Kawhi Leonard’s journey to superstardom has been well chronicled, but is still worth marvelling over.
Kobe Bryant is the latest to add his name to the list of those fawning over the development of the Toronto Raptors forward, doing so in the latest episode of ESPN’s Detail.
The 18-time All-Star and 2007-08 MVP saw Leonard firsthand in his rookie 2011-12 season, and had glowing reviews of how far he’s come.
“His growth as a player is phenomenal... phenomenal.”
The play that got Bryant so effusive in his praise was Leonard’s left baseline fadeaway over Aaron Gordon late against the Orlando Magic that temporarily gave the Raptors a lead with under a minute remaining.
“Funny thing is, I remember when he first came into the league and we were playing the Spurs at Staples Centre, and I get to Staples Centre early to get my shots up and I see this young kid out there shooting the ball, and I’m looking down at him shoot and I’m telling you, Kawhi could not shoot a gun when he first came in the league.”
Still, Bryant respected the effort and dedication to put the work in and improve and acknowledges that Leonard’s shot now looks smooth and natural.
The five-time champion used footwork to become a master of the mid-range, but was impressed with the way Leonard uses strength to create separation and fire up efficiently from an area of the floor frowned upon these days. Leonard is in the 89th percentile among forwards in shooting from the mid-range at 46 per cent, and that’s also where 44 per cent of his shots come from.
It wasn’t all peaches and cream, though, as Bryant also had three key areas where he saw room for improvement in Leonard’s offensive game based on Toronto’s Game 1 against the Magic.
Bryant highlighted that the Magic are stunting when Leonard gets the ball in the post with the man defending at the top of the arc. Stunting means they aren’t quite looking to double-team, but rather just ensuring they show a second body while taking away the passing angle.
Instead of stunting with their hands up, though, Bryant pointed out that the Magic have been doing so with their “hands in their pockets” and so the passing angle for a kick-out to a three-point shooter still very much exists. He also suggests that if Leonard posts a little deeper, it would give the defender more distance to cover both when cheating off his man and when he’s looking to get back off a pass.
If there is one aspect of Leonard’s game that is still a work in progress, it would be his playmaking. Per Cleaning the Glass, he had an assist to usage ratio of 0.52 this season, which places him in the 47th percentile among forwards. Some of this can also be attributed to the lack of familiarity with his new Raptors teammates, though.
Over the course of the regular season, Leonard averaged 0.96 points per post-up, good for 19th in the league among players who played at least 50 games and posted up at least 100 times. Also noteworthy, rising star Pascal Siakam finished second with 1.08 points per post-up possession.
The Magic generally look to have their big man drop down into the paint, but on the rare occasion that they are forced into switching, Bryant feels that Leonard can do a better job of attacking it.
In the example Bryant highlighted, Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic is guarding Leonard at the top of the key and trying to force him to his right, which means the Montenegrin’s right foot and shoulder is out, and left foot in. Leonard takes what Vucevic is giving him and pulls up for a mid-range jumper to his right.
Instead, Bryant suggests that Vucevic’s top foot (right foot) is a weakness and should be attacked. By crossing over back to his left, Leonard would be able to challenge Vucevic to shift his feet and change directions, likely creating more space for a jumper going to his left.
Leonard should be able to thrive in these types of scenarios where he has a clear mismatch, finishing in a tie for fifth in the league in isolation scoring at 1.05 points per possession.
Looking at Leonard’s shooting tendencies, though, it’s easy to see why he didn’t look to go left as his general preference is to go right.
Furthermore, he shot 11-for-28 (39.3 per cent) on the season from the spot Bryant wanted him to go to and 32-for-65 (49.2 per cent) from where he actually shot the ball.
The man who created ‘Mamba Mentality’ knows a thing or two about excelling in the final moments of the game and felt Leonard rushed his three-point attempt with 3.5 seconds remaining that could have forced overtime.
On that play, Leonard is moving to his left as he catches the ball and attempts to shoot over Aaron Gordon from slightly left of the top of the arc. The air ball, in Bryant’s opinion, was a result of Leonard not taking his time and Bryant further showcases this by pointing out the fact that there were still 2.4 seconds remaining when he releases the ball.
Bryant explains that it’s crucial to understand the mindset of the defender in these moments, that they are conditioned by their coaches to not foul rather than provide a hard contest. Bryant suggests that Leonard rushes the release instead of taking a normal jumper and that he could have even had time to take a dribble to his right, set himself, and then rise for the jumper.
Leonard may just not be the best option to go to for a clutch three-pointer late in games. He finished the regular season shooting 9-for-20 from two-point range in the final minute of games within three points, but missed all four of his three-point attempts.
Make that five including the playoffs.
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