What’s most remarkable about Kawhi Leonard’s improvement through the course of his five NBA seasons is how steady it’s been. He began his career as a defensive specialist who rarely shot, and only did so when it made sense within the flow of an offense built around Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili.
In every year since then, his usage, scoring, and efficiency have all gradually ticked up at nearly linear rates to the point that he’s now the Spurs most relied upon player. If it wasn’t for his obvious talent, it’d be surprising. For years, the Spurs have groomed him to become their next superstar, and they haven’t thrust it upon him as much as slowly bent the shape of their offense to accommodate Leonard as smoothly as possible.
Take last night’s destruction of the Nuggets. Leonard finished just one steal shy of a 5 x 5, with 25 points, seven rebounds, six assists, five blocks, and four steals. He hampered Danilo Gallinari all game, but also was the offensive focal point. The Spurs frequently isolated Leonard on the left block and he took Denver apart rather casually. Watch how he seems to glide to the spot he wants and dispatches would be defenders with ease.
Perhaps even more sneakily, Leonard has improved as a defender as well. He is blocking more shots this year, and leading the team with a gaudy defensive rating of 91. That stat can be misleading, as it’s near impossible to accurately differentiate an individual’s contributions to team defense in a 16-game sample size, but for Kawhi it almost sells him short. He’s good for at least five or six extra possessions per game, and he can now capably lead fast breaks as well as anyone else on the team.
The Spurs are still working on integrating LaMarcus Aldridge fully into their team, but at 13-3, they have the luxury of not having to hurry that process along. Aldridge is shooting as infrequently as he ever has, save his rookie season, and the team will only get better as he’s more thoroughly merged into the offense. San Antonio is steady Spursing along, as they do.
Photo via AP