Kawhi Leonard established himself this season as one of the NBA’s young up and coming stars. Leonard was fantastic for the San Antonio Spurs during the regular season, averaging 12.8 points and 5.1 rebounds, and even more so during the NBA Playoffs, picking up the Finals MVP in the process.
This is even more impressive considering Gregg Popovich is on record saying he does not call Kawhi Leonard’s number.
Popovich on Kawhi: “I have not called a play for him the whole playoffs. I do not call his number.” Makes Finals MVP even more impressive.
— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) June 17, 2014
So where does Leonard go from here to truly establish himself as a star and not someone who just had a fluke season?
Let’s find out in our areas for improvement for Kawhi Leonard heading into the 2014-2015 NBA Season!
Free Throw Rate
Many of the league’s top small forwards have high free throw rates. This is not by accident though as one of the things that makes elite players so elite is that even on poor shooting nights, they can still draw fouls and get to the free throw line.
This an area Kawhi Leonard definitely needs to improve in. Even if the Finals MVP does not score 20 points per night, he still needs to be able to consistently get to the line and make his own opportunities.
A comparison of Leonard and some of the top small forwards in the league from last season serves as evidence of this issue.
Kawhi Leonard matches these stars in a number of advanced statistics, but, as the table shows, one of the areas he is lacking in is free throw rate, coming in at a measly 0.195. Leonard shot a solid 80.2% from the charity stripe this season but only had 1.9 free throw attempts per game.
That free throw percentage is great but the number of attempts per game is very low, especially when compared to the free throw attempts of some of the NBA’s top small forwards from last season.
If Kawhi Leonard can get his free throw rate and free throw attempts up this season, he could definitely be an all-star and be a player considered as one of the premier small forwards in the league.
Field Goal Attempts
San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich does not call many plays for Kawhi Leonard but that does not look like it will make too much of a difference of what type of player Leonard will become, as evident by his 2014 NBA Finals performance.
Leonard showed up big time in the 2014 NBA Finals, putting up his best averages in many categories, regular season or post-season.
Even in the NBA’s postseason though, it was evident that Kawhi Leonard was not putting up many shots, rather his performance was a result of the system. What we mean when we say that is Leonard could have been even better had he been set loose and had plays drawn out for him.
A look at the NBA’s top small forwards from last season shows Leonard needs to demand the ball more and get coach Popovich to call his number.
As you can see, Kawhi Leonard was far behind some of the NBA’s best small forwards in field goal attempts per game.
Unfortunately in the way today’s fans perceive the league, a star is only considered a star if he can post gaudy numbers, especially in points. Unless Leonard magically starts pulling down 12 rebounds per game, chances are without an increase in attempts and scoring, many will think he never reached his star potential.
However, with San Antonio’s core continuing to age, there is a strong possibility Leonard could be given an increased role in the Spurs offense.
This one is surprising considering how the San Antonio Spurs offense is so predicated on ball movement.
Kawhi Leonard actually struggles a lot with his assist rate, even more so than Carmelo Anthony who is widely considered the least likely to pass the ball out of the NBA’s top small forwards.
This statistic is even more perplexing when you consider Leonard is not the focal point of the offensive. One would think if the 23-year-old forward was not the focal point of the offense and he had three future hall-of-famers on his team that his assist rate would be higher.
Let’s have a take at the numbers shall we?
Most star NBA small forwards, past and present, were either known for their well-rounded ability or their ability to dominate in two of the three main statistical categories, points, assists, and rebounds.
Kawhi Leonard needs to heavily improve in his assist percentage, although Spurs fans should not worry too much. Leonard is still young and there are players in the past who have been able to increase their assist percentage, the most recent being Kevin Durant.
In Kevin Durant’s fourth NBA season, the regular season MVP had a poor 13.2% assist rate. Now, his assist rate has been pulled up all the way to 26.7%, more than double his rate from three years ago.
Kawhi Leonard is in the right system to make this improvement. With more practice on ball movement, Leonard should be able to pull up those numbers and ascend to stardom.
Areas Kawhi Leonard Does Not Need To Improve
We pointed out the main areas Leonard needed to improve to become an NBA star. Now we point out the areas that Kawhi Leonard already excels in.
Surprisingly, or not surprisingly for some of you, some of Kawhi Leonard’s advanced statistics numbers are right around the numbers posted by the NBA’s top small forwards.
If you don’t believe it take a look for yourself!
As you can see from the table, Leonard matches these stars in categories of true shooting percentage, 3-point attempt rate, rebounding percentage, and turnover percentage. Additionally, Leonard out-matches some of the NBA’s best small forwards in some categories, such as his absurd 3% steal rate.
Kawhi Leonard is already on the path to greatness as evident by the numbers. However, the quicker he can improve in some of the categories outlined, the quicker he can become a star.
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Leonard is clearly one of the top small forwards in the NBA even though his numbers might not be as gaudy as his peers.
The 2014 NBA Finals MVP should have a great shot at becoming San Antonio’s top option as the core of Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan continue to age.
For now though, San Antonio Spurs can only sit, wait, and enjoy the ride as Kawhi Leonard becomes one of the best and potentially the best small forward in the league.
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