A day after the announcement that Kawhi Leonard won the 2015 Defensive Player of the Year award, he rose through the air, passed a helpless, earth-bound Blake Griffin, met a lob from Danny Green at the doorstep, and slammed a vicious alley-oop home with his right hand. The crowd at the AT&T Center roared to its feet for the noisiest two points of Leonard’s 32 during that Game 3
It was the game that put the NBA on notice—a new star had arrived.
Forget the fact that he led the L in defensive rating and steals per game last season and that he patrols the passing lanes and the rim like an apex predator looking for lunch.
Forget that he never gets beat off the dribble and that he’s made closing-out into an art form.
You can even forget that he’s already won DPOY and Finals MVP.
But be ready for the Kawhi Leonard offensive eruption that is about to add another dimension to the already super-packed Spurs lineup.
Leonard has gone about his business with a quiet confidence and a smooth ease. He seamlessly dodges picks. When he leaps for rebounds, it looks like he uses a pogo stick. He gets on-ball steals like nobody else in the Association. He can suck up loose balls with his vacuum hands. His footwork resembles ballet.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has slowly taken the offensive restrictions off Leonard as the years have gone on. His usage rate went from 18.3 percent in 2014 to 23.1 percent in 2015. He took a career-high 822 shots in 2014-15, way up from the previous year’s total of 645.
Now entering his fifth season, Leonard’s going to have even more responsibility in the Spurs’ offense. The original Big Three is getting up there in years and minutes, and that shiny new free agent might have a little bit of an adjustment period, which means Leonard’s going to have even more opportunities to score.
He’s a throwback to the no-nonsense players from the ’80s and ’90s. Not just in his no-new-friends demeanor, but in the way he plays. His dribble pull-up game is real strong—33 percent of his shots came off pull-ups. What up, Vinnie Johnson and Alex English?
Leonard got the ball on the block a whole bunch last year, ranking eighth in post-ups for wing players and in the top-50 overall for post-up scoring. Mark Aguirre sighting? He prioritizes defense. Looking at you, Vernon Maxwell.
He could have demanded more touches and attention as a young star, but he’s taken a step back in the Spurs organization to let those Hall of Famers shine. Reminiscent of Tim Duncan. He never gets in trouble off the court, he rarely talks to media. He’s the wise old-head, even though he’s only 24.
Measuring his impact in points per (16.5 last year) doesn’t do this kid justice. Leonard has become one of the premier players in the League by always working, on and off the ball, on defense and offense. His game is trending way upward. He’s earned his way onto this list.
Think back to when the Spurs traded George Hill for Leonard during the 2011 Draft. Spurs GM RC Buford was quoted that night saying, “This might have to be the most difficult night in Spurs history.” He said the trade was “bittersweet” because of how much Hill meant to the locker room. Ginobili was “really angry” and “frustrated” by the trade. Pop had called Hill his favorite player.
Leonard was a stellar athlete who shot only 25 percent from three in college. His jumpshot was absolutely broken back then. He was an unknown commodity for a franchise that values staying power and chemistry. He’s extremely reserved, the opposite of Hill, who considered Tony Parker his “big brother.” Hill shot 38 percent from distance as a Spur and stood up to Kobe Bryant. (Remember that?!)
Fast forward a few years and Leonard won the Spurs a title, while Hill and the Pacers never made it out of the Eastern Conference finals. Pop called Leonard the “Big One” a few months back. He shoots 38 percent from downtown, with a fluid jumper. Maturation like that only comes from hard work.
Watch Leonard on a Tuesday night in February. While everyone else on the court goes through the motions during the NBA’s dog-days, you’ll see Leonard explode off the dribble, blow through off-ball screens, dive on the floor for loose balls, lead the Spurs to yet another victory with stifling defense and efficient offense.
That’s what makes Leonard one of the best players in the League.
|SLAM Top 50 Players 2015|
Rankings are based on expected contribution in 2015-16—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.