The Next Step for Kawhi Leonard
Despite the fact that Kawhi Leonard has already been named Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year twice, there is a feeling that he is still below the world’s best players like LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
Leonard has always been viewed as one of the most frightening defensive presences within the league, but he didn’t always bring the same impact on the offensive end. Leonard wasn’t one to set up huge scoring numbers. His outside shot was erratic, something to be afraid on certain occasion. It seemed like he didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes, especially the Spurs big three, which made him look unaggressive. But those days seem like an ancient history.
Leonard has now become a threat as a scorer from anyplace on the court in any kind of offensive set. He positions himself among the top in points per possession in each major offensive play measured by the NBA – transition, isolation, pick and roll (as ball handler and roll man), post-up, spot-up, hand-off, cuts and off screens.
Leonard has improved in each season he’s been in the NBA, so let’s take a look at his awesome transformation
1st year: 7.9 PPG on 49.3 FG% 37.6 3P% 5.1 RPG 1.1 APG 1.3 SPG 0.4 BPG
2nd year: 11.9 PPG on 49.4 FG% 37.4 3P% 6 RPG 1.6 APG 1.7 SPG 0.6 BPG
3rd year: 12.8 PPG on 52.2 FG% 37.9 3P% 6.2 RPG 2 APG 1.7 SPG 0.8 BPG
4th year: 16.5 PPG on 47.9 FG% 34.9 3P% 7.2 RPG 2.5 APG 2.3 SPG 0.8 BPG
5th year: 21.2 PPG on 50.6 FG% 44.3 3P% 6.8 RPG 2.6 APG 1.8 SPG 1 BPG
It’s hard for anyone to fill the big hole that Tim Duncan has left behind, especially for a young player like Leonard. Duncan entered the league as a No. 1 pick, was expected to dominate the game. However, Leonard’s path has been completely different. Leonard’s stats for the last 5 years show that he has already overachieved.
At San Diego State, Leonard was a 25% 3-point shooter with a broken jumper. After five years, he’s making 45% of his 3 point shots as the third-best long range shooter in the league.
So what’s next for Leonard?
He can be better, but he will play with 7 new teammates, so the challenge is not just on his talent, but his leadership as a player. The next step he will take involves the team chemistry that takes time to build.
But his work ethic, has proven a lot of people wrong after he made such a leap. He hustles when the majority of superstars think they earn their superstar treatment. He performs more late game defensive plays than any other player. He is one of the best, if not the best rebounder at his position.
Earlier this month, the NBPA voted Leonard as the best defender and the players around the league start to give him the recognition he deserves. In addition, the 2016 Finals MVP put in a good word recently to the Defensive Player of the Year.
“Kawhi Leonard. Kawhi Leonard, he’s solid. He’s solid, solid at that end of the floor. He’s very, very solid. I like him. I like the kid.”
When LeBron James, the best player in the world says the San Antonio Spurs forward does the best job of defending him in the league, there should be no more doubt about Leonard’s defensive impact. He’ll lead the Spurs as one of elite defensive team for years to come.
Kawhi Leonard is not a vocal player. Other players think of him as an emotionless guy. He’s not going to advise younger players. He simply wants to play ball and that is all he means to do. But he has to step up if he wants to be an even better player, especially a better leader.
Pop figures that he needs to be more engaged and work on his social skills to flourish as a leader.
“We talk about the fact that he’s going to have to speak more – he’s going to have to. When these guys (Big 3) are gone, what’s he going to do? Is he going to play in a phone booth all by himself and not talk to anybody? It’s a big deal. He has become more social. But he’s going to have to become more social geometrically compared to what he is now.”
The addition of Pau Gasol is huge, because Leonard still needs some time to learn how to lead the team. The most important thing for him to do is to maintain the performance he had last year to ease the public’s pressure on him as the Spurs’ next franchise player. He doesn’t need to become what he’s not as a player, considering a lot of people want him to learn how to facilitate. While Leonard is still learning how to deal with double team, he is actually already a good passer, his assist per turnover number is even better than Kevin Durant and Paul George’s. The Spurs also provide a system that's geared toward moving the ball, so he doesn’t need to fill all the roles.
Leonard realizes that he has been prepared for the leadership role for quite a while. And that’s exactly why the added responsibility won’t just hit him out of nowhere when the new era begins this October. Let’s see how he will begin another season without the team’s defensive anchor and Spurs foundation.