The current state of Kawhi Leonard's offense

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

While his incredible Finals performance may have whet Spurs fans' appetites a bit too soon, there's plenty to like in the young forward's somewhat underwhelming third season.

Kawhi Leonard is a darn good basketball player. Despite it being early in his professional career, the Spurs small forward intimidates opponents with his ninja-assassin demeanor, and if that doesn't work, he welcomes you to his newest poster.

Because of his consistently outstanding performances in the NBA Finals last season, expectations for what he could bring this year were completely blown out of proportion. What people need to realize is that Leonard isn't THE answer right now. At the moment, he doesn't quite have the versatility that is necessary to carry offensive potted plants like Danny Green. However Kawhi has made a notable improvement in a key area of his offensive game that could make a major difference in the playoffs this year -- his passing.

Now, it's not up for debate that Leonard's assist numbers have barely improved at all; his assists per game have increased from 1.6 last year to 1.7 this year, and his assist percentage has gone from 7.7 to 8.6. What I can argue, though, is that these numbers are deceptive -- Kawhi's assists this year are coming from his newfound confidence on the offensive end, and most Pounders have been begging for that for awhile now.

In the past, Kawhi played a minimal role in the offensive sets, relying on penetration and kickouts from Tony Parker to make his mark. He played within himself, and his game was often all too predictable: he'd take two or three dribbles to feel his defender, and then pass if he couldn't find a weakness. He followed the basic flow of the Spurs' playbook, yet his lack of creativity led to some stagnation in the offense's ball movement. This season has been a whole other story for the Aztec*.

Isolation

Season

% Time

Points Per Possession

FG%

2011-12

5.6%

0.82

43.3%

2012-13

5.3%

0.89

42.5%

2013-14

10.2%

1.04

48.0%

Post-Up

Season

% Time

Points Per Possession

FG%

2011-12

1.4%

0.25

12.5%

2012-13

4.4%

1.18

69%

2013-14

9.1%

1.04

57.0%

The stats show that Kawhi is growing as a player. In terms of the types of shots he takes on the court, Leonard is playing much more selfishly, and he has capitalized on these opportunities. Just 24 games into this season, Leonard has put up 23 post-up attempts -- he had 37 in his first two years combined. He is scoring at an efficient 1.04 points per possession on isolation and post-up attempts, a dramatic improvement over the mediocrity of previous years.

Kawhi has always been a confident defender, but this season he has brought this mindset over to the other end of the floor, as well. He is no longer the offensively one-dimensional sharpshooter that we have grown accustomed to over the past three seasons because he:

1. keeps his head up at all times:


2. finds the open man from his penetration:


3. occasional even effectively runs the pick-and-roll:

Kawhi_gif_psherm

So what is Kawhi's ceiling? We should look no further than his virtuoso performance against the Thunder on March 11 of last season. Leonard was able to showcase all of his talent with a 17-point, three-steal, four-rebound victory in a game where he was forced to take on a bigger offensive load with Parker out. He demonstrated all parts of his game on both ends of the court by:

showing off a teardrop:

Kl_okc_1

knocking down an open three:

Kl_okc_fg2

hitting his mid-ranged jumpers:

Kl_jumpers

penetrating the defense with his ball-handling:

Kl_penetration

generating offense for his teammates:

Kawhi_assist_okc

Note: This type of penetration and dump-off to a big man deep in the paint should be quite familiar for Spurs fans well-acquainted with the 2012 Western Conference Finals. Kevin Durant consistently burned the Spurs with that sort of dish-off to guys like Nick Collison after a hard drive to the rim.

and, of course, dazzling with a classic steal-fastbreak combination:

Kl_steal_slam

Kawhi has all the physical and athletic talent to one day dominate the NBA. We have seen flashes of brilliance and flat-out domination occasionally throughout his short career. Game by game, Leonard's confidence is rapidly increasing. While it may be a season or two away, it's only a matter of time before the Aztec becomes the focal point on offense for the Spurs.

*Numbers are through San Antonio's 12-16-13 meeting with the Los Angeles Clippers.

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