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Metacommentary: Kawhi Leonard versus The World (of This Year's Rookies)


If all else fails, you can always use a flaming sword.

Someone mentioned in my first Metacommentary post that he thought it was supposed to be a piece on TAFKARA (The Artist Formerly Known As Ron Artest), and since then you have no idea how much I wanted to rename it "Metta World Peace Commentary" complete with incomprehensible language that MWP would probably say if he was writing it ("I want to thank my psychiatrist...and Jacque Vaughn for making me feel less inferior"). Alas, integrity won out and now you're forced to read a rather tame version -- in terms of greatest worst party anthems ever, just think of it as Can't Touch This instead of Party Rock.

Today, we talk about probably the hottest Spur right now, at least in buzz terms (my apologies to Tiago fans and Spurs fans from France, if there are any... wait, I'm pretty sure there aren't any) -- the one and only, our beloved rookie, high pick Kawhi "Bunga" Leonard "Skynyrd". (I've already hit the Nicknames quota in my second paragraph. Do I get a prize or something?)

Anyway, do the Van Halen thing.

The source: John Hollinger's Insider article on the Rookie of the year race, where our super rookie made a surprising apperance on the back of three straight good games. It's a pretty short write-up so unlike that first postwhere I just made one ridiculous comment after another without really adding anything meaningful to the discussion, I thought I'd play a bit with Hollinger's stats apart from the ones mentioned above, do some comparisons here and there. The end product simply is I take a closer look at Kawhi's impact without having his huge hands obstructing my face. Let's get to it.

Combined Durant-Leonard wingspan: 1,742 feet

Shooters Gonna Shoot

5. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio

Leonard has shown in the past three games why the Spurs were so willing to part with George Hill to obtain Leonard's rights, scoring double figures in all three. He's shooting 50 percent on the season, and while he hasn't shown a 3-point stroke, he's been able to step in and hit 18-footers consistently.

Kawhi isn't much of a long-range shooter yet (until he gets a decent offseason with Chip Engelland to work on his shot) so he's somewhat middle of the pack here among rookies in True Shooting Percentage (what a player's shooting percentage would be if we accounted for free throws and 3-pointers) at 13th place with a TS% of 52% out of 28 rookies who qualified.

I checked out Kawhi's shot locations on Hoop Data and what it showed is that the bulk - 39% - of Leonard's 6.7 shot attempts per game are taken "At Rim", directly at the basket (dunks, lay-ups, tip- ins). These are good because he's not exactly known yet for his jump-shooting ability, and you know that at least he's taking high percentage shots where he's shown an ability to finish (76% made).


Leonard shot chart is all about the basics.

The assumption I made after that was to say, "oh, maybe a lot of those came from offensive rebound put-backs" but when you see that more than 60% of those made shots were assisted, Kawhi's at the rim points were usually a result of him making a good cut to the basket or receiving a pass near the paint area where he can take one dribble before going to the rim.

Looking at the bigger picture, Leonard ranks 24th among 57 small forwards which is decent, but when you look at the top of that list you'll see Richard Jefferson in 2nd place with an insane TS% of 67%, good as well for 10th in the entire league. That alone makes you think it would be harder for Leonard to completely displace RJ at the starting SF spot, which could then spell the difference in Kawhi legitimately competing for the ROY race. Of course, it's not impossible given that the two forwards have shown they have good synergy playing together, and that you can practically stick Leonard defensively into three different positions.


Remember when these things were fun?


As expected, he's also providing beastly rebounding from the small forward spot at 9.2 per 40 minutes, and defensively he has one of the best steal rates at his position. Manu Ginobili's injury has opened the door for Leonard to get more playing time, but he'd have to take Richard Jefferson's job to have a realistic shot at the Rookie of the Year. Regardless, it's been an impressive start for a non-lottery pick; he's sixth among rookies in PER and fifth in estimated wins added.

That sub-title chant above harkens back to the old days when we used to make PtR explode with the BLLLAAAAAIIIIRRR memes, but now poor DeJuan only gets all sorts of invectives thrown at him along with the occassional "I FINALLY UNFOLLOWED BLAIR ON TWITTER, OH-EM-GEE BEST. DAY. EVER." confessions. Once upon a time, Blair used to be a threat to eat every rebound in sight, now he's a threat to eat just about anything including the grass that covers Pop's lawn. Before, we sat in anticipation if Blair will have a 20-20 game, now we eagerly await him being subbed in early for Tiago Splitter. There used to be a time when DeJuan broke arms, spilled blood and bodies on the floor and took names, now... okay, I think you get the picture.

Two years ago, a rebounding machine fell into our lap in the second round of the draft, and this year we traded up for a physical freak who's not so bad of a rebounder himself. Leonard currently ranks 8th in Rebound Rate among rookies behind guys who are much taller than him -- almost all of the players from rank 1 to 7 are either legitimate centers or power forwards, with the exception of Miami's Terell Harris, a 6'5" guard who's only played a few games in far fewer minutes.

If you put it into perspective and look at rebound rate rankings on a per-position basis, Kawhi's ability and activity on the glass should bring a smile to Spurs fans' faces. Among qualified small forwards in the NBA, Leonard is ranked 3rd behind Al-Farouq Aminu and Marvin Williams, both taller than Kawhibunga at 6'9" with relevant NBA experience to begin with.

Back to Blair, here's a table showing comparisons on their rebound rates. I included Blair's rookie year as well because I thought it's also interesting:

Leonard and Blair Rebound Rates

Player Name Season Off RR Def RR Total RR
Kawhi Leonard '11-'12 9.1 18.5 13.7
DeJuan Blair '11-'12 17.5 13.9 15.7
DeJuan Blair '09-'10 16.0 25.1 20.6

It's not really an apples-to-apples comparison because each player has different physical attributes which all come together in making them terrific glass cleaners. Blair, in his own right, is already astounding given the position that he plays, the trees that he goes up against and some rumor I heard that he has no ACLs! But the fact that Leonard's rebound rate is close to the team's best rebounder is pretty impressive, especially if you consider that in defensive rebounding situations, Kawhi is usually coming from the perimeter since he's defending guards. After chasing scorers and shooters, just think of the space he has to cover and the guys he needs to box out or jump over trying to fight his way inside to get a board. It's remarkable.

And of course, it doesn't hurt at all to have a very good rebounder at the wings. (just so you know, RJ has a pretty terrible rebound rate at 5.8%, good for 58th among 70 small forwards)


Kawhi going SKY-nyrd for the slam

Minute Maids

One of the basic precepts to be able to make an impact consistently is to also have a steady diet of playing time. Only Matt Bonner seems to be the one who exemplifies the opposite, with more minutes he simply regresses at an exponential rate. But I digress. Among rookies, Leonard ranks 9th in minutes per game (MPG) at 22.1 MPG, ahead of higher, more distinguished draft classmates such as Derrick Williams (2nd overall, 21.3 MPG), Kemba Walker (9th overall, 20.3 MPG), and Tristan Thompson (4th overall, 18.1 MPG).

Of the top 10 rookies in MPG, only four others who have been drafted after Kawhi (15th overall, in case you've forgotten) play more minutes (Chris Singleton, Norris Cole, Marshon Brooks, Iman Shumpert). Of these four, only Norris Cole plays for a contender. That's right, I refuse to consider the New York Knicks a contender until Spike Lee as a filmmaker becomes relevant again and Baron Davis gets accidentally picked up by social services after mistaking him for a homeless person.

From a team perspective, Leonard's MPG is actually sixth on the team and if you take that too literally, he's literally our sixth man, literally. Kawhi is just behind our starting unit and slightly closer to DeJuan Blair who averages 23.1 MPG -- 35 MPG if he's below 300 pounds that day, 15 MPG if he's above it and also gets caught sneaking in Whataburgers in the locker room. For Pop to put a lot of trust in playing a rookie this much since Tony Parker says a lot about Leonard's ability.

You could probably factor in the need for depth in a compressed season, and as a few PtR members have mentioned, some healthy competition to make sure that the gears of RJ 3.0 remain well-oiled. And with Manu Ginobili out for an extended period, Leonard taking his place in the starting unit, and James Anderson's game lost in funky town, expect Leonard's MPG to climb even higher.


Leonardus Octopus (see original dude in photo here)

Turning In A New Leaf

This probably isn't too significant a stat, but Kawhi ranks 1st among rookies in terms of having the lowest Turnover Ratio (percentage of a player's possessions that end in a turnover) at 5.3%. It's most likely because his Usage Rate (number of possessions a player uses per 40 minutes) is so low, ranking 24th among the 28 rookies measured, and the fact that he doesn't need to have the ball in his hands or dribble around too much before taking a shot to be effective or make a good basketball play.

I'd say he's still feeling his way a bit (he's still a rookie after all, and barely had a training camp to boot) and might not be as aggressive often, which is both good and bad. I read ex-PtR boss Wayne Vore's preview of the Spurs-Blazers game and I think he nails it with this observation:

Kawhi’s energy and athleticism. Keep an eye on Kawhi over the next few games. I noticed something during the Rockets game that intrigued me. Right now, on defense, he is so focused on denying his man the ball that he’s not two other things. He’s not playing any help defense and he’s not rebounding. On offense, he seems concerned about taking the right shot and being in the right place. I think, for the moment, Pop is ok with this because he is putting Kawhi on the other team’s best shooter and that’s a win. But, in the fourth quarter and overtime, Kawhi seemed to get comfortable and started attacking the glass.

So based on that, it's not just on offense that Leonard's playing safe, but also on defense. The good thing is he has that Swiss knife thing going for him -- he's got so many tools, but even if using just a few of them he's still able to make an impact.


"Not gonna lie... we suck."

The Worst Defensive Team in the Popovich Era... Ever?

We've heard Pop make the proclamation after the Bucks game, rightly so or otherwise. We've also heard Extraneous G come short of anointing Kawhi Leonard as the next Bruce Bowen, only with a much more diversified skill set which includes a better offensive game and bigger hands, although not necessarily "handsy-er" than the pesky Mr. Potato Head. But really, if the Spurs have got a long ways to go on defense as Pop mentioned, having Leonard play significant minutes is a good place to start the improvement movement.

Digging up some of the advanced stats from the usual reliable sources, Danny Green pops up as our best player in terms of Defensive Rating (estimated points allowed per 100 possessions) at 101. This is followed by a four-way tie between what should obviously be our top defensive players on the team - Splitter, Tim Duncan, Ginobili, and guess who... Leonard. Some of you have already noted that various combinations of the Green-Splitter-Duncan-Leonard foursome is part of our best defensive lineups, and once Manu returns then you can have a creator to prevent ugly ball on offense from happening.

Green's 101 rating is actually bad compared to Spencer Hawes' league leading 87.3 defensive rating (before I continue, I refuse to fully acknowledge a stat dominated by Spencer Hawes), but this is more an indictment of how below-average the Spurs defense has been, especially in those blowout losses.

In these past couple of games during Life Without Manu, what Pop seems to be doing is try to fortify his lineups with at least one defensive-savvy personnel and let the offense take care of itself. For the starting lineup, you have Kawhi taking care of the perimeter which takes off some pressure on Duncan meeting opponents at the rim every single time because frankly speaking, Timmeh can't handle as many inside assaults at this point of his career. The second unit is anchored by the defensive duo Green Splots (eww), with Danny your primary perimeter stopper and Tiago as the rim protector (19th overall in the league in Block Percentage at 4.3%).

So far so good, the by-committee Spurs have been able to do the job at home but it becomes more interesting once the team gets on the road where role players shoot less accurately. During bad shooting nights, a great team can rely on its defense to keep it in games and turn them into "if I can't make a shot then I won't let you make one either" affairs. As coaches love to say, offense won't always be there and it's in the defense where you can manage to control some consistency. It would be good to see if the Silver and Black is up to the task and bump up their defense rankings significantly.


Kawhi in the starting lineup = Success (?)

End Note

While Bruce Bowen is arguably the best perimeter defender in Spurs history, I think it's a little bit of a disservice to Kawhi Leonard to compare him to Bruce. I've read more of the Gerald Wallace comparisons which is more apt, but I haven't seen Leonard yet throw and crash his body around the court too often like Wallace does. However, as draft observers have noted, the kid has an unbelievable motor, always active on both ends. At this point, I think we're all just lucky that the Spurs front office found a guy who can provide a variety of things, whether it be rebounding, creating steals, making it tough on the opposing team to score, and reminding RJamnesty about how close he is to getting amnestied.

The shooting will hopefully come sooner than later, but in a Spurs team who has retained almost all of its weapons that catapulted it into the league's top offenses last season, you just need to fill in the small gaps. And so far so good, Leonard - along with "The Other Guys" (Green, Splitter, Ford, etc.) - has been able use his ginormous hands and plug those little holes.

[ADDENDUM - David Thorpe Rookie Watch Update]

6. Kawhi Leonard, Spurs

Leonard has the benefit of playing for a great franchise with great coaching and veteran players, but that doesn't mean there isn't pressure on him to perform well. So far, he's been able to overcome that by playing with poise and making easy plays. I can tell Gregg Popovich hopes to develop Leonard into a primary wing defender come playoff time. He's not there yet, but his length and agility will help him greatly on D.

Leonard has also been better on offense than expected, knocking in open jumpers, crashing the glass and making smart basket cuts off Tony Parker drives or Tim Duncan pinch-post action. In many ways, Leonard reminds me of James Harden, who played like a savvy veteran when he was a rookie, looking pragmatically for ways to contribute without disrupting the flow of the team. On a playoff team such as San Antonio, this is gold.

Coming soon (i.e. whenever I feel like not hacking it)... Kawhi Leonard vs. The Seven Evil Ex's Freaky Freshmen


"You know how I pass the ball so well? Vegan."