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Leonard’s path to superstardom is rockier than it appears

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San Antonio’s best player is still learning, still making mistakes, and still improving.

NBA: Washington Wizards at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that the Spurs are relying a lot on Kawhi Leonard at both ends of the floor these days. He’s their best player by a mile, a full-fledged superduperstar, and was fully deserving of his second-place finish in last season’s Most Valuable Player voting.

And yet, even though he’s in the midst of his of his sixth season, there’s the realization that Leonard is still not in his prime, which is a double-edged sword in that it’s both a terrifying prospect for opponents but also frustrating at times for us spoiled Spurs fans as we witness his growing pains. Remember, it’s really only his third year as their top banana, and even in 2014-15, Tony Parker was still their main ball-handler.

Leonard is still learning on the job, adjusting to different play calls and various opponents and defensive schemes and having to do so with a handful of new teammates, the majority of whom are also rookies experiencing the NBA for the first time. For the most part, he’s handled all of this adversity with all the aplomb you’d expect of a Spurs headliner. San Antonio is 16-4, after all, and he’s averaging career-bests in points-per-game (24.3), assists (3.0) and PER (26.7). He ranks ninth in PER, tenth in Real Plus-Minus Adjusted Wins and seventh in Real-Adjusted Plus-Minus, whereas he was seventh, seventh and fifth respectively in those categories last season.

Leonard’s been incredibly efficient in the pick-and-roll and struggled mightily in isolation. While I understand the sentiment that you don’t want to overload him and put too much on Leonard’s plate, I’ve argued that it’s important to expand his repertoire as much as possible, to get “reps” in a variety of situations —especially when it’s late and close— and to not be boxed in by perceived strengths and weaknesses. When one is as talented as Leonard is, has demonstrated the growth, work ethic and hunger to improve that he has, and shown the consistent development in his game that he has, its unwise to put any kind of restrictions on him, especially considering the limitations of the roster around him.

The problem with this, is that Leonard’s path to greatness will be pockmarked with speed-bumps. There will be ugly plays, and they won’t so easily be identified as some awful pass thrown directly at a defender. There is nuance here, a wide-ranging spectrum between “good” and “bad” where process matters more than result.

Eli Horowitz had a typically thorough and excellent breakdown of Leonard’s game-winning shot against the Wizards, but before I offer my thoughts on that I want to contrast it with the two previous Spurs possessions in the final minute of that game.

Here’s the first one, with the Wizards up 103-102 following Bradley Beal’s fifth three of the game. The clip only shows the latter half of the play, but basically what happened was Leonard found himself being guarded by Marcin Gortat on a switch. Perhaps this surprised him, we won’t ever know. But Leonard tried clearing space with a couple of moves, and when that didn’t work he inexplicably tried posting up the considerably taller, beefier “Polish Hammer.”

As you might guess, this wasn’t effective, so after wasting almost the entirety of the shot clock, Leonard finally hot-potatoed the ball to Patty Mills for a desperation shot. Luckily, LaMarcus Aldridge was able to rebound it, and though his board work has been sub-par this season, stealing another possession here probably saved the Spurs from another home loss. (Coincidentally enough, Aldridge turned the same trick in the very next game at Milwaukee.) Anyway, Leonard not only had a really rough possession in this sequence but he was also so unaware enough of his surroundings that he had no idea Pop was pleading for him to take a time out after the rebound.

But things change quickly in the NBA, and we saw the very best of Leonard —and Pop— on the sideline out-of-bounds play the Spurs used to regain the lead.

Using a screen from Aldridge to force the bothersome Otto Porter Jr. into a trail position, Leonard catches a Manu Ginobili pass aimed for the corner because it allows him to catch and turn baseline in one smooth motion, knowing he’s got Porter on his off hip and caught flat-footed. Again Porter is behind the play but now from other direction, and from this point, Leonard has three options. He can A) finish the play himself if there’s no help, B) swing baseline to Mills (a variation of the “Hammer” play the Spurs often use in times like these) if he’s got a clear passing lane, or C) if the weak side defender has rotated over to Mills, then make the diagonal pass to Danny Green himself. He chose wisely, picking “B” after Gortat shuffled over to contest the would-be layup. Not quite sure what John Wall or Marcus Morris were thinking on the play, but that’s really not our problem, is it?

Finally we come to the game-winner.

Eli went through it all better than I can (and if you haven’t read it, you should), but I can’t stress enough how this was the ultimate bad process/good result play. I find it simply unfathomable that Popovich would call such a play in that situation —a tie game— where a 22-footer with six seconds remaining, even a semi-open one, is the desired result.

My guess is that he was supposed to use the space afforded him by Aldridge’s moving screen (Porter should’ve simply collided into it to get the whistle instead of navigating around it) to again get Porter on his back hip and drive toward the paint. From there he’d have the option of shooting a floater over the bigs or perhaps drawing contact for free-throws, or dishing it off to Mills on the left wing or maybe finding Aldridge around the basket if he can make the pass around the onrushing big-men.

The main thing is all those alternatives would’ve taken more time off the clock and reduced the odds of the Wizards getting the last shot. What we got instead was the type of head-scratching long-two we’d normally associate with someone like Rudy Gay or Monta Ellis.

So that’s two “bad” plays out of three in the final minute, and on one of them he hit the jumper that won the game. There are worse fates. It’s just the latest example that the growth curve of any player, even Leonard’s, may look linear in the macro sense, but when you zoom in you’ll notice that steady incline is filled with hundreds if not thousands of microscopic descents along the way.

What’s great about Leonard is that not only does he possess the athleticism and talent to overcome many of his mistakes in games, but also the hunger and humility (or “coachability” some might call it) to absorb the lessons that come from those missteps so he can learn from them and not repeat them.