At 24 years old, Kawhi Leonard is already an extremely accomplished NBA player. He has a championship, a Finals MVP trophy, and a Defensive Player of the Year award, and has been voted to an All-Defense team twice. He has transformed from a rookie with potential to a defensive stopper, to a key player on a title team, to a two-way superstar in the blink of an eye.
Let's take a look at some general expectations he's had for each season of his career, and how he performed against them.
When Kawhi Leonard was drafted, he was projected to be a good defender and rebounder, but his shot was broken and wasn't thought to be good enough yet in the post to play there in the NBA. He drew comparisons to players like Gerald Wallace and Trevor Ariza, both of whom had great stretches in their career, but who never really compared to the game's elites. He was considered, at his best, a potential borderline All-Star.
Prior to Leonard's rookie year, he was seen as a player who would be able to defend well and rebound, but who still needed a lot of work on his shot and offense. Leonard responded by showing off a new, improved jumper, and shot at a respectable 37.6%, and eventually supplanted Richard Jefferson as the starter at the small forward position.
Before Leonard's 2nd year, he had some respect for what he had done in his rookie year, and was considered as a prospect who still needed time to grow, but would eventually become a very good NBA player. By the end of the season, Leonard was defending the best player in the league, LeBron James, effectively in the NBA Finals.
Before year 3, people had come to understand that Leonard was a great defender, but still thought he'd need time before his offensive game would blossom. That June, Leonard won a Finals MVP, not only for defending LeBron James in a series better than anyone had before him, but also for an offensive outburst in the final 3 games, where he averaged 23.6 points on 68.5% from the field, 53.8% from 3. He also recorded 9.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocks in those final 3 games.
By year 4, everyone in basketball knew he was capable, but there were still doubts about whether he could put together his great play for an entire season. Leonard got hurt early in the year, but after the All-Star break, Leonard played well enough to cement himself as the best defender in the league with a Defensive Player of the Year award. He had also become a well-rounded offensive player, scoring well on a higher volume of shots, and showing that he had versatility to his game.
This is what Kawhi Leonard does. Any time writers, fans, or even the Spurs' coaching staff tries to put a cap on his potential as a basketball player, he shatters it into a million tiny little pieces before that season is over.
So: How much better can Kawhi Leonard get?
In the offseason, I questioned if he can be an efficient number one option. I questioned whether he can lead a team to stay competitive in games. I questioned if he'll ever be able to run an offense so that he makes his teammates better.
If you'd asked me my opinion of Kawhi over the offseason, I'd have told you that I considered him as a young star on the verge of taking "the leap" to becoming an elite NBA player.
Well, for Kawhi it hasn't been a leap so much as a sky-rocket up the NBA hierarchy.
Although the season is still very young, when I watch the Spurs, one thing stands out as a fact: Kawhi Leonard is the best player on the team, and it's not even close. It started with his incredible opening night demolition of Kevin Durant at both ends, and has since continued through this last game versus the Wizards. Of course he's arguably the best defender in the game, but now he has an offensive game that matches it.
Those questions about his being a number one scorer, keeping his team in games, and making his team better? If the answers were based off of these first few games, they would emphatically affirm his ability to do such things. His usage is as high as it's ever been, and he's working his in-between game for buckets all over the court. He's crossing up and splitting defenders on drives to the rack. He's figuring out how to run an effective 2-man game with LaMarcus Aldridge. The only real negatives is that he's not shooting well from deep (25% on the year, but he's a solid 36.6% on his career, so that's bound to pick up), and that he's not assisting on many plays (because he's too busy being responsible for putting points on the board himself).
Of course there are plenty of players helping out, with some taking on bigger loads than others. The San Antonio Spurs are a team currently transitioning from one version of themselves to another. Kawhi Leonard is the man in charge of keeping them competitive while they re-tool.
So, again: How much better can Kawhi Leonard get?
I don't know the answer, and nether do you. Because any time we set our expectations for him, he just steals the bar and raises it higher.
MVP OF THE GAME:
Tony Parker - 17 points on 6/11 shooting, 4 assists, 2 rebounds, 1 steal
Parker had a bit of a throwback game tonight. He was able to get to the paint and score well. He busted out a few great moves, putting his body into defenders to draw fouls, and even pulled out his trademark spin move. In addition to this, he also nailed a clutch 3-pointer on a broken play to tie the game up with about 7 seconds left. I'm not sure how many of these games we'll get from him, but if he can supplement the offense with a couple drives to the lane for a couple possessions a night, it'll be big for the Spurs' attack.
NUMBERS ON THE BOARD
- 25: Points for the game's leading scorer (and final-shot daggerer), Bradley Beal. He's enjoyed an uptick in production thanks to the Wizards' new up-tempo, and looks more comfortable as an all-around scorer. He's one of what seems like so many good young wings in the league, and he's coming into his own very quickly.
- 21: Turnovers by San Antonio. The ball movement was sloppy all around tonight. There were a lot of off-target or just flat-out dropped passes from San Antonio tonight. This helped keep Washington's fast-paced attack in motion.
- 9: Solid minutes for Rasual Butler. Wing depth is a bit of an issue for San Antonio after Manu Ginobili, so anything Butler can give them is more than welcome. Against Washington, he scored 6 points on 3-4 from the field, and also recorded 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks, and a steal. That's a pretty full stat sheet for that short of a run.
- John Wall is like a football free safety when he's an off-ball defender. He just sits back, reads passing lanes, and forces turnovers. He's also been in the league for a long enough time that he's well-disciplined in his craft, and doesn't straight-up gamble in passing lanes like so many other speedy guards.
- The pace-and-space strategy is paying off in huge ways for the Washington Wizards. John Wall is one of the smoothest, and maybe also the fastest, point guard in the open floor. That combination leads to a lot of easy buckets for him and his teammates. I neverr thought I'd be a fan of what Randy Wittman was doing as a coach, but here we are. He drew up a great ATO on that final play, too.
- I don't know if this is going to be a season-long thing, but Manu Ginobili looks terific right now. It's funny, overr the past 4 seasons, he's alternated between being Good Manu and Bad Manu. In 2011-12, it was Good Manu. In 2012-13 (And especially the Finals), it was Bad Manu. In 2013-14, Good Manu. In 2014-15, Bad Manu. Maybe (hopefully) he's just coming back to being Good Manu again.
- That final defensive possession, as I am sure many of you noticed, was a complete disaster. As you can see at the 0:03 point in the video below, there was a miscommunication on a switch between Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge. Because of this, Aldridge is late on the switch, and is sprinting to get to Bradley Beal. Beal sees him sprintinng, leverages Aldridge's defensive panic against him, steps back, and nails the 3. Ball game. It's one of those growing-pain type plays that are going to happen over the course of this season. It just happened at the most inopportune time of the game.
BEAAAAL pic.twitter.com/bW9DXlfGUE— James Herbert (@outsidethenba) November 5, 2015
In case you aren't watching, here's an accurate recap of Wizards-Spurs pic.twitter.com/78YpywCO3A— Quixem Ramirez (@quixem) November 5, 2015
ONE OF US ONE OF US GOOBLE GOBBLE GOOBLE GOBBLE https://t.co/FpD0CcGLYS— Tim C (@TimC_LA) November 5, 2015
Kyle Anderson’s beard needs work. Gotta coach up the young fella.— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) November 5, 2015
71% of the earth is covered by water. The rest is covered by Kawhi Leonard.— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) November 5, 2015
I don't even know what to write about him anymore. All my game stories are sounding the same. https://t.co/2zXwFR1k7p— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) November 5, 2015
He's the highest paid janitor in history https://t.co/jxeLMwj7Wb— Quixem Ramirez (@quixem) November 5, 2015
Spurs feeling like they can't put Wiz away. Wiz feeling like they just can't get over the hump. Spurs up 87-83 with 5:16 remaining.— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) November 5, 2015
Chef Tony was cooking on that play pic.twitter.com/QQJNr3YICf— Quixem Ramirez (@quixem) November 5, 2015
Not great, Spurs. pic.twitter.com/EQ0dpvwXow— Ian Dougherty (@IanDougherty) November 5, 2015