SAN ANTONIO — People forget, but Gregg Popovich had to be talked into approving a draft-night trade for Kawhi Leonard. To Popovich's credit, it took just one season for the San Antonio Spurs coach to recognize Leonard's potential.
A year after Leonard became a Spur on June 23, 2011, before the first practice of a 2012-13 season (a season that would produce a trip to the NBA Finals), Popovich declared the San Diego State product the future face of the franchise.
The audacious prediction shocked experts. In truth, Popovich had already been professing Leonard's incredible potential. Before Leonard headed to Las Vegas to train with USA Basketball in advance of the London Olympic Games, Popovich gushed about the 15th overall pick's desire to become a truly great player. His work ethic called to mind Tim Duncan, the bedrock of the Spurs dynasty.
“We all know they’re different players,” Popovich told me at the time. “But his approach to the game, his professionalism and willingness to listen and learn reminds us of Tim.”
Nearly everyone had seen Leonard’s potential as a great defender, and the recent announcement that he has become an ultra-rare back-to-back winner of the Defensive Player of the Year award bore that out. But nobody, Popovich included, could have seen a season in which he would make 44.3 percent of his three-point shots, finishing right behind J.J. Redick and Stephen Curry in long-distance accuracy.
Making a Two-Way Star
How does a player who drew a predraft comparison to Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Gerald Wallace as a best-case scenario become one of the most accurate shooters in the league, overall and from long range?
Enter Spurs shooting coach Chip Engelland.
His reputation as the league’s premier “shot doctor” borders on legendary. Portland Trail Blazers assistant general manager Bill Branch, a scout for the Denver Nuggets when Engelland was the team’s director of player development from 2003 to 2005, had an up-close look at the master's techniques.
“A lot of us call Chip 'The Shot Whisperer,'" Branch said. “He’s great with shot mechanics, but his secret is building the confidence of everyone he works with. There’s nobody better at that aspect.”
Engelland’s reputation—and job security—was cemented when former client Steve Kerr tried to hire him away from the Spurs after replacing Mark Jackson on the Warriors bench.
After Leonard joined the Spurs and signed his rookie contract—San Antonio sent highly-valued point guard George Hill to the Indiana Pacers for his draft rights—Engelland had only a few days to impart some shooting knowledge. The collective bargaining agreement between the league and the National Basketball Players Association was set to expire on July 1, and a lockout loomed. All team officials would then be prohibited from having any contact with players.
Leonard spent three long days with Engelland. The Shot Whisperer tweaked his mechanics and gave him shooting drills to work on for as long as the lockout lasted.
When the standstill was lifted in December and Leonard reported to training camp, it was evident he had spent most of the lockout months paying strict attention to Engelland’s lesson plan.
“Coming in right before the lockout, he changed [my shot] but not too much,” Leonard said. “I had a good shooting form, but he brought my release a little lower and helped my follow-through. But they were just little adjustments Chip had seen. I just believed in it and worked on it from there.”
Leonard was plugged right into Popovich’s starting lineup but was an afterthought in the coach’s offensive game plan. Pop ran no plays for the rookie and, like former Spurs defensive ace Bruce Bowen before him, told him to shoot three-pointers only from the corners.
Following instructions, Leonard made 41 of 109 three-pointers in his first season, a solid 37.6 percent. He followed with similar, consistent attempts and percentages from 2012 to 2014, though his accuracy dipped in 2014-15, when his three-point game expanded out of the corners and opposing teams focused their defensive game plans on him.
But when the quantity was allowed to rise, the efficiency skyrocketed with it.
The Unknown Ceiling
After a first-round exit from the 2015 playoffs, Leonard had a lot more offseason time to work on his game.
He returned to a revamped Spurs roster, sharing “go-to” status with newly-signed LaMarcus Aldridge, who needed the first three months of the season to acclimate to his new team. The incumbent got off to a fast start at the offensive end, became an All-Star starter and produced a career-high average of 21.2 points per game, in large part because his three-point percentage ballooned to 44.3 percent.
Asked to explain such a jump, Leonard cited work ethic and the freedom given to him by Popovich to extend his range without fear of criticism.
“Just being able to work hard and just making my shot my own,” Leonard said last week. “I changed my form, probably four years ago. I just think repetition and getting the game reps shooting the ball in games really helps, rather than just practicing. You can get game timing.”
His improvement from long range this season boggled the mind of teammate Matt Bonner, a 12-year veteran with a career three-point percentage of 41.4.
“I think it’s extremely rare and difficult, especially at that point in your basketball career, to evolve into a shooter like that,” said Bonner, the 2010-11 NBA three-point accuracy champ (45.7 percent). “In my opinion and from my experience, the vast majority of the time, if you’re not a shooter by the age of 20, or thereabouts, then you’re not a shooter. To develop your game and turn yourself into a shooter is pretty amazing.”
Engelland gets much of the credit for improving Leonard’s shooting stroke, but Popovich insists that player development coach Chad Forcier deserves equal praise for developing Leonard into a legitimate MVP candidate.
“[It’s] 50-50 between the two of them, and you can't exclude Kawhi because he's doing the work,” Popovich said. “As far as people who have gotten him there or helped get him there, those two guys are the ones.”
Leonard never minds sharing the credit.
He spent most of his acceptance speech after receiving his second Defensive Player of the Year award deflecting plaudits for his defensive prowess to his teammates. He happily acknowledges the role Forcier and Engelland have played in making him one of the NBA’s best shooters.
All the Spurs coaches understand it is Leonard’s desire to be the best player possible that is most vital, and it's a frightening prospect for the rest of the league for years to come. He is just 24 and still hungry.
“He's still got things to learn and improvement that he will make,” Popovich said. “He's just been a steady, steady performer, and he's been like a sponge. Whatever he's been shown, he's been able to do it.”
Not all shooters have the gall to carry their marksmanship into the playoffs. But fortunately, per Bleacher Report Insights, "Playoffs Kawhi" is always the best version:
Oh, and he's done all that while taking 1.3 fewer attempts per night during the playoffs, and per B/R Insights:
Leonard has never had a playoff game where he scored 20+ points and shot below 50.0 percent. In the 12 career postseason contests where he scored at least 20 points, the Spurs are 10-2. Leonard has shot 50.0 percent or better in 37 of his 69 career playoff games (53.6 percent of games). The Spurs are 30-7 in those.
Clearly, Leonard is not an aberration.
All quotes were obtained firsthand.