Throughout the season, the Spurs have had multiple injuries, and other players have had to step up. In February, when both Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan were sidelined, Tony Parker stepped up his game to MVP levels. When Parker went down in March, Duncan seemed to turn back the clock, becoming the first option for the Silver and Black yet again.
And though it looks like one of the usual suspects has always done the heavy lifting for the Spurs this year, the one constant force that San Antonio has had this year is none other than second year swingman, Kawhi Leonard. Through injuries to Parker, Duncan, and Ginobili; Leonard has gained more freedom on the offensive end of the court, and he’s shown off how far his development has come in the short time he’s been in the NBA.
In his rookie year, Leonard was used mostly used as a spot up shooter. Most of his looks came on corner threes, offensive rebounds, or in transition. Since it was his first year, and there was no time for him to work with the team in pre-season or training camp due to the lockout, he was mainly a role player with no real creative responsibility. All he had to do was get into his spot and have his feet ready to shoot, then crash the boards offensively.
For most of this season, that had remained the case. Leonard was in that same role offensively; spacing out for threes, running the lanes in transition, and hitting the glass for extra possessions.
That all changed when his teammates started to go down with injuries. Manu Ginobili strained his hamstring. Tim Duncan sprained his knee. Tony Parker sprained his ankle. As these injuries kept piling up, Leonard was called upon to produce more offensively. He answered that call quite well, gaining confidence by the game and showing off a gambit of offensive abilities no one really knew he had. Beginning with a February 6th win against the Timberwolves, Leonard’s game started to transform.
While Leonard’s game is still primarily based 0n spacing and transition buckets, as opposed to last season, he’s now gotten the chance to show off a few new aspects to his scoring repertoire. Since his number has started to get called more often, he’s been used a lot more off the ball, as he’s a very good cutter. According to Synergy, 10% of Kawhi’s offensive possessions come on cuts, and he earns 1.2 PPP when he does. Most teams have to concentrate on other perimeter threats in Parker and Ginobili, and have to blanket Danny Green to keep him from getting threes, so Leonard is sometimes forgotten on the perimeter. Teams have also gone back to doubling Duncan recently, which allows even more space for the team to run with, and cutting to the basket is always a good idea in that situation since Duncan is such a great passer. In short, Leonard is afforded the luxury to sort of roam around offensively, using the large amounts of space to his advantage.
In the games where either Parker or Ginobili have been absent, Kawhi has also had to take on a share of the ball-handling duties. It’s a fairly small sample size, but the tape on him has been encouraging. He hasn’t felt pressured to take the ball into these sorts of plays, it just comes naturally within the flow of the game.
And whenever Leonard has isolated or been a ball-handler on pick-and-roll, he shows patience, and in most cases he makes the correct decision. He has shown a large set of dribble moves whenever he has the ball, and tends to take a pull-up midrange jumper in these situations. Even though a midrange jumper isn’t the most desirable shot, Leonard has shown tat he’s added that into his game, shooting .524 from 10-16 feet, and .472 from 16-24 feet, both of which are outstanding figures for those ranges.
Kawhi’s increased responsibility has played out well, and also established him as a legitimate threat in all areas on offense. In the last two months, hen he’s gotten more opportunities, Leonard has averaged 14.9 points per game, about 5 points greater than what he was getting before. He’s still scoring efficiently also, going .500 from the field on a larger amount of shots per game. His three point shot is still there, deadly as ever from the corner.
Due to Kawhi Leonard’s improvement, his confidence has sky-rocketed, and he continues to show off new ways to score and contribute to the team. Watching him every game is like watching a puppy over time, waiting to see whatever trick he’ll break out next. He’s a threat to score every offensive possession, and honestly, I think that he’s more qualified for Big Three” status than a guy like Manu Ginobili. And that’s not meant as a slight at Ginobili, who is still a very important contributor to the Spurs, but it’s meant as praise for Leonard, who has come a long way in a small amount of time. His patience when on the floor is mind-numbing, and can draw comparisons to so many other Spurs that have been applauded for their mental acuity. Leonard has the potential to become next in the long line of San Antonio Spurs players that have exceeded expectations. And, up to this point, the signs are encouraging.
(All stats in this piece were from Synergy, the NBA Stats page, and Basketball Reference.)