San Antonio is known for its triumvirate of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, and rightly so. The three have combined for four championship rings and success that can only be rivaled by the great Laker and Celtic teams of the past. But as those players have aged, they’ve needed help and perhaps no player in the San Antonio lineup has been more crucial than the addition of Kawhi Leonard in these last two seasons.
When the trio retires and moves to broadcast booths or other pastures, it will be Leonard that carries the torch for the Spurs into the future. Coach Gregg Popavich has declared it so and Leonard’s play has given fans reason to believe that it’s absolutely true.
In only his second year, Leonard has turned up the intensity of his game, fine tuning his well known defensive skills and increasing his scoring to 9.2 points per game as the team’s third or fourth scoring option at present. His numbers certainly don’t amaze, but when you consider that this is a player taking less than 10 shots per game on average, nine points per contest doesn’t seem so bad.
At the same time, it’s easy to see why Leonard is overlooked by analysts and commentators as he really isn’t the straw that stirs the Spurs cocktail so to speak. Make no mistake, however, this player’s future is bright and he will eventually be an all-star small forward for a lot of reasons, but in the interest of simplicity, here are three reasons to keep in mind next time you see the 2011 15th overall pick take the floor.
3. Ball Handling and Speed-Leonard actually handles the ball quite a bit for the Spurs as he and Tony Parker are two of the main catalysts behind their 14 fast break points per game. He can pass when he needs to, but more importantly he can handle the ball efficiently on his way to the rim and averages just one turnover per game. Leonard’s assist numbers don’t particularly impress at 1.2 per game, but his primary concern isn’t passing as much as it is getting to the hoop and beating other player’s off the dribble, something he can do with ease thanks to his explosiveness.
2. Shooting-He doesn’t shoot often, but when he does, Leonard is very efficient. In his first two seasons, Leonard is shooting 49 percent from the field and 37 percent from beyond the arc. Last night in the Spurs victory over Philadelphia, Leonard and his 16 points were crucial down the stretch as he nailed big buckets when the team needed it most. He finished 6-13 from the floor and 2-5 from 3-point range. The beauty of having a guy like Leonard for Popavich is that should the team can sustain an injury to a Gary Neal or Manu Ginobili and still fall back on Leonard to become their third scoring option.
1. Defense-Easily the strongest facet of Leonard’s game it’s no wonder why Pop loves him so much. With his quick reactions and ability to read an opponent, Leonard is a tough guy for even the brightest stars to face up against. Averaging 2 steals per game, Leonard does a good job of clogging passing lanes and blocking a wing man’s path to the hoop. Perennial dunk artist Rudy Gay struggled against Leonard on Jan. 16. Unable to get to the rim or the free throw line, Gay was unable to have a big impact on the game finishing with 17 points in 40 minutes as the Spurs rolled to victory.
A big factor in the appreciation of Leonard amongst Spurs fans was his 19 game absence earlier this season. From mid November to mid December, Leonard was out due to tendinitis in his knee, a period in which the Spurs experienced 5 of their 11 losses this season. With him in the lineup, San Antonio is 19-6 and can use veteran Stephen Jackson as second line option giving them the depth of a championship team.
Right now, Leonard’s young legs are a welcome addition to a Spurs team that is known for its age, but as time goes on, expect this player to bloom into a star. He is currently receiving the education of a lifetime from veterans who have won championships and is watching the inner workings of a powerhouse team from the closest vantage point possible without being one of the primary cogs in the machine. When the times comes for him to shine, Leonard will be wise beyond his years and as ready for the spotlight as any young star could be.