clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Kawhi Leonard was already great on defense. Now he's elite on offense, too

Calling the Spurs' superstar a "two-way player" doesn't do his all-around game justice.

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Kawhi Leonard doesn't pull up from 30 feet or leap over giants at the rim. His game is a steadier beast. His baskets usually come within the flow of the offense. His box score usually stands out more than his highlights.

But a lack of Vines doesn't make Leonard any less effective or instrumental in the 20-5 Spurs' success. As has often been the case, San Antonio has elected to zag when everyone else is zigging. The Warriors are perfecting the fast-paced, small-ball, three-point shooting attack, so the Spurs are now playing a style that resembles a modern adaptation of Pat Riley's slowdown Knicks.

They're walking the ball up the court and they don't jack many shots from deep. Instead, they rely on a league-best defense and a throwback offense that's shooting nearly 48 percent from the field and putting up 104.7 points per 100 possessions, the fourth-best mark in the league.

Even most casual fans know that Leonard is at the heart of the Spurs' suffocating defense. The difference is that Leonard has also transformed into an offensive stud, allowing the Spurs to alter their style and keep pace with the reigning champs.

The progression from role player to All-Star-caliber to MVP candidate has been a gradual one without any magical elixirs. Leonard didn't end one season as a Bruce Bowen clone and return a few months later playing like Kevin Durant. Instead he spent every summer making small tweaks and adding subtle moves. The ascension wasn't the result of anything fancy or complicated. Just intelligence and hard work.

It started as soon as he was drafted (thanks to some rushed sessions with Spurs shooting guru Chip Engelland) and has continued every offseason since. The team-high 21 points Leonard averages per game are the result of his 50 percent shooting from the field, which is the result of a canny understanding of shot selection.

Leonard also has developed his post-up game, which has become lethal. He is bigger and stronger than most defenders. He has a lighting-quick first step and an array of moves, including a baby hook with his right hand.

He also has a turnaround jumper and a spin that would make Hakeem Olajuwon proud.

The one point per possession he's generating on post touches (via NBA.com) places Leonard in the 84th percentile, which is an excellent number for a small forward.

Notice how decisive Leonard is in both those clips. Even his isolation plays are crisp. That speed is the calling card of the Spurs' offense, and Leonard, at the embryonic age of 24, has already figured it out.

Still, many more of his shots and points come off catch-and-shoot opportunities, where he's improved the most. Last year, Leonard made 39 percent of these shots. He's nailing 45 percent this year despite attempting even more per game (via NBA.com).

Sometimes those looks come from the Bowen Corner, where Leonard is deadly.

Others come from the wing, where Leonard now has the confidence to rise up over defenders who don't respect his jumper.

He also gets looks through constant movement. Leonard isn't doing Rip Hamilton imitations sprinting off screens, but he knows how to shift from side to side. Sometimes, that's all it takes to create some space.

Leonard is hitting 51 percent of his spot-up jumpers this season and ranks in the 95th percentile in points per possession on said attempts, according to NBA.com.

"He and LeBron (James) are the two strongest, biggest 3s just from a physical standpoint," Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said of Leonard in early December, via NESN. "And then he hits seven (3-pointers) in a row against Memphis. The guy's a first-team All-NBA player for sure in my opinion. He just changes the game on both ends."

Not coincidentally, Popovich is using Leonard more than he ever has before. The Spurs are not known for leaning heavily on one player, but they do call isolations for Leonard. Nearly 26 percent of San Antonio's possessions are ending with the ball in Leonard's hands, a career-high mark for him and a number right in line with the team's leaders. The 34 isolation possessions Leonard has finished are twice as many as Tony Parker, No. 2 on the team in that category.

This is no accident. Leonard is a matchup nightmare who can beat teams from both the perimeter and the paint. He's more than capable of knocking down pull-ups over the outstretched arms of defenders.

He's learned how to use screens and create space for easy mid-range looks.

He also has no problem using the dribble to blow by slower defenders and get to the rim, where he's finishing on an impressive 63 percent of his looks.

Leonard's offense is supplementing his defensive brilliance and turning him into a superstar. Even using the "great two-way player" label doesn't do Leonard's game justice. He's a reigning Defensive Player of the Year who can now also beat teams with his offense. He's the best player on one of the league's top teams. He's one of the best players in the league and can dominate games in many ways.

He really is an MVP candidate.

* * *

SB Nation presents: The Spurs' offseason will keep their dynasty alive