You Can Do Better, Kawhi Leonard

Ronald Martinez - Getty Images

This is the fourth installment of the You Can Do Better series, in which I'll take a look at the Spurs' players and give an opinion on what part of their game I'd love to see them improve. It doesn't mean these players don't already have a valuable skill set or that they absolutely need get better. The idea is to come up with realistic ways in which every one of the Spurs' players can evolve and help the team. Here are the previous installments:

Tony Parker (link)

Danny Green (link)

Stephen Jackson (link)

This time we'll take a look at Kawhi Leonard.

Kawhi Leonard exceeded expectations last season to become the Spurs' starting small forward and their biggest piece for the future. His long range shooting, a big concern coming out of college, improved as the season went along to make him a well-rounded young player with star potential.

Season Age Tm Lg G GS MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
2011-12 20 SAS NBA 64 39 24.0 3.1 6.3 .493 0.6 1.7 .376 1.1 1.4 .773 1.6 3.5 5.1 1.1 1.3 0.4 0.7 1.4 7.9
Career NBA 64 39 24.0 3.1 6.3 .493 0.6 1.7 .376 1.1 1.4 .773 1.6 3.5 5.1 1.1 1.3 0.4 0.7 1.4 7.9

With a likely increased role on offense looming, Leonard will face a lot more pressure his sophomore year than he did as a rookie. The Spurs will need him to evolve if they expect to stay a contender in the improved Western Conference.

What can he improve on?

Offense

With Parker as the primary creator in the starting lineup and the addition of Diaw's passing ability, Leonard won't be expected to take on a heavy offensive burden from the get-go. That being said (and if the way he was used in Summer League is any indication), Leonard will likely get a chance to create his own shot, which is something he rarely did last season. So how can the Spurs put Leonard in settings where he can score by himself without overwhelming him? Here are some situations that won't demand as much from Leonard while likely addressing another one of his deficiencies: a lack of trips to the line.

  • Isolate in the mid-post: Leonard is not a good enough ball handler to isolate far away from the basket and take his man off the dribble with ease. He has the tools to become a solid post player in time, but right now he'll likely struggle against experienced defenders. The best compromise? Is in the mid post. By getting Leonard the ball at the elbow (a la Paul Pierce), he will have the choice between posting up a smaller player or taking a power dribble and blowing by a slower guy. If the defender sags, Leonard has the range to hit a mid-range jumper; if they crowd him, he can look for contact and get to the line. If helps comes from one of the opponent bigs, he can find someone under the basket or at the 3-point line. By giving him options instead of limiting him, the Spurs would be getting an idea of not only how far along Leonard's offensive game is, but also how good his decision making with the ball is developing.
  • Switch between P&R ball handler and screener: We saw during Summer League how Leonard was running pick and rolls from the top of the key. The Spurs' offense often starts with a classic P&R set, so having Kawhi familiarize himself with those is paramount to his development. If he improves enough in those sets to take some pressure off Parker and Ginobili, the Spurs would be exponentially more versatile. But as I mentioned in my entry on Parker, the Frenchman's inability to play off the ball could limit Leonard's effectiveness initially. Kawhi should still get a crack at running some P&Rs, but an area in which he could thrive could be as a P&R screen setter. A 1-3 pick and pop/roll between Leonard and Parker or Ginobili presents numerous problems for the defense. If they switch, Parker/Manu has a slower guy they can take off the dribble or Leonard can post up a smaller player. If the primary defender sags and the secondary defender doesn't show, Manu can sink a 3 while Tony can score on a mid-range shot. If they are determined to stop penetration by showing hard, Leonard would be open behind the arc to either shoot or drive and look for contact. If he struggles as a ball handler at first, having hims set screens on P&R sets could be a good option to further Leonard's development.

Defense

We all know Leonard subverted expectations by becoming a good offensive player right off the bat, while struggling a bit on defense. If he didn't possess an amazing work ethic and elite physical tools, I'd be worried; but in my eyes, Leonard only needs experience to become an above average defender. His rebounding is amazing for a small forward too, which makes him a potential defensive star. The only aspects I would like to see Leonard improve are:

  • Post defense: Leonard and Jackson played some power forward last season whenever the Spurs went small and that could, and I believe should, continue to happen this upcoming season. Aside from the fact that the two teams that played in the finals have versatile forwards that can slide up and down to cause match-up nightmares, figuring out if Kawhi can cause his own mismatches should be a priority early on the season. If his good defensive rebounding holds, there's no reason why Leonard could not spend some time at the 4 next to Duncan, other than his shaky post D. I believe Leonard will improve enough as a one-on-one defender to be able to check guys on the perimeter effectively, but his post defense needs to get better. If he learns to deny position early and then use his length to bother shots in the post without fouling, Leonard could give the Spurs real positional flexibility to experiment with.
  • Help defense: When the guy he's guarding is not a threat to score, Leonard could roam the paint, swiping at penetrating guards, going for blocks and generally making life hell for the offense. With those long limbs, quick hands and decent hops, Leonard could be a nightmare for sloppy offensive players, just like Manu Ginobili is. For years, every player facing the Spurs had to be aware of where Manu was, lest they get blocked, called for a charge or have the ball stolen. I truly believe Leonard could become a similar type of pest. Being a disciplined defender is still the key to the Spurs' defense, but gambling a little while helping on penetrations and post ups could improve the Spurs interior defense.

Leonard will likely get a long leash to start the season and every opportunity to figure things out. If he can make the leap from acceptable defender and spot up shooter into a more well rounded player, the Spurs could boast a crunch-time lineup that rivals any of the other league superpowers.

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