Kawhi Leonard gets back on defense (Getty Images)
He has a cool long’ish haircut, he’s barely old enough to legally pop a beer at a Memorial Day cookout, and this is only his second NBA season. So why does Kawhi Leonard give off the impression that he’s been with the San Antonio Spurs since the team’s last championship in 2007?
Because the dude, like most Spurs, never seems to be out of place. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has bigger basketball brains than any of us, so we’re sure he can point to several moments where Leonard was out of step with his teammates, or borderline breaking a play, or late on a defensive rotation. We know this technical veteran probably still has a while to go in coach Pop’s eyes; because even Tim Duncan probably has some mitigating aspects of his game that Popovich would like him to shore up.
Like Tony Allen, though, we’re often working while distracted by a silent re-airing of this Memphis Grizzlies/San Antonio Spurs series flickering in the background, and we’re not seeing much that would have even Vinny Del Negro pulling out his hair, much less a taskmaster like Popovich.
Maybe that’s why it seems as if Leonard has two rings already.
That sort of respect is the price that someone like Kawhi Leonard has to pay for entering into this championship-ready crew. The Spurs traded a much-admired guard in George Hill to Indiana for Leonard on draft night in 2011, and while Spurs fans were giddy at the prospects of this phenomenal athlete bringing a young man’s touch to team full of greybeards, an extended lockout and eventual deal for Stephen Jackson got in Kawhi’s way on his way from draft night obscurity toward semi-stardom. By his second season, though, Jackson had been dismissed, and the Hill deal was firmly established as one of the rare win-win moves for either side. And when the playoffs rolled around, dodgy competition or not, Leonard has stepped it up to a frightening degree.
An average three-point shooter during the regular season for the second straight year, Leonard has ramped up his work from long range, shooting 41 percent from outside the arc. If this doesn’t seem like a knockout number, understand that the Spurs are using a 21-year old (one that entered the NBA with what was termed to be a questionable jumper 17 months ago) as their designated D-buster from outside the arc, asking the youngster to play an old man’s game.
The end result? It feels as if Leonard has the ball in his hands for about three and a half minutes of the 37 minutes he plays per game. He’s an afterthought, in a way, until he’s asked to put the capper on a 12-2 run that leads to the opposing team’s timeout. This (and Leonard’s out of nowhere 59 percent shooting mark from the free throw line; he shot 82 percent on the season and 81 percent during last year’s postseason) is why Leonard’s Player Efficiency Rating is merely a “pretty good” 17.7 over the postseason; because usage rate is factored in so highly into PER. I know this isn’t the correct application, but the Spurs don’t really use him.
Which is a weird place to be, for a talented 21-year old. Great teams usually aren’t afforded the chance to work in fantastic young players, but the Spurs (who threw Tim Duncan into the mix in 1997, Tony Parker into the fire 2001, and Manu Ginobili a year later) have dealt with this before. Leonard hasn’t, and despite his knowledge of San Antonio’s past, it can’t be the most fulfilling thing at times to give into a ball movement offense, to stay in that corner, and to go long stretches without being asked to contribute offensively.
Leonard doesn’t appear to mind. Instead, he heads to the glass, picking up board after board on his way toward 8.2 a game – from a small forward, mind you. He’s playing the lanes, 1.4 steals a game, but have you seen this guy overplay much on defense? He has a chance to become an all-out fast break superstar, leaking out in transition for a series of finishes that would have everyone remembering how to pronounce his first name, and yet Kawhi stays back to work that defensive glass while 37-year old Tim Duncan chases down the pick and roll shooter.
And, given a chance to play a role on Team USA’s Select Team this summer, the usual stepping stone toward nationally televised Team USA Olympic glory, Leonard told the San Antonio-Express News’ Mike Monroe this on Saturday:
“I know that camp is going to be fun, but I'm still debating if I'm going to go this summer,” he said. “I've got to get my knee healthy this offseason. That's the most important thing for me this summer.”
Yeesh. Resting up for training camp, rather than battling it out with LeBron James in full view of Mike Krzyzewski and Jerry Colangelo. This guy is a sports columnist’s dream.
We shouldn’t fawn too much. Leonard isn’t some LeBron (or, possibly, even a Paul George) in-waiting. He was brought on to be a role player and Leonard fulfilled his expectations thus far, but he still has quite a bit of work to do on his ball-handling and in-between game. Some would argue that that work would already have been taken care of if he were thrown into the fire with a team that would ask him to use up more possessions with slashing (slashing with the ball, that is, instead of slashing to receive a Spurs-style pass) and penetration, and it’s hard to disagree with them.
For now, the 21-year old will just have to be happy playing into June. Happy with making well over half his shots against the toughest defenses spring and summer have to offer, while earning the trust of the best organization in sports, a franchise giddy with his commitment to team.
In a few years Kawhi Leonard will probably be dropping 20 a game while starring in all other areas of the court. We hope, as the San Antonio legends fade into retirement, it will be with a team just as fulfilling as this one.
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