Lee Jenkins writes some of the best feature stories for Sports Illustrated. About a month ago he profiled Kawhi Leonard, and, as usual, it was great. Leonard has to be the most interesting superstar in the NBA. Not because of his personality or anything, but because of how he came one. He won Finals MVP 20 months before making an All-Star team. Leonard won his second straight Defensive Player of the Year award this season. Leonard was labeled a “system” player. He was only good because of who he played for, not because of how hard he worked. Leonard obviously benefited from playing in San Antonio right away. The Spurs sniffed his potential out, deciding to trade George Hill for the 15th overall pick, along with rights to two other players. It’ll go down as one of the best trades ever, and not because Leonard fits the Spurs’ system. Because Leonard is a star.
Leonard shot 25 percent from three in college. He shot at least 37 percent each of his first three years in the NBA before sinking to 34.9 last season. Leonard responded this year, making 45.2 percent of his attempts. It’s a testament to repetition, commitment and confidence. Leonard was just a face on offense when the Spurs made back-to-back Finals’ appearances until Game 3 of the 2014 Finals. Leonard scored a playoff career high 29 points in San Antonio’s 19-point win. Leonard was quiet in Games 1 and 2, but Game 3 was different. The Spurs offense clicked, and Leonard couldn’t miss. It was one game, but on the biggest stage Leonard acted like the best player on the court.
Russell Westbrook had the ball in transition during Game 6 of the 2014 Western Conference Finals. It was overtime, and the Spurs lost Tony Parker for the game. The Thunder needed a win to force Game 7. Westbrook attacked the rim as the Thunder trailed by 1 with 43 seconds left. Leonard used his left hand, as Westbrook drives down the middle of the lane, to swipe the ball away. The block led to a Tim Duncan lay-up, and the Spurs won the game, and ultimately the Finals. Leonard has massive hands. That’s not a secret. It’s probably a main reason why the Spurs trusted trading Hill for Leonard. Leonard’s defensive potential was evident right away. His wingspan would make things difficult for any wing. His hands would make things difficult for slashing guards who thought they had a clear path at the basket, only to be sorely disappointed about Leonard’s reach. Just a couple weeks ago Klay Thompson thought for a second about attacking the basket until he saw Leonard chasing from behind, opting to pass instead.
Leonard doesn’t say much on the court. He fits the Spurs’ motto. He lets his play do the talking. He’s putting together an extremely impressive season. He’d probably have a real shot at MVP in any season that doesn’t include this year’s Steph Curry. Leonard isn’t flashy. He doesn’t even have gaudy numbers. He’s only scored 30 or more points five times (regular season and playoffs) in his career. It’s actually amazing that Leonard averaged 21 points a game despite rarely ever scoring 30-plus points. Leonard’s one of the most consistent offensive players. Of players with usage rates below 26 percent, Leonard and Jimmy Butler are the only two players that averaged 20 points per game this season. That statistic demonstrates Leonard doesn’t need the ball in his hands at all times to make a difference. Leonard works well without the ball, and when he does get the ball in isolation sets, he’ll make the other team pay. Leonard doesn’t turnover the ball, either. Leonard and Dirk Nowitzki are the only players to have a usage rate higher than 25, play at least 2300 minutes and turn the ball over fewer than eight percent of the time.
Leonard embraces his role in San Antonio. He’s thrived as their no. 1 option this season. “The Claw” does it all for San Antonio. Leonard, and Draymond Green, are clearly the two best defenders in the NBA. Leonard’s individual defense is a major reason why the Spurs just completed one of the best defensive seasons ever. Leonard’s ability to lock up option A for nearly every team is remarkable. Carmelo Anthony made six of 26 two-point attempts against the Spurs this season. Tom Haberstroh of ESPN tweeted this statistic out on the day Leonard won DPOY over Green:
Similar to how offenses game plan away from Seattle’s Richard Sherman, NBA players avoid Leonard. Green does play inside often, which might be the reason why many big men believe they can take it to Green. Both are insanely good at stopping their individual man from scoring.
Leonard and Green actually took similar paths to stardom. Both received contract extensions the same summer. Many argue that both are just products of their system, at least that’s what people believed in the beginning of their paths to super star status. Both will battle for the next several years as best defensive player in basketball, but most importantly for championship prowess.
Leonard might be named first team All-NBA this season, which would be another impressive accomplishment for a guy who has done basically everything a superstar wing can do in the NBA. He’s a champion. A Finals’ MVP. A Defensive Player of the Year winner. An All-Star. Leading the league in scoring and winning league MVP have to be crossed off next. And if Leonard’s works on his craft the way he did to become a 45 percent 3-point shooter, he’ll accomplish those goals, too.
Featured photo from: Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports
All statistics from Basketball-Reference