Jan 8 2012; Oklahoma City OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) drives to the basket against San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) during the third quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena Mandatory Credit: Richard Rowe-US PRESSWIRE
Kawhi Leonard, supine by his very nature, has already brandished himself as a valuable cog for the Spurs. Leonard appeared in all but two games last season, including 39 starts, indicating that Gregg Popovich trusted in the 20-year-old rookie to handle hostile playoff environments. That’s telling.
What could potentially be more telling is his play with the USA Select Team. Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News noted that Leonard wasn’t deterred from Team USA’s incredible talent. So, with this in mind, is Leonard primed for another breakout season?
Popovich trusted Leonard for a reason: he fulfilled his exact requirements for the small forward position. He knocked down the corner 3-pointer (47% shooting), defended the opponent’s best perimeter player and, as an added bonus, grabbed the sixth highest percentage of rebounds among small forwards.
While Leonard converted on a mere 25% of his 3-pointers with San Diego State, he eliminated his funky shot for a more repeatable, smooth delivery. (Kudos to Spurs’ shooting coach Chip Engelland for contributing to his vast strides.)
Once Leonard found a nice middle ground, he utilized his natural athleticism to exploit the extra defensive attention by slashing towards the rim. Leonard’s efficacy as a cutter was apparent; he scored 1.36 points per possessions on cuts while shooting 64.9%. That level of efficiency was only bested by 26 players on cuts.
Though Leonard has an inconspicuous game, devoid of incandescence, Team USA assistant coach Nate McMillan noticed his array of subtle skills.
“You see Kawhi, but you don’t hear him,” McMillan said. “He’ll make the right play and he just moves on to the next play. Then, a few minutes later, he does it again. He’s opened a lot of eyes here this week.”
Leonard still has discernible flaws in his game. He excelled from the uber-efficient corner slot but he offset his proficiency somewhat by shooting 30% on other 3-point attempts. He shouldn’t delve from the corner too much but converting on a higher percentage from other areas couldn’t hurt.
Leonard also struggled to create with the ball. (It’s a small caveat, as the Spurs thrived on his adept cuts.) Knowing Leonard you can reasonably expect him to make some kind of internal improvement before this season. Playing against a high level of competition will also help hasten his progression.
“I get to be around great players and just compete and get better,” Leonard said. “I get to learn from the older guys. You don’t get this chance every year to compete with guys at such a talent level every day.”
For a guy Popovich likened to Tim Duncan’s impervious attitude and work ethic, it’s not a bad bet to expect yet another breakout season.