SLAM Top 50: Kawhi Leonard, No. 5

Ben McLemore’s a good ballplayer. He stands 6-5, has a 42-inch vertical and has become nearly a 40 percent shooter from three-point land. And for anyone who forgot, the 24-year-old was the seventh pick in the 2013 draft.

But Kawhi Leonard made McLemore look like he couldn’t even dribble last October. On back-to-back plays, in the third quarter of a close game, Leonard stripped McLemore and took him to the rim, getting fouled each time. It was an embarrassing moment for the former Jayhawk. And it was a big-time flex for Leonard, a shining example of the Klaw’s complete powers.

Defense to offense, totally dominant with or without the ball–that’s how Kawhi Leonard plays now. The 26-year-old has developed into the best two-way player in the League. McLemore’s not the only opponent he’s made look foolish. He’s swatted James Harden, plucked Stephen Curry and shut down LeBron James.

Leonard is a rare do-it-all defender, one of only a few currently in the League (word to Avery Bradley, Patrick Beverly, Draymond Green and Rudy Gobert). He guards the other team’s best player, plays excellent help defense, hits the glass, patrols the passing lanes and closes out on shooters in textbook form.

What has separated Leonard from the rest of the NBA is his discipline. He doesn’t bite on pump fakes and he doesn’t reach unless he knows he can steal it. He’s figured out a way to make full use of his athletic gifts and meld them with his extremely high basketball IQ.

While a portion of his success can be attributed to Gregg Popovich and the Spurs’ basketball factory, he has a skill that Pop couldn’t have ever taught him. He reads the court like a damn Rhodes scholar, anticipating on defense and then punishing on offense.

His offensive arsenal is just as thorough as his defense. Midrange fadeaway? Check. 88 percent from the foul line? Easy money. Posterizer? On 1,000. Catch-and-shoot three-pointer? He got the ratty. The cojones to take over in the clutch or any other time in the game? Without a doubt.

Leonard’s morphed into the premier small forward for the modern NBA game and he’s done it without every really saying a word. Which in the age of constant social media attention, commercials and round-the-clock coverage is very impressive. He really doesn’t want the spotlight. He just wants to hoop.

The proof is in the progression. He went from a 25 percent three-point shooter at San Diego State to a 25.5 point-per-game scorer in the NBA. He went from being the kid that was part of the George Hill trade to being a Finals MVP. He went from costing the Spurs the title in 2013 to winning it for them in 2014.

And now Leonard’s entering his prime. Popovich handed him the keys to the silver and black as soon as Tim Duncan retired, never once second-guessing the work that Leonard’s put in. Entering his seventh season, no. 2 is fully equipped with a foundation of expertise that he can only build on in the coming months.

Everyone’s already counting Leonard and his squad out. Golden State’s too good, they say. Houston and Oklahoma City have too many weapons, they say. Minnesota, New Orleans and Denver are gearing up for deep playoff runs, they say. But you can never underestimate the heart of a champion.

Just ask Ben McLemore how good Kawhi Leonard is.

Previous Rankings:
2013: 46
2014: 22
2015: 11

2016: 5

Rankings are based on expected contribution in 2017-18—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.

No. 50 – Dion Waiters
No. 49 – Ben Simmons 
No. 48 – Brook Lopez
No. 47 — Harrison Barnes
No. 46 — Jrue Holiday
No. 45 — Lonzo Ball
No. 44 — Myles Turner
No. 43 — Goran Dragic
No. 42 — Andre Drummond
No. 41 — Al Horford
No. 40 — LaMarcus Aldridge
No. 39 — Kevin Love
No. 38 — Paul Millsap
No. 37 — Hassan Whiteside
No. 36 — Andrew Wiggins
No. 35 — Marc Gasol
No. 34 – DeAndre Jordan
No. 33 — Bradley Beal
No. 32 — Kemba Walker
No. 31 — CJ McCollum
No. 30 — Devin Booker
No. 29 — Nikola Jokic
No. 28 — Joel Embiid
No. 27 — Mike Conley 
No. 26 — Kyle Lowry
No. 25 — Rudy Gobert

No. 24 — Gordon Hayward
No. 23 — Kristaps Porzingis
No. 22 — Carmelo Anthony
No. 21 — DeMar DeRozan
No. 20 — Blake Griffin
No. 19 — Draymond Green
No. 18 — Chris Paul
No. 17 — Klay Thompson
No. 16 — Jimmy Butler
No. 15 — Isaiah Thomas
No. 14 — Karl-Anthony Towns
No. 13 — Damian Lillard
No. 12 — DeMarcus Cousins
No. 11 — Kyrie Irving
No. 10 — John Wall
No. 9 — Paul George

No. 8 — Anthony Davis
No. 7 — Giannis Antetokounmpo
No. 6 — James Harden