What Is Kawhi Leonard's Actual Ceiling with the San Antonio Spurs?

Fred Katz@@FredKatzFeatured ColumnistJuly 29, 2014

Kawhi Leonard is so close.

The 2014 NBA Finals MVP averaged 17.8 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game in the San Antonio Spurs' five-game gentleman's sweep of the Miami Heat. After three years of teasing us with his all-world ability, we finally saw Leonard break out on the big stage, even if it was just for a week-and-a-half. 

Leonard had always been more than just a contributor before the Finals. He simply never put up the gaudy numbers everyone knew he could, after most of the world predicted his stats would blow up in each of the last two years. Still, the third-year pro's numbers remained relatively consistent—finishing the 2013-14 regular season averaging 15.8 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.1 steals per 36 minutes, superb considering his defensive prowess but not in the superstar realm.

When you go off for 29 points in Game 3, you're starting to hit that level. When you post a ridiculous 75.5 true shooting percentage in the NBA Finals, you're getting closer. But are expectations going to become too high for someone who's made his career playing off the ball?

Leonard is just 23 years old. Even if his destiny is to become one of the NBA's upper-echelon players, it may not happen in the upcoming year, and that has to do with his role on the Spurs as much as anything else.



Even Leonard's biggest fans have to be a little worried about potential backlash during the upcoming season. Expectations have never been higher for the NBA Finals MVP. The Paul George comparisons make sense in so many aspects now.

Remember back in November, when we universally decided that George had made the jump to becoming a top-five NBA player? That was when we were touting the Pacers small forward as a potential MVP candidate, someone who could be—at the very least—the clear third choice behind Kevin Durant and LeBron James in the voting.

But then George cooled down.

After witnessing another short hot streak, we're in danger of draping the same unrealistic expectations upon Leonard's shoulders.

What George and Leonard share in narrative, they also share in style.

Both were undervalued coming out of non-power-conference schools when they entered the draft. Both are fierce defenders, shooters and finishers at the rim, but neither player is a guy who can really dominate as a ball-handler, though George has improved over the past couple years. 

Namely, neither guy is much of a distributor, and though George's handle has gotten better, the extra NBA season he has on Leonard and the far more prominent role he plays within his team's offense bring him further along in his development.

Leonard still isn't creating off the dribble.

Part of that has to do with the Spurs offense. Aside from the guards (Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Patty Mills), you don't really see anyone in San Antonio dribbling all too much. That's part of the beauty of the Spurs machine.

Even a star like Tim Duncan has turned into a screen-setter over all else. Duncan lays picks, darts to the hoop, pops to open areas, moves off the ball and grabs offensive rebounds. In those ways, he gets his points, but San Antonio hardly ever tosses the ball down low and tells him to back his defender down. And he's as big a star as you're going to find. 

It's a guard-heavy offense in that sense. That's the European influence within Gregg Popovich's attack, and because of that, we don't see Leonard getting handsy with the rock often. 

Part of Leonard's effectiveness within the offense comes from his ability to realize his role, one as a spot-up shooter, cutter and ball-mover on the perimeter. Even after Pop mentioned that Kawhi could be the future "face of the Spurs," Leonard maintained his quiet modesty.

"Yeah, I heard it," he told ESPNLosAngeles.com's Ramona Shelburne during the Finals. "But it doesn't mean anything to me right now. I'm a role player, and we're competing for a championship this year. Whatever unfolds in the years to come is what happens."

That's Kawhi's personality—never the loudest person in the room—and his game reflects that.

Leonard has an shown occasional ability to shoot off the dribble. He sunk 42.5 percent of his pull-up jumpers during the regular season, in line with the percentages of Rudy Gay and Kevin Durant, though clearly on far fewer attempts.

Leonard took just 2.6 pull-up jumpers per game this year, compared to twice as many for Gay and more than three times as many for Durant. The Spurs offense simply isn't allowing for those types of shots unless a) the shot clock is winding down or b) the defense is giving the Spurs open, mid-range attempts. Leonard isn't taking guys off the bounce all that often.

When he scores in the paint, it's often on the break or off cuts where his teammates find him. When he has an open lane to the hoop, he'll get there, but he won't necessarily drive by someone or beat the help.

That's not because he can't. Again, it just isn't what the offense allows him to do. 

Leonard shot 51.9 percent on drives to the hoop last season. The Spurs averaged about 1.2 points per Leonard drive, another elite number. But just like with those pull-up shots, Leonard wasn't driving all too often.

Parker, meanwhile, finished second in the league in that stat last season. It's all about the guards in that offense.

We talk about young players' ceilings all the time, but in San Antonio, that term has a different meaning.

When you're a forward playing in a guard-dominant offense on a team that didn't have one player who averaged more than 30 minutes a night last season, you're not going to put up huge numbers, regardless of your offensive prowess. And Leonard has become quite the offensive player in his own right, even if he's not killing guys with his one-on-one game.



Talk about a transformation. Leonard has become one of the best shooters on one of the NBA's best shooting teams. 

He hit 37.9 percent of his 3.4 threes per 36 minutes last year. He's a 37.6 percent career shooter from long range and can stretch the floor from all over. It's not like he just gets hot from one place.

His percentages from above the break are shockingly in line with his ones from the corners. He's a versatile three-point shooter, especially on catch-and-shoot attempts.

He's probably not going to pull up on you or cross you over and then chuck up a fadeaway. No, Kawhi kills you off the ball, finds space, lets others create and sinks three ball after three ball, hitting 38.2 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes this past season.

Leonard couldn't always shoot. Quite the opposite, actually. In college, he was relatively incapable of scoring away from the hoop. 

Kawhi made just 25 percent of his three-point attempts in his two seasons playing for Steve Fischer at San Diego State.

He posted an awful 37.4 percent adjusted field-goal percentage on spot-up shots as a sophomore, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). He paired that with a dreadful 37.1 percent adjusted field-goal percentage on jumpers overall. 

Then, Leonard met his shooting savior:

Chip Engelland is just another hot name stemming from Pop's bench after his work with Leonard, Danny Green and Parker thrust him into the public eye. Now, new coaches like Steve Kerr and Quin Snyder are going after him. And Leonard is the main trophy in Engelland's case.

At San Diego State, Leonard used to bring the ball back over his head when he shot. Any coach will tell you that's the wrong way to go about it, considering it can make your release slower while also killing accuracy. Now, Engelland has taught him to keep it more in front of his forehead, and the accuracy has paid off majorly.

In a way, Leonard's shooting has to do with confidence as much as anything else. I know, seems too simple, doesn't it?

His hesitance to shoot was almost Thabo Sefolosha-like in college. He'd do everything short of sending out a radar just to make sure no one was around him before attempting a jumper.

Add on that slow release, which took even more time because Leonard had to raise the ball higher on his head than he does currently, and anyone could close out on him. That's how he hit a below-average 31 percent of his guarded catch-and-shoot jumpers as a sophomore, per Synergy.

Now it's all different.

With a quicker, more confident release, Leonard has gained accuracy. Synergy says he sunk 38.5 percent of his guarded catch-and-shoot jumpers this year, better than 81 percent of the league.



The defensive end is where Leonard makes his money. Guarding larger wings on a nightly basis allows the Spurs to operate exactly how they prefer.

A common misconception about Leonard is that he is an elite athlete, which isn't completely true. He's a solid athlete, someone who can hold his own when he guards the Kevin Durants and LeBron Jameses of the world, but he's not a top-tier guy, as partly evidenced by his mediocre 32-inch vertical at the NBA combine.

He's not someone who's always going to dunk on guys in traffic—though he'll certainly try. And he's not someone who is going to come skying in help defense to block shots. Instead, Leonard uses the athleticism he has to stick with guys on the ball and lets his smarts take care of the rest.

The Spurs' bigs sag back on the pick-and-roll often, especially when Duncan's man is setting a pick. (When Tiago Splitter's man lays a screen, they're a little more aggressive.) Leonard's intelligence on the pick-and-roll allows the Spurs to play that more conservative style, sagging off the ball-handler and forcing him into uncomfortable, mid-range shots off the dribble. 

Leonard has this uncanny ability to beat a ball-handler to a spot and then body check the offensive player to cut off his driving lane. Part of why he's so capable in that sense is because of his ability to fight over screens and stay within an arm's length of the dribbler, like on this high pick-and-roll from James in Game 5 of the Finals:

Per usual, Duncan "zones up" the screen-and-roll as James attempts to drive by, but you can see Leonard anticipate where James is heading. He knows opposing players' tendencies so well that he's able to get to those spots with confidence.

With that, Udonis Haslem sets another screen, James tries the same play on the other side, runs into Duncan and finishes with a horrible, dually contested, off-balance look at the rim as the shot clock winds down.

Without Leonard, the Spurs don't force that miss against the most intimidating penetrator in the league.

It's a learned skill, but Leonard is already elite against the pick-and-roll. Considering offensive players shot just 34.1 percent from the field when they isolated against him this past season, per Synergy, it's not just Leonard's smarts that make him a deserving All-Defense Team member, though he's never actually been named to one of those squads.

He may only be 6'7", but a 7'3" wingspan makes him a beast on the ball. Plus, those hands. Yes, those ginormous hands.

The always insightful Zach Lowe of Grantland brands Leonard a "Mirror Guy":

A Mirror Guy reacts to the moves of his mark, both on and off the ball, with such perfect timing and balance that it almost appears as if the offensive player is working against his own reflection. Kawhi Leonard might be emerging as the league’s best perimeter Mirror Guy.

Kawhi's massive paws make that style much easier to execute. Still, it's more about carrying out what they call "scouting report defense." He simply knows the opposition's tendencies, and because of that along with his physical tools, the 23-year-old is well on his way to becoming the NBA's best perimeter defender (if he isn't already there).


Where Does He Rank?

"Superstar" is an odd term in some ways, considering that the main requirement is arguably fame. In some ways, it doesn't necessarily matter what any given player is doing on the court to earn that label.

Because of that, we judge commercial appearances, playing in big markets and other related traits. Even when we look at on-court production, we tend to credit mainstream numbers like points per game and rebounds per game. That sort of societal mentality makes it particularly difficult to become a low-usage superstar, but in a way, that's where Leonard is headed.

Kawhi used only 18.3 percent of his team's possessions this past season, a below-average number but still the highest figure of his three-year career. And considering how little he looked to score, Leonard had a historically notable season.

No qualifying wing player has averaged as many points per 36 minutes and has posted Leonard's rebound rate while using so few possessions since Los Angeles Clippers forward Cedric Maxwell in 1985-86, according to Basketball-Reference's play index.

That's the uniqueness Leonard brings to a team. You look at his numbers and, if you didn't know who he was, you wouldn't even think he was a wing player.

It's not like no one can match Kawhi's numbers in those categories. Actually, Brandan Wright and Terrence Jones did it just last season.

Nene posted those numbers in 2008-09. Keep scrolling down the list and you'll see a litany of power forwards and centers. Statistically, that's what Kawhi is: He's a big. But that's not the role he fills.

The numbers bear similarities because big men, like Leonard, tend to play without the ball. That's the difference between Kawhi and your average superstar: We usually evaluate superstars on how they take over with the rock in their hands: James, Carmelo Anthony, Durant, Chris Paul, etc.

All those guys are ball-dominant players. Leonard has a chance to reach some of those guys in quality, but he may have a superstar ceiling—at least in reputation—lower than any of them because of his style.

Kawhi is basically the NBA's premiere 3-and-D player.

He defends better than anyone. He will out-rebound almost any other small forward in the league—his 12.1 percent rebound rate put him in the top 10 of players that ESPN classifies as small forwards. He's an undercover kind of superstar, sort of the Ben Zobrist of the NBA.

Except Leonard is only 23 years old. This is only the base for what he can become in the future. But let's just make sure not to push him into mainstream superstardom too soon, a la Paul George.

Leonard isn't the type of personality who cracks under the pressure. Clearly. He's undergone far more brutal periods in his real life than ones that anyone could suffer on a basketball court. But expectations tend to dictate perception, and winning NBA Finals MVP has set the expectations dramatically higher for Leonard's fourth season.

People are going to expect "the leap," something fans were actually waiting for last year and the year before that, eventually failing to see obvious improvements during the regular season. Chances are Leonard makes that jump at some point in the future, but it may not happen right away. So for now, let's just all sit back and watch the 3-and-D superstar dominate in one of the most unusual ways a star can: without the ball.


Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com, WashingtonPost.com or on ESPN's TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are current as of July 29 and courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.


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