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In June of 2014, a 22 year-old Kawhi Leonard was tasked with the most difficult challenge he had faced so far in his short career; guarding the best basketball player on the planet, LeBron James. I’d like to imagine that when the soft-spoken Kawhi was told of his role in the 2014 NBA Finals, that he reacted like the emotionless robot that we see during games and interviews. His eyes didn’t widen with worry, his heart didn’t drop with fear, he didn’t throw his hands up in frustration. He looked at Coach Popovich and quietly said, "Okay".
During that Finals series, Kawhi rose to the challenge, rose higher, and then completely jumped over it. Given the impossible chore of containing LeBron James, Leonard’s defense was nothing short of amazing. Becoming the 3rdyoungest player in NBA history to win Finals MVP, he left an enormous impression as one of the premiere rising stars of the league.
Standing 6’7" with a ridiculous 7’3" wingspan, Kawhi Leonard is nearly a perfect basketball specimen. That, combined with his basketball instincts, makes him a nightmare for opposing offenses.
At this point in the season, Leonard ranks 8th in DefRtg among all rotation players (only including those who have played in at least half of their team’s games - 224 players qualify), per NBA.com. Thanks to Basketball Reference’s on/off court splits, we can tell that when Kawhi is off the court, the Spurs allow 105 points per 100 possessions from their opponent. With him on the court, this number drops to 99.3. This +5.7 differential is the highest of all Spur starters.
Kawhi’s length and versatility allow him to defend point-guards to forwards, and everything in between. His length especially is a huge advantage when defending against guards who are quicker than him, for more reasons than one.
His freakishly long arms give him the ability to keep his distance when guarding on the perimeter. He can stay back preventing his opponent from waltzing right around him on the drive, but can still extend to get a hand up to quickly contest the shot.
Additionally, the length helps when defending against smaller guards. Now, his job isn't to chase around the NBA's quickest point guards, but sometimes when faced with a switch or a ball pick-up in transition, he ends up guarding a player a ½ foot shorter than him.
When caught in this situation, he is still able to get low and smother the smaller opponent without much of a problem. With his gigantic 11.25 inch hands (Yes, the man’s hands are nearly a foot from thumb to pinky), his reach is long enough to get under the ball handler’s crossover, as he did here with a game-clinching steal against the Clippers in November of this season:
Even when defending a known maestro with the ball in Chris Paul, Kawhi sticks his baseball glove obnoxiously in the way of Paul’s cross-over, earning his 3rd steal of the game and ensuring the win for the Spurs.
He’s becoming better and better at keeping an opponent in front and poking the ball away, averaging just above two steals per contest this season.
Kawhi’s instincts seem to improve every time I watch him, like a sponge absorbing every drop of defensive strategy-juice that Coach Pop pours on him. His well-timed help side and proper rotation is essential to the Spurs’ suffocating defense, which currently ranks 3rd in the NBA, per NBA.com.
Now, Leonard's job is made slightly easier with the immortal Tim Duncan and always-improving Tiago Splittercontrolling the paint. But, the Spurs have an intricate system of helping, switching, and rotating, and if one player is out of sync, it can fall apart and lead to easy lay-ups and uncontested jump shots. His active hands and tenacious "I want that ball" attitude just about guarantee him at least one passing-lane steal per game leading to an easy fast break bucket.
It is possible for Kawhi to get beaten one-on-one, or perhaps get caught behind a pick, lose sight of his man, etc. But length and athleticism allow him to be able to recover in a way that only a handful of players in this league can do so. He’s strong enough to fight through screens, and lengthy enough to still contest a shot when trailing behind, sometimes leading to those from-behind blocks off the back-board that make Bill Land scream "OH MAMA!".
The most jaw-dropping thing about Kawhi’s defensive ability and constant improvement is that he is a mere 23 years old. After last year’s brilliant finals performance, young Leonard gained some well-deserved attention. Even though he’s a known rising star in the league, it’s safe to say he hasn’t hit his athletic prime, and is hopefully still four or five years away from his overall peak. A delightful thought for Spurs fans, and a scary thought for, well, everyone else.
After receiving NBA's All Defensive 2nd team honors this past season, I have a feeling that it’s the first of many defensive accolades to come as Kawhi's career progresses.
There is a certain appreciation that comes with a player like Kawhi Leonard. You won’t see any ludicrous celebration after a big-time bucket, or any outrageous antics after a monster block or fast break dunk. I’m even vaguely certain he doesn’t care that he’s just about the only player left in the league still rocking cornrows. He simply shows up, competes, and goes home. He plays basketball, in the most literal sense of the phrase, and it’s a beautiful thing. He was made for the Spurs. He is the epitome of the image that the Spurs have built over these past 15 years; He’s smart, defensive-minded, and his productivity can be easily over-looked. With Kawhi Leonard in a Spurs’ uniform, the future still looks bright in San Antonio.