6"7. Rangy. Athletic. Crafty. Defensive prodigy.
These are all terms regularly associated with Kawhi Leonard, descriptions that echo the former San Diego State Aztec's seemingly limitless potential. After two aesthetically and numerically pleasing seasons in which his game showed steady, sometimes-scary progress -- including a remarkable 2013 postseason campaign where he netted 60.5% of his 2PFG's -- Leonard has now become a darling of San Antonio fans and analytics advocates alike.
After flirting with stardom on the national stage for all to see, the expectations placed on the Spurs' #2 were inflated accordingly. Back-to-back performances of 22pts and 11 rebounds, and 19pts and 16 rebounds, in Games 6 and 7 of the NBA Finals, respectively, proved to be the cherries on the icing of the sweet, chocolaty sundae that was Kawhi's 2013 season. There was no shortage of praise, enthusiasm, and "hype" surrounding Leonard heading into 2013-14, that's for sure. Few will hesitate to suggest that they had this very season pegged as the one where the versatile swingman would see an ample spike in (at least) the volume of his production and statistical measures. For example, even yours truly had publicly listed Leonard as the favorite to win the league's most ambiguous award, the not-so-esteemed title of "Most Improved Player."
So, then, just over 1,000 minutes into his eagerly anticipated breakout stretch, how can we best evaluate Kawhi's development? In a vacuum, the numbers don't leap off the page at you: 11.9ppg, 72.9% free throw shooting, 32.2% from deep, 6.1 rebounds. Solid (if unspectacular) figures that are not necessarily synonymous with "elite," rounded play. Nevertheless, it would be remiss to attempt to interpret the trajectory of Leonard's career simply by glossing over the per-game data.
Look, Kawhi isn't Paul George, and doesn't really have the playmaking or perimeter marksmanship of Gordon Hayward, but that's perfectly fine. Hayward and George (the former headed for restricted free agency this offseason and the latter the recipient of a max contract extension) spring to mind as comparable to Leonard due to their age, reputations, and positional play. Both Hayward and George are enjoying career-best seasons in a number of facets yet, as members of the 2010 NBA Draft, both are one year farther advanced into their respective careers than Kawhi Leonard. As such, it serves as a worthwhile exercise to assess the fruits of the first three seasons for all three players. Here are the per-36 minute breakdowns for each player, compiled in a cumulative window between their first and third seasons:
The parallels are perhaps more evident than first thought, no? Leonard's 2P% mark (55.5%) shatters those of the other two, while exhibiting respectably similar percentages from beyond the arc (36.2%) and at the free throw line (78.8%). Especially relevant in the per-36 framework, though, is the scoring production which -- at 13.3 is the lowest of the trio -- is far from dwarfed by the more offensively-oriented pair of George and Hayward. Where the positivity is highlighted most, however, is in the rebounding data (7.3), and with the help of some advanced metrics.
Consider the advanced statistics (below) within the same time frame.
Leonard boasts the highest PER (16.7) of the group, the best True Shooting % (58.1%), the highest offensive efficiency rating and, at 9.7%, the lowest turnover percentage (an estimate of TOs per 100 possessions). It should be emphasised that all of these measurements (for Kawhi) are inclusive of play from his allegedly disappointing 2014 season. Keep in mind, too, that there is a stark point of difference between the Spurs' swingman and the given player comparisons: volume.
Both the Pacers superstar and Utah's offensive orchestrator gradually (between their rookie years and 2014) transitioned from the periphery of their rotations behind more experienced, favoured options (Deron Williams, Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Danny Granger, and Mike Dunleavy, for example), plying their trades within the context of set, limited offensive roles. Circumstantial causes have since allowed each player to carve out high-volume, central roles in which they have (broadly speaking) flourished. For a host of reasons, this has yet to be a required ingredient from Kawhi for San Antonio's successes, nor has such an extensive offensive workload been asked of the third-year man.
If such a rotational change were on the horizon, nonetheless, the above numbers suggest that there is an abundance of reason for cautious, educated optimism.
There are multiple materially encouraging details of Kawhi's season, too. Per NBA.com/stats, Leonard has been lightning and above-league average from almost all areas within the arc, and is also allocating some of his attempts more wisely. Thus far, 43.85% of his field goal attempts have come from within eight feet, up from 40.3% in the 2012-13 season. He has displayed a reduced reliance on the three-point shot, with a 3PAr of roughly 25.1%, down nearly eight percent on last year. This has the capacity to act as both a positive and a negative, although to this point the majority of the shot re-distribution has been auspicious.
Overall, the mild hysteria that has clouded Leonard's season so far is unjustified. By many measures, his game has continued to trend upward, and rumors of his perceived inertia have been greatly exaggerated. We're 194 regular season and playoff games into the "Kawhi Leonard, NBA player" experience, and the substance of the 2014 season has offered more than enough to indicate that his prosperous, appetizing career remains on its desired path.