When Kawhi Leonard made his #SLAMTop50 debut last year at no. 46, to the credit of many of our readers, the comments section was flooded with complaints that swore the swingman was ranked way too low for someone who was about to elevate his game to a whole new level in the 2013-14 season. It turned out they were right.
The writers who participated in assembling last year’s rankings evidently couldn’t quite gauge just how high Leonard’s game would rise after demonstrating glimpses of greatness in the 2013 NBA Finals—where he averaged a double-double of 14.6 points and 11.1 rebounds in his second season in the League and his first NBA Finals at the tender age of 21. Oh, and he was tasked with guarding LeBron James for seven games on that series. But the breakout season that many anticipated not only came to fruition in the 2013-14 campaign, it ended up exceeding everyone’s expectations.
Maybe it was that missed free throw in Game 6 that clouded Leonard’s outlook analysis for many.
In hindsight, I guess, it was a ‘Let me see him do it one more time this upcoming season’ to fully digest what his NBA Finals performance meant in the long haul.
A defensive specialist who’s also active on the boards, they said. Those were the scouting reports as he entered the 2011 NBA Draft. While his offense was viewed as work in progress with much upside, at best they said he could be a nice complimentary piece to an offense, and with the Spurs experienced Big Three in San Antonio, this looked like the best fit for Leonard’s development.
NBA Finals MVP as a 22-year old? The team’s second leading scorer during the Finals’ five-game series? Shooting 61.8 percent from the field? Fifty-eight percent from behind the arc?
How many of us saw this coming this soon?
This is a kid who’s certainly used to people sleeping on him and having to prove critics wrong. He wasn’t even offered a scholarship by any of the major collegiate programs, ultimately settling for San Diego State. He was never considered to have All-American potential. Labeled a four-star prospect by the recruiting analysts, Leonard’s story is one you naturally find yourself rooting for.
A kid whose father was shot to death in Compton when he was only 16, and still managed to get on the hardwood and post 17 points just 24 hours later at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion with his Riverside HS squad.
Only that kind of strength can persevere a kid to go from a mid-major program to holding up an MVP trophy at the grandest basketball stage there is in a matter of only three years.
How else do you go from shooting 47.2 percent from inside the arc and just 27.5 percent from outside the perimeter at SDSU in 2011 to improving to 63.3 percent and 57.9 percent respectively in the NBA Finals just three years later?
Even when analyzing his efficiency improvement from the 2012-13 season to last year, the numbers show the incredibly steady progress he’s made in such a small period. His two-point FG percentage increased 10.7 percent (from 47.2 to 57.9) and his three-point shooting rose 10.2 percent (27.5 to 37.6). That’s a 10 percent increase both inside and outside the arc in just one year. Most dudes would be elated to see their shooting improve that much throughout their careers.
To put it into perspective, it took James seven seasons to see his rookie FG percentage of 41.7 percent rise to 51.0 percent during the 2010-11 season—his first year in Miami. It took him nine seasons to increase his three-point percentage by 10. It took Kevin Durant four seasons for his behind-the-arc shooting percentage to increase by 10.
Not to be outdone on the defensive end, his defensive rating for the 2013-14 season of 98.2 ranked seventh in the League.
These numbers obviously aren’t the be-all, end-all in terms of comparisons (LBJ and KD are just simply much better players than Leonard in this planet and the next one—at this point, at least), but it does provide a good sense of just how quickly the L.A. native has improved his offense in a span of 360-plus days.
From averaging 15.2 points in his last season in college to 17.8 points in last June’s NBA Finals, Leonard went from a prospect who had all the physical tools to potentially develop at the next level—a statement you commonly hear around Draft time every year in regards to different players that are still viewed as raw offensively, and who usually never pan out—to one who now has shown to possess the complete package.
Not just underrated, the underpaid small forward only made $1.81 million last year.
So what now? Where does he go from here?
You guys already knew the answer to that during last year’s rankings.
|#SLAMTop50 Players 2014|
Rankings are based on expected contribution in ’14-15—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.