Wednesday, September 25th, 2013 at 3:00 pm  |  81 responses

Top 50: Kawhi Leonard, no. 46

The Playoffs were no fluke, Leonard is the truth.

by Peter Walsh

While future Hall of Famers Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were the driving force behind the Spurs’ 2013 playoff run, it was Kawhi Leonard who had the most eye-opening performance during San Antonio’s epic Finals matchup with the Heat. Throughout the ’12-13 regular season, the second-year pro played his part by deferring to his teammates offensively and locking up the opponent’s best perimeter player on the other end. But once the Playoffs hit and the pressure mounted, Leonard stepped his game up and averaged 13.5 points and 9 boards (up from 11.9 and 6 during the regular season) while leading the team in minutes played, setting the bar high for his upcoming campaign.

Unfortunately, Leonard’s outstanding Finals showing won’t be remembered for his vicious dunk over Mike Miller or the effort he put forth defending the best basketball player on the planet. No, the Cali native’s breakout performance will be remembered for one play—a crucial missed free throw.

For those with short memories: Leonard stepped to the line in Game 6 with 19 seconds left and the Spurs up by two. Had he hit both, the Spurs would have been in position to clinch the franchise’s fifth Championship. But Leonard bricked the first to put the Spurs up by three, giving the Heat a chance with the clock winding down.

From there, Ray Allen hit one of the most incredible shots in NBA history; the Heat won Game 6 in overtime; went on to win their second straight Championship with a Game 7 dub; and popped bottles at club Story until the wee hours of the morning. Of course, all blame can’t be put on Leonard—who bounced back quickly from that miss and scored four out of the five Spurs’ points in overtime of Game 6—but it’s easy for talking heads and the like to make the least experienced of the Spurs’ core the scapegoat.

What does all of this mean for Kawhi Leonard heading into the ’13-14 season?

It means Leonard will be playing with a mammoth-sized chip on his shoulder, ready to dispel any thoughts of him as a “choke artist.”

At 6-7 with a 7-3 wingspan and monstrous hands, Leonard is already a terror on defense (the look of agony LeBron gave when he realized Leonard was re-entering the game during the Finals speaks volumes to the young man’s defensive prowess). Combine that with a burgeoning offensive skillset, a high basketball IQ, and a tremendous feel for the game and you have one of the emerging two-way players in the L.

Even better, Leonard is a total basketball junkie. Just look at what Gregg Popovich had to say about him during an interview with NBA.com:

“I think he’s going to be a star. And as time goes on, he’ll be the face of the Spurs I think. At both ends of the court, he is really a special player. And what makes me be so confident about him is that he wants it so badly. He wants to be a good player, I mean a great player. He comes early, he stays late, and he’s coachable, he’s just like a sponge. When you consider he’s only had one year of college and no training camp yet, you can see that he’s going to be something else.”

Considering the ornery coach isn’t one to BS, the rest of the NBA should be on notice and realize that Leonard is the truth.

Leonard is a total throwback player, from his style of play to his hair-do. He is the prototypical Spurs player—a low-key, team-oriented guy who quietly climbs up the ranks until he is suddenly taking over games and every other GM and coach in the League is left shaking their head wondering how they could have missed out on this kid.

While his lockdown defensive ability should have him on the radar for the All-Defensive team and Defensive Player of the Year lists, Leonard’s offensive output will depend on how many touches he gets a game. Last season, little to no offensive sets were drawn up for Leonard; nine times out of ten, he ran straight to the corner and either found himself open for a 3-pointer, reacting to his teammates and getting a sneaky bucket or crashing the offensive glass. With Duncan, Parker and Ginobili all back, his touches will likely be limited once again, though Pop surely has a few tricks up his sleeve for his future star. Don’t be surprised if Leonard finds himself in rhythm and quietly drops 20+ a few times a month.

If Leonard stays healthy (he played in only 58 games last season thanks to knee and quad injuries), expect a Paul George-esque leap into the NBA’s elite. Leonard’s ’13-14 campaign could include his first All-Star selection, a Most Improved Player award and a spot on the All-Defensive First-Team—seriously, the sky’s the limit.

Where should Kawhi Leonard rank in the SLAM Top 50?

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SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2013
Rank Player Team Position Pos. Rank
50 Monta Ellis Mavs SG 5
49 Luol Deng Bulls SF 10
48 Ricky Rubio TWolves PG 14
47 Greg Monroe Pistons PF 12
46 Kawhi Leonard Spurs SF 9

Rankings are based on expected contribution in ’13-14—to players’ team, the League and the game.

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  • Junior Taylor

    A lot of people expect Leonard to take over the helm whenever TD retires but I just don’t see him as that “guy” in terms of being a franchise player. He is already a great defender but lacks the offensive prowess to be the go-to guy for the Spurs over the next decade. I see him more as a Scottie-like player, great as a 2nd banana but not as dominant when forced to carry the load (even though Pip did just that when MJ retired the 1st time).

  • LakeShow


  • Dundler

    Great write-up. Especially him as a prototypical Spurs guy, which is absolutely correct and probably why I love him as a player. Has got exactly the right attitude.
    I’d have him higher personally, but I’m very high on him. Great defender, good rebounder for his size, and an undiscovered scorer when he wants. He legitmately just took Lebron a couple of times in the Finals

  • Dundler

    Agree completely. And Scottie isn’t a bad thing to aim for

  • underdog

    Well, he’s certainly not that guy, yet. But he still could be.

  • shockexchange

    Kawhi was smokin’ that “Scottie Pippen” during the Finals – scoring from mid-range, banging on opponents and going toe-to-toe with The Kang on defense. It’s good to see a throw-back type of player get recognition. Coming in early to study the “LeBron Rules” also shows a lot of maturity.

  • Peter Walsh

    Scottie Pippen is Top 50 player in NBA history.

  • TR

    Such a solid player. Kind of hope Pop takes off the cuffs a little. I wanna see if he has any playmaking ability off the dribble or if he is just a slasher and spot up shorter on offense(very good at both i might add).

  • Stepfan Raiford

    My only problem with this write up…”ready to dispel any thoughts of him as a “choke artist.” Manu was terrible down the stretch; but you expect Manu, who has been to the finals to make free throws down the stretch, and someone who has been in the “moment” aka “winning time” to deliver. Kawhi arguble could have won the Finals MVP if they won. I don’t see him as a choke artist. Now I’m very curious to see Paul George’s rank since he made a similar leap in the playoffs.

  • danpowers

    i dont know if leonard is better than deng yet, but he definitely belongs into the top 50.

  • spit hot fiyah

    not surprised that he is this low considering that the slam top 50 is notorious for undervaluing defense. the guy gets better almost every time i see him play so there is no reason to think that he wont have an even better year in 13-14.

    he was a top 5 player in the finals and already one of the league’s best perimeter defenders.

    how many slam writers contributed? based on averages, some writers must have had him outside the top 50

  • spit hot fiyah

    it’s not about yet, it as about next year

  • danpowers

    thats what i mean. i am totally convinced that leonard will be a star in the league. just not so sure if this is going to happen this coming season. whatever, if he does, id be glad. there is nothing not to like about that kid.

  • spit hot fiyah

    got u

  • Saleem Rainman

    Love this dude

  • Saleem Rainman

    he’ll surprise the heck outta u then, either a top guy, or a very very good second guy

  • Junior Taylor

    And? What does that have to do with my comment? Why is it that whenever someone is compared to Pip, people look at it like some kind of diss to Pip or the player? LeBron was compared to Pip not too long ago.

  • Dundler

    Thats a great point. If the Spurs win that game I think Leonard had a great chance of Finals MVP

  • Dundler

    Where is NBK? I’m about to actually try write my definitive Top 50, but I’m not doing it without him to tear it to shreds

  • http://twitter.com/sooperfadeaway nbk

    lol i’m here just observing

  • Dundler

    What was that site you used for yours the other day? I’ll link to that instead of taking up space here

  • http://twitter.com/sooperfadeaway nbk
  • Enigmatic

    Yeah the same thought crossed my mind. I love Leonard and he’s going to be great. But I don’t think he’ll be better than Deng (yet) this upcoming season.

  • http://twitter.com/sooperfadeaway nbk

    i edited mine again, took Ty Lawson out altogether (the more i think about him, the less i value what he brings to the table) and moved everyone else up a slot.


  • Dundler

    Wow thats a big move. I’m still deliberately. I have way too many arguments for all of them. 5-10 is a minefield

  • Cortez Mack

    Scottie did just fine as the “main guy” when Jordan left. He upped his production across the board.

    ..maybe Pippen simply needed a…


  • http://twitter.com/sooperfadeaway nbk

    prioritize. make however many “priorities” you have, give each a value of 1-5 – then give each player a value within each priority (or however many players you are considering – value of 10 at most) – and then list players based on the aggregate

  • BugEyes

    Dude got some mitts now
    he needs a nickname?
    Bananna hands?

  • i_ball

    My thought exactly.

    If Deng and Kawhi swap teams right now, which team would win out of the trade for next season (It’s obvious Kawhi the team with Kawhi wins in the long run)?

  • Dundler

    I’ve got my 50, now its a matter of arranging

  • http://twitter.com/sooperfadeaway nbk

    that’s what i meant. use a list of values to determine how you arrange your list. i used “impact on winning” – “production” – “role in the team” to guess from 6-20

  • danpowers

    tough one to answer. i didnt see leonard having to carry a heavier load on offense for a longer stretch. i could actually just guess if he is better at creating his own shot than deng. but i would be suprised, if leonard wouldnt be better at that in the long run.

  • Dundler

    No doubt I will rearrange this countless times as I take the time to think about it, but quickly done this is mine: http://scribbless.com/lists/list/171920

  • http://twitter.com/sooperfadeaway nbk

    make sure your list is set to “public – no editing” and then copy and paste just the web address for the list.

  • Dundler
  • Max

    I hope and believe that in the future we’ll see him in the top 20.

  • http://twitter.com/sooperfadeaway nbk

    dude, you put JJ Redick in your top 50

  • Dundler

    Ha. I don’t mind Redick, I respect that he’s carved a niche when he was supposed to do nothing. But he is very very fringe

  • http://twitter.com/sooperfadeaway nbk

    you are listing the top 50 players in the league. That means, out of 30 teams, you are (conceptually) naming the best player on each team, plus the next 20 players who would qualify as “second fiddle”
    JJ Redick is not one of those guys. You gotta know that.

  • Dundler

    So who do you think I’ve left off?

  • Dundler

    Darn, Holiday. Fair play, I completely forgot him (I’ve never watched him much) but he’d be included

  • http://twitter.com/sooperfadeaway nbk

    quick scan,

    James Harden
    Deron Williams
    Jrue Holiday
    Paul Pierce

  • Dundler

    Damn, forgot Williams too. I’d have him around 15 range, higher than Wade prob.
    Did forget Holiday.
    I honestly don’t know what to think of Pierce. I’m absolutely convinced his body is going to fail and he’s done. But I thought the same last year, so I couldn’t decide

  • http://twitter.com/sooperfadeaway nbk

    James Harden and Deron Williams jumped out right away. James Harden shocked me so much i forgot to list him the first time.

  • Dundler

    WTH. I swear I had him in. I am obviously terrible at making lists. Looked at a rough draft I jotted down and he was in there, dunno why I forgot him. To clarify, I’d have him at 9. I knew my top 10 didn’t look right.

  • http://twitter.com/sooperfadeaway nbk

    man i saw JJ Redick on your list and i knew you didn’t really look too deeply at this thing lol

  • Dundler

    Ha, need to get some practice in on my list making

  • http://twitter.com/sooperfadeaway nbk

    just realized i left Joe Johnson off of mine. Had to edit again, http://scribbless.com/lists/list/169446

  • Dundler

    We are not good at this

  • Ronnie Jones

    He’s my NEW favorite player. U don’t average double doubles in the finals for nothing. He’s on his way.

  • Dundler

    To change conversation slightly, which player do you think will have the most argued ranking (outside top 10). I’m thinking its Pau

  • http://twitter.com/sooperfadeaway nbk

    Yeah probably Pau. Or Rajon Rondo

  • Dundler

    Rondo has peaked to me. With Pau it depends on D’antoni more than anything else

  • http://twitter.com/sooperfadeaway nbk

    Peaked is not the same as appropriately ranked. At his “peak” he’s a top 5 PG. With a torn ACL, and no Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett he could be almost irrelevant. Who knows.

  • Dundler

    Agreed. I think if we just look at his career, we’ve seen his best. Think he has the capacity to improve but don’t think we’ll see it.

  • russian guy

    I agree with you and I like him as a player. But right now I think his ceilling is an early to mid 2000s Shawn Marion.Outstanding defense and rebounding,doing everything on the court,but still in the need for a true ballhandler.The Pippen comparisons can be made when Kawhi starts to handle and pass the ball and see the floor as well as Pippen did.Until then:Shawn Marion 2.0.

  • star

    that look of agony on lebron’s face when kawhi checked in was pretty cool

  • BCoops

    I whole-heartedly disagree that for this coming season Kahwi will be better than Monroe!

  • Dundler

    Light years ahead defensively

  • Kim Hargreaves

    I see him as more of a Shawn Marion/Gerald Wallace type dude capable of 20/10 at the SF, rather than a no 1 guy. Not that that’s a bad thing, young man played his ass off in the finals.

  • Babygab

    I can’t resent Kwahi for that free throw. He gave everything he had and it showed. Playing with the poise and the composure of a veteran. What I admire the most was his decision. Making. An amazing talent. 46 is way to low for the kid. He’s a top 30 believe that

  • http://SLAMonline.com/ Ryne Nelson

    Forty-four writers contributed

  • Armando

    OK, but you have Millsap over Pau and Chandler over Dirk. Idk, but as these are predicitons I don’t see any of that happening in ’13-’14… Here’s mine. I listed the top 100 just to start with then I went through the list from top to botton asking wether the player is better than the one(s) above him, player by player… I assume I’m going to catch some heat for having Kobe to high, but I’m assuming he’ll surprise everybody again… http://scribbless.com/lists/list/172036

  • i_ball

    He shoots waaaay better than both:) And he took LeBron one on one several times in the Finals. If Pop stays long enough to mentor him he will be a number one guy

  • http://twitter.com/sooperfadeaway nbk

    No. Thank you! these types of things are the criticisms i was looking for. i put a ton of effort into the first 20 or so, the rest i more or less took the best 30 and arragned them hastily. My list is still in progress.

    Chandler over Dirk was an accident. That’s been fixed. Millsap over Pau is about 7 spots lower than he should be. That’s been fixed.

    You have to set your list to “Public” or else nobody can see it. Then Copy and Paste the URL for the List itself.

  • Noel

    Someone tell me why Carmelo Anthony is valued so much? Personally hes outside my top 10 but thats just me

  • Armando
  • ATL dynamite

    Maybe a bit too low, but this I can understand.
    I would hope on my part that this kid is placed around the rank of Manu’s (if Manu is in the top 50). To me the importance of Kawhi THIS YEAR has already reached up to Manu’s production in the Spurs system. But that’s just me.

  • ses

    Deng > 48, 47 & 46, Who created this list??!!

  • Ronnie Jones

    “He’ll remembered for the crucial missed free throw” but he won’t be remembered for “The vicious dunk on Mike Miller.” TYPICAL DISRESPECTFUL DISLOYAL DICKRIDDIN’ MIAMI HEAT FANS. Paul George is coming and so is Kawhi Leonard, my favorite player in the L. PERIOD!!!

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  • King David

    Lebron is NOT the best basketball player on the planet !!!

  • spursthisyear

    Please! Lol you all will see what Kawhi Leonard is all about! I can’t wait for the season to start, this guy can shut down pretty much anyone, real talk! And his offense hasn’t even been tapped into haha. You will all witness, “Kawhi Leonard#2″

  • doom32x

    When they played last year, Kawhi destroyed Deng. I think he is the more skilled player and wouldn’t be surprised to see him surpass Deng as a player next year. The only thing Deng has on him at this point is experience,

  • danpowers

    i agree that leonard is more skilled and also that he played better than deng in the two outings, but i wouldnt say he “destroyed” him.

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