Top 50 NBA Players: #29 Kawhi Leonard

Kawhi Leonard
Resume: 11.9 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.7 steals, 31.2 minutes, 49% FG, 37% 3PT, and 83% FT… Team record in games played: 43-15 (15-9 without)… Playoffs: 13.5 points, 9.0 rebounds, 1.8 steals, 36.9 minutes, 55% FG, 39% 3PT, 63% FT, 15-6 record

I would be genuinely interested in finding out what you readers think about this ranking, so regardless of if you think I’m spot on, a little off, or a complete lunatic, I’d appreciate your input in the comments below because frankly, I’m not sure how I did on this one. Before the playoffs, it would’ve been tricky to make a case that Kawhi would’ve even been a Top 50 player, let alone Top 30. It would’ve looked something like this:

He fits perfectly into the Spurs system (Remember, how well a player plays his role is part of my criteria)… He’s completely steady and dependable defensively, capable of spending time guarding four different positions (Remember, he spent time guarding Stephen Curry in the Golden State series)… His jump shot and overall offensive arsenal have come miles since he left San Diego State… He always seems to be in the right place at the right time, grabbing big rebounds and loose balls with his baseball glove sized paws… He gave B Rabbit his toughest battle in 8 Mile.

The case against Kawhi cracking the Top 50 would’ve been a lot easier to make:

He fits perfectly into the Spurs system (which could possibly mean he is simply a product of a very successful system that for years has gotten the best out of role players)… He didn’t exactly light it up in the 2012 postseason… He had only played 122 regular season games and nothing about the way he played stood out other than his absurdly large hands… He missed a month of the 2012-13 season with knee tendonitis… Even though his offensive game had come along since college, he still didn’t look like he was capable of being a dependable scorer on a contender.

Jun 20, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) drives to the basket against Miami Heat center Chris Bosh (1) during the third quarter of game seven in the 2013 NBA Finals at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

If anything, Kawhi looked destined to become Bruce Bowen 2.0, only not as dirty, not quite as destructive as defensively, not quite as limited offensively, and not as prone to wearing a bowtie. The 2013 playoffs rolled around and Kawhi used those comically large hands and pushed his ceiling up a few notches higher than anyone thought it could’ve gone. I still don’t know how high it can go given he’s only 22 years old. I do know three things though:

1: Kawhi was either the 2nd or 3rd best player in the NBA Finals depending on how you felt about Tim Duncan’s performance. Before Game 5 I even made the case that he was the Spurs MVP of the Finals. Defensively, San Antonio came into the series with the game plan to stop LeBron James. They were sending a ton of help, but the key to everything was Kawhi Leonard, who was the primary defender on the game’s best player throughout the series, holding him to 39% shooting in the first three games of the series.

2: After I made the case for Kawhi as the Spurs Finals MVP, he played arguably the two best games of his life in Games 6 and 7, two Spurs losses. With Tony Parker laboring because of a hamstring injury Kawhi stepped up and proved that the Spurs Big Three no longer included Manu Ginobili. Kawhi delivered big time in the two biggest games of the season; first coming through with a postseason high 22 points and 11 rebounds in the Spurs soul crushing Game 6 defeat, and then putting up 19 points and 16 rebounds in Game 7 while making a few momentum saving plays that prevented Miami from possibly opening the flood gates. Just know that the 21 year old 2nd year budding star wasn’t overwhelmed by the moment at all.

3: A bonus point that doesn’t really have much to do with the ranking. For years I’ve made it a hobby of mine to find basketball doppelgangers for all of my friends. Never has one made more sense than Kawhi Leonard for my best friend Collin Stucko. They are both 22 years old (Collin is actually older by one day). Kawhi plays small forward and so did Collin. Kawhi has abnormally large hands and so does Collin. Kawhi is an effective defensive player and Collin was the self-proclaimed best shot blocker in the Genesee Region that never went to a Division 1 college. Kawhi Leonard can dunk, and so can Collin (he’s only 6’1 by the way). It makes perfect sense, I swear.