approach has.

Now that Leonard is looking to score and able to put himself in position to score, the Spurs can make things happen even when the ball-movement-based system breaks down.

Duncan still gets touches in the post. Tony Parker still penetrates with relative ease. But more than ever, Leonard has become the safe option—the go-to option.

The kind of option who will almost certainly warrant maximum money as a free agent this summer. 

The three-and-D Leonard wouldn't have commanded that kind of money. Specialists never do. But with an all-around game that should translate into All-Star consideration during a fully healthy season, the calculus changes dramatically.

Even the cost-conscious Spurs will open the checkbook for this one, and every cent will be 100 percent deserved.

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.


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