It's hard to remember it now, but no one could have reasonably predicted Kawhi Leonard was going to one day become one of the league's best 10 players. He fell in the draft because he didn't have the ball-handling or shooting ability to be a full time wing or the strength and height to play power forward. He was not an athletic freak or particularly tall for his position. Nothing suggested Kawhi Leonard was destined to be a traditional superstar.
His more likely career path was that of a defensive specialist, so it was a pleasant surprise when he developed a league-average three-point shot much earlier than anticipated. When his percentage held with more attempts, it was clear that lack of range was not going to be a problem.
Then his shot-making slowly got better. There was nothing fancy about it -- it was mostly simple post ups and straight line drives -- but Leonard went from not being a scorer in college to being able to create for himself in a pinch after just three years in the league. He was ahead of schedule.
With his defense -- his calling card -- reaching elite levels, Leonard seemed on his way to achieving his full potential as a very good two-way wing who could do a little bit of everything, the perfect third star any contender would love to have. He had maximized his strengths and improved on his weaknesses enough that they couldn't really be taken advantage of. For the first three years in the league, Leonard followed a traditional path of improvement and got close to what his ceiling was initially perceived to be.
Then he busted right through it.
Leonard has become one of the most efficient first options in the league, averaging 21 points per game with 51 percent shooting. He's also started to rain fire from outside. Leonard is taking more three-pointers than ever and connecting at a league-leading 47(!) percent. The numbers, as gaudy as they are, don't do him justice. He's showing an array of moves that would have seemed unattainable for the kid who couldn't dribble while at San Diego State.
His pull up jumper -- always a solid weapon -- is now almost impossible to defend. He's shooting over 46 percent, the third best mark among players averaging at least five attempts per game, and is adding variety to his release.
His ball handling has gone from being only useful in transition to helping him drive in straight lines to improving to the point in which he can get past several defenders using either hand.
His shooting has gone from a problem outside of the corners to a minor strength before suddenly becoming deadly from everywhere.
Kawhi's offensive game might seem to have to come out of nowhere but it has actually been years in the making. His growth has been methodical. He first focused on polishing his existing skills before developing new ones from the ground up. The spot up shooting led to the pull-up which led to the turnaround jumpshot which might be leading to a Dirk-esque one-legged jumper.
Leonard is like a video game character who starts out with some very generic and apparently prosaic skills only to unlock entirely new abilities with experience. Those bring along possibilities for growth that simply weren't there when he first started out. Kawhi has chased those possibilities and has added so much to his game that the scouting reports that once were accurate now look laughable in retrospect. He's just not the same player that started the journey.
Watching Leonard play is incredibly enjoyable without the need for context. It's exhilarating to see him track someone's dribble before picking their pocket or post up, take contact and sink a silky jumper. He takes over for stretches on both ends like few players can. Even non-Spurs fans can't deny how fun it is to witness Kawhi perform at peak level.
Those of us who have been here since the beginning, however, get the extra pleasure of remembering how those skills looked in their infancy. We get to track back the inception of that flashy new move that takes everyone by surprise. Because we saw him go from energy guy to superstar every new skill he flashes is exiting to see but not bewildering. We've seen him level up before.
The question now is how many unlockable skills still are there in his development tree. Will he start taking 28-footers like Stephen Curry? Driving and dishing to the corners like John Wall? Dreamshaking fools in the post? Nothing about his current skills suggest we should expect that but by now we've learned that when it comes to Kawhi Leonard nothing is out of the question.