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The Future Is Now: Looking at Kawhi Leonard’s Steadily Improving Post-Game

It’s hard to imagine a San Antonio Spurs team without Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan, but soon enough, the trio will be heading their separate ways. For the last 13-17 years (which just so happen to be the golden ones for the franchise) that’s all we’ve known — Duncan was drafted in 1997, Ginobili in 1999 and Parker in 2001. In that period, they’ve won four championships, represented the team in countless All-Star Games, taken home numerous high end awards — Sixth Man of the Year, Final MVPs, regular season MVP, Rookie of the Year and some All-Star Weekend shenanigans — bested every team in their division 11 times, and entered the post-season as the number one seed in their conference on a handful of occasions.

It’s been an incredibly successful era, one that has defined their franchise, and to think that it’ll soon be coming to an end is a tough pill to swallow. However, the Spurs have been preparing for this moment for quite some time, and in 2011, a trade with the Indiana Pacers on draft night brought them their franchise player for the future in Kawhi Leonard.

Leonard didn’t make a gargantuan leap in his third year as a pro, but there is no doubt that he has the tools to carry this team when the keys are eventually handed over to him — something he knows is inevitable. He is one of the few two-way players we have in the league today, and he possesses a skill set that differentiates himself from many traditional small forwards. At 22 years of age, he’s already a polished scorer, one who can score inside and out at an efficient rate, and as we saw in the post-season last year, he’s not one to shy away from the big stage — how Spursian of him.

“Once the Big Three is gone, you’ll probably see a lot more of me taking over,” Leonard said. “Right now, it’s just hard with the top three guys still here.”

via Spurs see Leonard as X-factor in playoff run | Express News

Leonard is a by-product of the analytics world we live in with over 70 percent of his shot-attempts this season coming either from three-point range or within the painted area. The majority of those came from spot-up opportunities or on the fast-break — two staples of the Spurs’ offense — yet he is also more than capable of creating shots for himself in half-court sets. The Spurs gave Leonard more freedom this season, which will undoubtedly pay dividends in the future when he is called upon to lead the charge, and one of the ways in which he imposed his will on the offensive end was in the post.

Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili tend to garner the opposing team’s best perimeter defender when they’re on the court and that naturally gives Leonard a huge leg-up. Over the first two rounds of these playoffs, we’ve seen Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews and Monta Ellis take their chances of slowing Leonard down, and he simply responded by taking them in the post where he used his size and strength to get to his spots. Leonard will eventually be the one the likes of Nicolas Batum, Paul George and Andre Iguodala have to guard, but as has been the case since he joined the Spurs three years ago, living in the shadows of Parker, Ginobili and Duncan has enabled him to grow at his own pace.

Leonard doesn’t have a mind blowing array of post-moves, yet he’s smart and uses his strengths to get an edge on his opponent. His primary move is to back his defender down, turn over his left shoulder and pull up for a right-handed floater, which, given his 7-foot-3-inch wingspan, is incredibly tough to block. For that reason, there’s no wonder why he continues to make that move. He is more than capable of countering that, too. Leonard is a great shooter from within 15-feet from the basket — as you can see from his regular season shot chart below — and if a smaller defender is guarding him, he’ll simple create a little space with a jab step and rise up.

Shotchart_1400058782644

So much green | Shot Chart via NBA.com

Beyond that, Leonard does what all great post-players do — get as close to the basket as possible to get an easier shot. He’s got sound footwork, and when he does shoot fadeaways, they tend to come just outside of the painted area, which, again, given his physical attributes, makes it a tough shot for opposing teams to contest. While his post-game is simple, it is incredibly effective. Leonard is methodical with his moves and it’s all made better with his patience. He’s always taking what the defense gives him instead of forcing the issue, and as a result, it never appears as though he’s settling.

We haven’t necessarily seen Leonard post-up a lot over the last two seasons; as a sophomore, he posted-up 29 times and this year, that number increased to 75 — but the Spurs are using that option more and more, and for good reason:

Year Percentage of Time Points Per Possession FGM-FGA (FG%)
2011-2012 1.4 0.25 1-8 (12.5)
2012-2013 4.4 1.18 20-29 (69)
2013-2014 9.4 1.12 41-75 (54.7)

Obviously Leonard’s 2013-2014 numbers have to be taken with a pinch of salt seeing as a traditional back-to-the-basket player like Dwight Howard posted-up nearly nine times more often than Leonard did, and even opposing small forwards like LeBron James found themselves in those situations far more frequently. However, those players have been at it for years, honing their craft to ensure that they have a variety of moves to choose from in their prime. At 22 years old, Leonard is still ways away from becoming a finished product and is continuing to add to his game.

He’s already proven to be a capable knock down shooter from distance, feeding off the wizardry Parker and Ginobili are able to conjure up on a nightly basis, and with more and more tweaks to his one-on-one game, he’s only lifting his ceiling.

Scott Rafferty