As twilight threatens to turn into night on the careers of Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, this year's playoffs have showcased two bright, young small forwards who look capable of shining for many seasons to come.
San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard is no stranger to ardent basketball fans after starting 39 games as a rookie for Gregg Popovich, which stands as an incredible achievement in itself. But his 57 percent shooting and double-double threat this postseason have introduced his skills to a much bigger national audience.
And in the Spurs' second-round clash with the Golden State Warriors, Stephen Curry is not the only youngster wowing fans. Leonard's opposite position, Dubs SF Harrison Barnes, is cast in the same mold. Both players can play stout defense, hit the perimeter jumper and pile up the rebounds.
So with San Antonio barely surviving double overtime in Game 1, who will win the battle of the budding young small forwards, Leonard or Barnes?
By the Numbers
Harrison Barnes posted very impressive numbers in his rookie season. Coming from a storied North Carolina program, Barnes averaged 9.2 points on 43.9 percent shooting, 4.1 rebounds and 25.4 minutes per game.
Oddly, the seventh overall pick saw his numbers decline in the 30 games after the All-Star break, so perhaps the scouting reports caught up to him.
As for Leonard, he has blossomed into a dangerous swingman with the size to bang down low as well as the length to hit threes and guard the perimeter.
Though he missed 24 games due to injury this year (including cutting his knee on a nail playing at the Philadelphia 76ers, per Mike Monroe of Spurs Nation), he looks to be fit as a fiddle now.
After a solid rookie campaign, the 21-year-old out of San Diego State racked up some sterling numbers this year to the tune of 11.9 points on 49.4 percent shooting, six boards and nearly two steals per game.
At a glance, Leonard proves to be the superior scorer, shooter and rebounder, though not by a very wide margin.
By the More Complicated Numbers
Kawhi Leonard finished the season with the 14th-best player efficiency rating among small forwards, comparable to Danilo Gallinari and Paul George.
Barnes, on the other hand, finished with the 45th-best PER, worse than Luke Walton and Steve Novak (via ESPN.com). Granted, Barnes' numbers put him near obviously talented players like Gerald Wallace and Iman Shumpert, but ranking 45th at your position signifies a need to improve in efficiency.
Both players have the range to hit from the mid-range and perimeter, but one is much better at it than the other. Leonard's shot selection included 67 percent jump shots to 71 percent for Barnes, but the former knocked down half of them. Barnes only sank his jumpers at a 41.6 percent clip (per 82games.com).
Though Barnes does have a smooth shot and Leonard benefits from the Spurs' excellent ball movement, there's no denying that Leonard is the better shooter. He feasts on the corner three-pointer and still possesses the size to fight down low.
Under the Bright Lights
After David Lee's hip gave out, young pup Harrison Barnes stepped up to the plate and flashed his skills.
Barnes attempted four field goals in 28 minutes during Game 1. After replacing Lee, Barnes averaged more than 13 shots and 37 minutes a night over the final five games of the series.
The rookie moved from the 3 to the 4 against the formidable frontcourt of the Denver Nuggets and played very well for the most part. He stumbled in the Warriors' Game 4 victory, managing just four points on 2-of-9 shooting and getting himself into foul trouble, but he bounced back in Game 5 with 23 and nine.
Kawhi, however, has 14 games of experience from last year's postseason campaign, giving him a big advantage over the Golden State rookie. The Spurs won 10 straight playoff games before Oklahoma City Thunder went nuclear and blew San Antonio out of the postseason.
The kid from Los Angeles proved that he was ready for the prime time even as a rookie, hitting 50 percent of his field goals and 45 percent of his three-pointers in the playoffs. He's been even better against Golden State in this series, averaging 14.5 points on 12-of-22 shooting with 10.5 boards.
Prediction: Leonard Win with a Second-Round Knockout
Barnes turned in the better evening in Game 1, with 19 points (8-of-14 shooting) and 12 rebounds to 18 points (7-of-11) and nine boards for Leonard. But Kawhi also grabbed a game-high four offensive rebounds, proving his tenacity.
In Game 2, Leonard ground out a double-double that included seven offensive rebounds in a losing effort, but he also missed four of his five free throws after shooting 82.5 percent during the season.
Barnes was held to 5-of-14 shooting and only three rebounds; he launched five three-pointers and missed all of them, but Klay Thompson made nearly all of his for the Warriors' first win in San Antonio since 1997.
Unfortunately, this is not a head-to-head matchup between the two players, as their length and quickness makes them versatile enough to defend multiple positions, but they will still battle each other for prolonged periods.
Perhaps Barnes needs to live in the weight room this offseason, as his 4.1 rebounds per game leaves plenty to be desired from a 6'8" forward. At just 210 pounds, opposing forwards can move him around with ease. After all, Barnes only outweighs 6'3" sixth man Jarrett Jack by 13 pounds.
It will be interesting to watch how Barnes builds on his strong rookie campaign, but he can't quite match up with Kawhi yet. Though the Warrior has a one-inch height advantage, Leonard outweighs him by at least 15 pounds.
Leonard will win this round of the battle, as the heftier rebounder and superior shooter. But Barnes may have a higher ceiling, and his storyline is more captivating as he's effectively replaced Lee, the Dubs' only All-Star.
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