San Antonio Spurs rookie Kawhi Leonard rises in our latest NBA Rookie Rankings. We examine how he's doing it.
While many of the top end talents of the 2011 draft are still struggling with injury, inefficiency, or both, the role players that have defined the class from the onset continue to come into their own. The Ricky Rubio-Kyrie Irving top tier goes unchallenged for yet another week, but the utility players beneath them have clearly established their respective values to contending teams.
Kawhi Leonard's Off-Ball Ability
San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard played an integral role in their win over the Thunder last Saturday, spacing the floor, knocking down all three of his triples, picking up six rebounds, functioning well within the offense and moving the ball (five assists), and playing impressive defense on Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant who finished with 22 points on 19 shots. That was good for 1.15 points per shot, down 20 percent from his season average.
On the season, it's this same sort of utility role that has allowed Leonard to stand out. Among Leonard's multitude of talents, it's his off-ball work that catches the eye most readily. Leonard simply never stops moving, and moreover, his movement has a single-minded focus to it. Leonard doesn't floating into open space or into corners the way Houston's Chandler Parsons or Milwaukee's Jon Leuer do. Instead, he crashes to the rim at every opportunity. It's tough to capture this constant motion through video of just a play or two, but this play typifies one of his most common cut types:
Leonard loves the straightaway cut from the top of the arc. It's gotten to the point now where defenses should, honestly, be picking up on it far more often than they have been. If Tim Duncan or Tiago Splitter are posting on either block with Leonard above the top of the arc, the straight cut is coming. And both Duncan's and Splitter's respective passing abilities have allowed them to find Leonard with ease, through, between, and over defenders.
All stats, above and below, are through Wednesday's action and come via Basketball-Reference, Hoopdata, and MySynergySports.com. "Efficiency differentials" refer to the difference in points/100 possessions from the league average of the relevant season.
||Cavaliers||+6 offensive efficiency differential, 28.2% usage, 34.8% assist rate, 16.9% turnover rate
|Ahead of his much anticipated match-up with the Clippers' Chris Paul, Irving was diagnosed with a concussion which will keep him out indefinitely. It's not enough to drop him from the top spot for now, and it appears that the Cavaliers are rightly proceeding with caution.
||Timberwolves||+0 offensive efficiency differential, 40.9% assist rate
|Rubio posted one of the very few legitimately poor stat-lines he's had all season against Memphis on Wednesday. The Grizzlies didn't guard Rubio radically different than most NBA teams have, and some missed open jumpers from teammates contributed strongly to his final one-assist tally. The shooting has definitely been off of late, although judging from the 35 assists he racked up against New Jersey, Houston, and Sacramento, the creativity is still there.
||Nets||+11 offensive efficiency differential, 24% usage, 11% assist rate, 9% turnover rate
|The Nets announced that Brooks had a broken toe last Monday, and it appears he's inching towards recovery. The Star-Ledger reports that Brooks shot after practice without jumping two days ago.
+3 offensive efficiency differential, 15% defensive rebound rate
14% offensive rebound rate, 25% defensive rebound rate, +3 offensive efficiency differential, 18% usage
Kanter's role with the Jazz has really settled into a nice, regular rhythm, although Utah has begun to slide just a little of late. In terms of set plays though, it was a very quiet week for Kanter. Both Lou Amundson and Troy Murphy were helpless against Kanter's block to baseline spin move (his only move right now), but the Jazz really haven't gone to his post game with any frequency the past three contests.
||-3 offensive efficiency differential, 15.3% usage, 16.5% defensive rebound rate
|Parsons struggled with his efficiency this week, missing 14 of his 23 shots, and on Monday in Denver, many of his regular minutes were given to Jeff Adrien. It's nothing to be worried about obviously, and Houston has still been getting Parsons plenty of looks in spot-up situations.|
+17 offensive efficiency differential, 16% usage, 57% true shooting
Leuer collected just over 30 minutes over 4 games this week, with 19 coming in one night. It's a shame because he's been such an efficient offensive player. One would assume there's a defensive factor keeping him out of games, especially under Scott Skiles, but Leuer has hardly looked egregious enough on that end to warrant the scale of benching we're seeing.
|7.||Nikola Vucevic||Sixers||11% offensive rebound rate, 22.0% defensive rebound rate, +2 offensive efficiency differential, 18% usage
|Vucevic returned from a two-week layoff for a brief appearance against Miami on Friday, before really turning it on (15 points on 7 of 10 shooting) in a Saturday win against the Hawks. Though his game Wednesday against San Antonio was easily one of his worst on the year, he'll have plenty of opportunity to move up these rankings as he returns to full health and Philly continues to roll.
|8.||Markieff Morris||Suns||20.8% defensive rebound rate, -6 offensive efficiency differential
|'Keef shot 10 for 35 on the week, including a 3 for 13 performance against the "defense" of the Charlotte Bobcats. The rebounding has stayed constant, and the fact that he's above 20 percent defensively at all is impressive, but the flaws in his offensive game, especially the post-up, remain significant.
-2 offensive efficiency differential, 25% threes
|The jumper is still largely missing in action, but Williams has found a way to be productive regardless the past few games. Against Sacramento on Tuesday, he got to the line 8 times (making only 3 three free throws though), and against Memphis the next night, Williams looked appreciably more determined to get to the rim.
||-10 offensive efficiency, 25% usage, 22% assist percentage, 14% defensive rebound rate
|Walker just barely holds off Detroit's Brandon Knight in this final spot. Both players have had remarkably similar starts (as well as reasonably similar team situations) with Walker doing a slightly better job creating for teammates and keeping the overall mistake count down. Walker and Knight combine with New York's Iman Shumpert to form this draft class' most unpredictable trio. None comes even close to the top-end efficiency of a rookie like Irving, but the disparity between efficiency and raw skill (which all three have in droves) can't be understated at this early stage.|
Dropping out: Tristan Thompson