Kawhi Leonard is a good, young basketball player. He is a defensive maven, routinely locking down the unlockable. He is an alchemist, turning hard-nosed defense into easy buckets on offense by forcing a mass amount of turnovers. Leonard also has a rapidly improving offensive game, as he's seemingly programming new dribble moves onto his hard drive every couple weeks, and is becoming a smarter, more efficient scorer every game. This is what we know.
What we don't know, however, is just how good he can become. Most players' perceived potential is assigned by draft position. Leonard was taken with the 15th overall pick in 2011, and experts everywhere figured he would become a productive player in the NBA, possibly a fringe All-Star. He blew everyone away when he defended LeBron James in the 2013 Finals, and then he did an equally good job on LeBron in 2014, becoming the youngest Finals MVP since Tim Duncan in 1999.
That MVP put everyone's expectations for his 2014-15 campaign sky-high. While it's taken him a while to get on track due to various injuries, since the Rodeo Road Trip ended, he has averaged 19.8 points per game on 54% from the field, shot 40% from beyond the arc, recorded 7.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and a flat-out ridiculous 3 steals per game.
To see how good this stretch has been, let's look at the numbers of pre-All-Star Break Jimmy Butler, another young, burgeoning wing star. Butler was given an All-Star nod after he took the league by storm, and became the Chicago Bulls' best player, averaging 20.4 points per game on 46.1% shooting, 34.2% from beyond the arc, 5.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 1.8 steals.
Kawhi's a career 36.6% three-point shooter, so the lights-out 40% he's been hitting recently might be a bit over his head. He's also not likely to shoot 54% from the field forever, his game currently has too many midrange jumpers for that, but he should hover around 50% thanks to his ability to post up, cut to the basket, and get easy baskets in transition.
The other figures though, could stay about the same. He's already getting 7.3 rebounds per game over the course of the season, so crashing the boards at a high level won't be a problem. His 3 steals per game is such an amazingly high number to try and keep up, but we've known that Leonard creates turnovers ever since he got into the league. On defense as a whole, he'll continue to be a nightmare to try to score against.
The area that he has improved the most, and the area where I'm most confident he'll continue to improve at a high rate, is his ability to create for others. While his assist numbers have improved, that doesn't tell the whole story. Every focal point of the Spurs' offense in recent history -- from David Robinson, to Tim Duncan, to Tony Parker -- has been a great passer. Although Leonard's not a naturally gifted passer, he's grown more comfortable in the offense and now knows where the best available pass is, and makes the decision quickly.
Normally, I'm tentative when it comes to declaring an improvement as legitimate. I don't like small sample sizes like Kawhi's recent surge, and usually wait for longer than I should before raising my expectations. That is not the case here. Following Kawhi's Finals MVP performance, and after this full month of him being healthy again, this type of performance is what I think we'll see from Leonard. He has proven to me that he is at least capable of playing at an All-Star level.
Whether he can be more than that remains to be seen.
Kawhi Leonard: 20 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists, 4 steals
Dan McCarney of the Express-News tweeted this earlier, but Kawhi is the first Spur to hit those numbers since David Robinson in 1994. This game was a culmination of sorts for Leonard, who has had a lot of strong scoring nights recently, but performed in every single aspect of the game against Atlanta.
NUMBERS ON THE BOARD
18: Turnovers for the Hawks. Atlanta averages 14.3 per game, but the Spurs took away their passing lanes and got out into transition.
60: Points in the paint for San Antonio. The Hawks normally have a great defense, but the Spurs were able to get into the lane at will. Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw in particular filled up the basket in the painted area, both providing their best offensive outings of the season.
44: Rebounds for the Spurs, to the Hawks' 29. Again, the Spurs won the battle in the paint. Everyone chipped in on the defensive glass, and Tiago Splitter had 5 of San Antonio's 10 offensive boards.
- It's been lost a little bit due to all the attention given to injuries to key players, a down year, and several other storylines this season, but Danny Green has been awesome this year. He's shooting 40% from the three-point line for the 4th straight year, all while taking more threes per game than he did last season. Green has also crashed the boards more, and looked more comfortable handling the ball on offense, which has lead to more scoring opportunities and better assist numbers. Oh, and he's just as much of a defensive stalwart, and is the reigning king of transition defense. While he's classified as a "role-player", Green's ability does so many things so well that he's in line to get a huge contract this summer.
- Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw both looked like their 2013-14 forms against the Hawks. Splitter scored a season-high 23 points on 10-14 from the field, and tallied 10 boards and 2 assists. Diaw, who was quiet in the first half but seemed to get riled up by the Hawks' Pero Antic in the second half, scored 17 points on 8-10 shots, spinning around and stepping through Atlanta's defense the entire time. Two great performances from players who have struggled all year. Maybe this is a sign that they can get it together before the playoffs.
- Marco Belinelli was another Spurs that had a nice game. He finished with 13 points on 4-7 from the field, including a couple big shots in the first quarter that helped propel San Antonio's initial surge in front of Atlanta. Belinelli finished with a pretty full stat sheet, also recording 5 rebounds, 2 assists, and a steal. A good rule of thumb for Sunday's game was this: If the player had a black uniform on, they played well.
- There was an Austin Daye sighting! If you haven't been keeping up with Daye's timeline much after he was cut by the Spurs on January 17 (following his swan-song in San Antonio, a thrashing of the Minnesota Timberwolves), he was signed by the Hawks to a 10-day contract on March 15. This marks only the second game he's played for Atlanta (He was a DNP-CD for the other 2 he was active for), and it wasn't much playing time, but as a genuine fan of Daye, it was nice to see him in some kind of action.
Hawks were feeling good, then the ice started to crack pic.twitter.com/VvygRgfLtk— David McGinnis (@dav_mcg) March 22, 2015
Korver drills his second three, looks like Baynes in down with an ankle injury.— Paul Garcia PS (@PaulGarciaPS) March 22, 2015
Former Elton Brand, Elton Brand— Patrick Fenelon (@Patrick_Fenelon) March 22, 2015
Kawhi Leonard is a ninja. https://t.co/FlcZlW6aiG— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) March 22, 2015
No one in Philips Arena is having more fun than that organist.— David McGinnis (@dav_mcg) March 22, 2015
Spurs East? More like Spurs LEast, amirite? West Spurs are still the Best Spurs. /shows self out.— Michael Erler (@MichaelErlerSBN) March 22, 2015
Coach Bud is now resting himself to get his assistants some more experience.— Jaryd Wilson (@JarydWilson) March 22, 2015
TiaGOAT (Greatest of All Tiagos)— David McGinnis (@dav_mcg) March 22, 2015
I should have known this, tho. I got really excited for this game and the Spurs love nothing more than to crush anything being fun/exciting— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) March 22, 2015
Triple-double alert: After 3 quarters in ATL, Kawhi Leonard has 17 pts., 10 RB, 7 assists— Mike Monroe (@Monroe_SA) March 22, 2015
Boris stumbled through the first 3/4 of the season like Han Solo out of carbon freeze, but seems to have his sight back now. Finally.— David McGinnis (@dav_mcg) March 22, 2015
*extremely Alicia Keys voice* THIS BOBO'S ON FIIIIIIIIIIRRRRRRRREEEEEEEEE!— Pounding the Rock (@poundingtherock) March 22, 2015
Austin Daye = still the Spurs' victory cigar.— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) March 22, 2015