Kawhi Leonard’s Gradually Ascending Star

via flickr | Mark Runyon

via flickr | Mark Runyon

Such lofty preseason expectations for Kawhi Leonard were never fair. The popular assumption that the high-motor, mild-mannered Leonard would usurp Manu Ginobili as the third wheel in the San Antonio machine this season was always naive, a result of kneejerk NBA Finals judgments and the belief that time was finally catching up with the Spurs.

Even if Ginobili’s seesaw performance against Miami became the new normal for 2013-2014, Leonard’s ascent to his place in the pecking order would not have been simple. This is basketball, not track-and-field; batons are dropped through trial and error before they’re consistently passed without incident. And despite the remarkable plug-and-play success of Gregg Popovich throughout the Duncan Era, replacing Ginobili’s influence is a different chore altogether.

But the Spurs, thank god, aren’t there with Ginobili yet. Last June won’t ever be a distant memory for San Antonio, and Ginobili’s 12 combined turnovers in games 6 and 7 will always loom large when we look back on that historic Finals. He’s turned back the clock this season nevertheless, stretching the supposed schedule of Leonard’s growth in the process.

And that’s a disappointing development in a vacuum. If the Spurs had beaten the odds and won game 7 on the road, many Finals MVP ballots might have read Leonard’s name. He played a major, if subtle, role defensively in frustrating LeBron James, and popped on the screen and in box scores the way stars do, too: Leonard averaged 20.5 points and 13.5 rebounds while shooting 54.8% from the field over the last two games of the 2013 Finals.

His consistently solid play throughout the regular season and breakout June performance signaled imminent arrival of the big things Popovich saw coming for Leonard in the summer of 2012.

“I think he’s going to be a star,” Popovich said back then. “And as time goes on, he’ll be the face of the Spurs.”

Weeks after this season tipped off, though, the achievement of those boasts seemed further away than ever. Leonard wasn’t playing poorly – his per-36 minute averages of 14.9 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 2.2 steals through December 31st were all improvements on his sophomore marks, and the Spurs were 5.1 points stingier defensively when he was on the floor. That’s a significant impact for any player, and the kind which most 22 year-olds playing with three Hall-of-Famers can only dream. But Leonard isn’t most youngsters. He spoiled us with awesome two-way play on basketball’s biggest stage last June, and Popovich’s past remarks – often recalled on television broadcasts, message boards, and in sports bars alike as sage proclamation – are a glowing reminder of the type of player Leonard could be. With Ginobili’s inevitable decline, he’d get the chance necessary to be that guy in 2013-2014, we thought.

And that is what frustrated about his play this season before the calendar turned. Leonard had more offensive responsibility and freedom, but still less than most anticipated. And worse, he wasn’t taking advantage of the small additional latitude afforded him.

Leonard isolated, posted-up, and took more mid-range jumpers than ever in the first two months of this season, and saw both his usage rate and percentage of baskets unassisted spike – from 14.8 to 17.0 and and 34.6% to 54.5% – to marks more closely aligned with those of primary offensive options. That’s the progression we wanted from Leonard this season; the problem was his efficiency and overall effectiveness dipped in the process.

But that was then and this is now. San Antonio is a league-best 35-11 since the calendar flipped to 2014, and its remarkable consistency – regardless of on-court or available personnel – has received the lion’s share of credit for that success. Rightfully so, too. That Popovich has (likely) guided his team to home-court advantage throughout the postseason with no Spur playing at least 30 minutes per game is one of the most impressive feats in modern NBA history. He deserves Coach of the Year for such a mind-blowing accomplishment, and reserves like Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli merit plaudits, too.

But Leonard’s impact on a season which Tony Parker has been limited to Duncan-type minutes restrictions has been just as profound. And considering the middling performance of his November and December, that speaks – or shouts, more accurately – to his tremendous play since the New Year.

Want a quick snapshot of Leonard’s mid-season turnaround? Look no further than the sheet below, paying special attention to the cell at the bottom.

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 2.54.50 PM

The first thing to note here is that the statistics above point to a stark change in Leonard’s style of play from before the holidays to the present. He’s been assisted on more than 10% fewer of his field goals since January 1st, and registered a true shooting percentage 10.3 points better under the same parameters. But Leonard’s usage has barely moved, he’s made considerable strides as a playmaker, and his free throw rate has nearly doubled, too. What gives? Each set of data directly contradicts the other.

Has Leonard taken a backseat to the Spurs Big Three after a mediocre turn as a trial member? Or has he simply grown more comfortable with that increased offensive workload over time? The charted numbers glean no right or wrong answer to either question. This, of course, is where empirical evidence becomes so crucial.

Game film from before and after January 1st paints disparate portraits of Leonard’s attack mentality. In the second quarter of last night’s game between the Spurs and Mavericks on TNT (in which Leonard grabbed 16 rebounds and hit a game-clinching three-pointer), Steve Kerr aptly summed up those differing strategies while recalling a pre-game conversation with Popovich.

“Kawhi felt like when they called his number early in the season, he was the one who had to score,” Kerr said. “What Pop explained [to Leonard] is that when they call a play for him, it’s actually for the team.”

Improvement in the NBA, obviously, is about development. What we think of first, though, is a player advancing his skills and honing his body – that’s a mistake. The mental side of playing professional basketball matters as much as anything else, and it’s only sharpened through experience.

That Leonard struggled to initially grasp concepts like the continuity Kerr describes shouldn’t surprise; he was more finisher than creator at San Diego State, and rarely had his number called during his rookie and sophomore seasons in San Antonio. The adjustment from mostly ancillary to frequently primary offensive option is a drastic one, a reality the precocious Leonard learned the hard way in fall and early winter. But he’s adapted to Pop’s guidance accordingly in the interim, and the Spurs are reaping vast rewards.

The slightly declining usage, more assisted baskets, higher free throw rate, and far better true shooting percentage all make sense considering the context. Leonard doesn’t use fewer possessions or have fewer plays ran for him to account for such a huge efficiency increase, but has merely changed the way he finishes those sequences.

The table below – showing the number of made field goals that came via assist – is a perfect illustrator of Leonard’s altered approach.

Percentage of Baskets Assisted

Percentage of Baskets Assisted

He doesn’t settle for pull-up jumpers after side picks-and-rolls. He uses fewer dribbles when penetrating, due in part to a lethal show-and-go move that constantly fools his defender. He refuses to force the issue in the post, kicking the ball out for reversal when he’s stymied by stout defense. And the beauty of playing with the Spurs is that such decisions mean the ball might come right back. Movement of any variety is the name of the game in San Antonio, and Leonard understands that rule better than ever now, even as his new role means he might do less of it than in the past.

And who can argue with results like this?

*Pre-1/1 above; Post-1/1 below

*Pre-1/1 above; Post-1/1 below

Kawhi Leonard is playing the best basketball of his career. He’s a dead-eye shooter, opportunistic cutter, deadly transition finisher, and developing half-court scorer, while doubling as one of the league’s preeminent rebounders and defenders on the wing. He’s a star, basically, even if traditional statistics and the passing eye sometimes make his all-encompassing impact easy to overlook.

If he were playing for a different team it would be easier to see. Fellow 2011 draftee Kyrie Irving was All-Star MVP back in February, and – despite a rough season on and off the court – is widely considered a superstar. But Irving and the Cavs will be vacationing in coming weeks while Leonard and the Spurs play deep into spring. Players on championship caliber teams sacrifice touches, minutes, notoriety, and sometimes even development to reach the goals of the greater good. It’s clear that a player of Leonard’s caliber could merit more of the former-most aspects in a different situation; what isn’t so obvious is whether or not the latter has been compromised as a result.

After the first two months of this season, the easy answer was yes. Leonard labored out of the gate while shouldering a smaller load than we anticipated, and flashbacks of his superb Finals were more lucid than ever. If he wasn’t regressing, he’d reached a stage of stasis at the very least. But then the calendar flipped to 2014, Leonard adjusted and became the superstar role player he is today.

Make no mistake – this isn’t the guy we’ll see in two or three years, the one Popovich is so confident can carry the torch after Duncan and company ride off into the Texas sunset. But Leonard is showing flashes of the player he’ll become on a nightly basis, all while maintaining the team-first, company-man mantra that got him here in the first place. And the Spurs just might win a title because of it.

*Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats.

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Jack Winter