USA TODAY Sports
Kawhi Leonard is having a fine year, but the way the second-year forward has been playing when the Big Three are out of uniform has started rumblings about whether we've even seen the beginnings of his potential.
The Bulls game showed how well the Spurs are at executing, even when they are missing their stars. The constant motion off the ball, the crisp passing, the perfect spacing--it's all there even if the stars aren't. The Cavs game saw the Big Three return and the team narrowly escaped Cleveland with a win. There was one constant in both games: Kawhi Leonard's excellent play.
Leonard scored 26 points on 18 shots against the Bulls and didn't rely on three point shooting, his usual weapon, to get them. He also played fantastic defense on Luol Deng, neutralizing the Bulls most consistent scoring threat. Then in Cleveland he pulled down important boards and had five blocked shots from the small forward position. Oh, and he also did this. In case anyone has forgotten, this is the 21-year-old Leonard's second season, and he plays alongside three future Hall-of-Famers on the best team in the league.
Around the silver-and-black shaded portions of the internets, there's been significant joking about pumping the breaks on the Kawhi Leonard bandwagon, because things kind of get out of hand when a young role player gets compared to Scottie Pippen and is considered by many to be untradeable unless what comes back is a top five player. Kawhi is not at that level just yet, and he might never reach it. At the same time, even someone who is consciously trying to manage his expectations has to admit the kid is special. But we'll get back to Kawhi in a minute. Let's talk about what it says about the Spurs that he doesn't regularly get the touches he got against the Bulls, or the responsibility at the end of games like he got in Cleveland, and how it might be time to expect his role to expand a little bit.
Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan are still elite. Manu hasn't had the chance to show it this season because of injuries, but those guys can definitely carry a league-leading offense, creating for themselves and others. Parker is playing at a superlative level and Duncan has turned back the clock. That doesn't leave a lot of room for anyone to emerge as a star on their watch since all the team needs to have the best record in the league (and all it needed to get to the conference finals last season) is some good players filling specific roles. Leonard fits that category: defend the other team's best perimeter threat or be aggressive off the ball on defense, spot up in the corner and cut hard on offense.
But as we've seen, Kawhi is able to do more. Much more.
His one-dribble pull up after a hand-off is reliable, even if mid-range jumpers are far from the ideal of efficiency. (After all, Pop has found the room to feature Parker's 15-18' jumper as his percentage has proved the reliability of that shot.) He can slash coming off screens. His ball handling still needs work but he can get enough separation to get a jumper off. His three-point shot, especially from the corner, is already a deadly weapon. It's not hard to imagine Leonard scoring off those 1-3 pick and rolls Parker usually runs with Jackson, if given the chance. He isn't getting his number called more, not because he can't deliver but because the Spurs are so good on offense already. Right now, they don't need him to carry the team.
On most other teams, especially younger rebuilding teams, Leonard would have been a featured player. Looking back at the 2011 draft, it's extremely easy to assert that Leonard should have been a top ten pick and very likely a top five pick. Instead of landing on a team in desperate need of talent, he was picked by the veteran Spurs, where he is only asked to do a limited number of things well. The trade off for being on a winning team and surrounded by players destined for the Hall of Fame, is that Kawhi hasn't had the touches young players get when they're brought in as franchise saviors. Circumstances are often just as important as talent, and Kawhi came into a situation that is great for slowly putting it all together instead of instantly becoming a center piece.
But with the San Diego State product excelling the last few games the question looms: should the Spurs start giving Kawhi a longer leash? There's a very real possibility this is just a peak in performance and Kawhi reverts back to his old self: efficient in small doses. Great defensive players that seem on their way to stardom after taking a step up offensively often fool coaches and front offices into giving them a larger role than they can handle. The list is too long to compile it here but since we are talking small forwards I'll just mention Trevor Ariza, Shawn Marion and Luol Deng as examples of players that are simply not equipped to be the first option of an offense, but have been asked to fill that role at different points in their careers.
So, should the Spurs give Leonard more responsibility on offense?
The answer, in my humble opinion, is a resounding yes, for two reasons: First, giving Leonard more touches doesn't necessarily mean taking him out of his comfort zone. The Spurs would be crazy to simply give Leonard the ball and ask him to create offense. But what they can do is increase the frequency at which they get him the ball in the scoring positions he's most comfortable in. Second, the guy the Spurs are using now as a scorer to complement the Big Three is Gary Neal, and Gary, despite his solid offensive game, can't defend. By shifting that scoring load to Leonard, the Spurs might be able to let Neal go back to being more of a spot up shooter (or phase Gary out of the rotation if he is getting exposed on the defensive side) while making opposing small forwards have to work on defense for the first time since Sean Elliot was wearing Silver and Black.
With the team enjoying great success and Ginobili and Duncan near the end of their careers, the temptation to avoid risk and keep the old recipe going might be hard to avoid, but Leonard is making sure Pop knows he can handle more pressure. In developing Leonard, PATFO has done everything by the book so far. They've brought him up slowly while shielding him from too much scrutiny. They've made sure he had mentors teaching him. They've even secured a safety net for him by signing a proven playoff contributor in Stephen Jackson. And at every step, Kawhi has exceeded expectations, always surprising us with a new improvement, another wrinkle in his game that raises his ceiling higher and shows that he's ready for a larger role.
Not since the early days of Parker have the Spurs had a young player with such potential, and it's understandable that Pop is cautious about how he handles the franchise's biggest future asset. At the same time, it took Parker some time to reach the heights he inhabits now, but he only got there because he was awarded the chance to prove his worth early on. Typically, I wouldn't advocate for a 21-year-old sophomore to be given more responsibility on a contender, especially when that team includes some of the best players ever to suit up. But then again, Leonard is anything but typical.