Kawhi Leonard wonders if his ability to break on the ball with perfect timing might have come from his single year of high school football. Gregg Popovich calls it a natural-born talent that can’t be taught.
Whatever its origins, the sight of Leonard swooping into the passing lanes like some ravenous bird of prey is rapidly becoming a Spurs standard.
Two elements stand out with Leonard’s thievery:
1. It comes with minimal gambling.
2. It almost always leads to points at the other end.
Unfortunately, we have no hard data to back up what our eyes seem to be telling us regarding the first point, which is that Leonard rarely makes a strong play for the ball unless he’s almost certain he’s going to get it.
Leonard said after practice on Thursday that he’s never been admonished by Popovich for taking an unnecessary risk in pursuit of a steal.
And as we all know, Popovich isn’t shy about getting on his players for even the smallest mistake. Indeed, Leonard was temporarily benched for forcing a drive early in the second half against Toronto.
But when it comes to Leonard’s preternatural instincts on the defensive end, Popovich isn’t about to mess with a good thing. “He’s always been that way since he’s been here,” he said. “We didn’t teach him that. He just has a natural affinity for being in the right place at the right time. He reads things. He understands the spatial situation, and he gets himself involved in it.”
That Leonard does so while rarely compromising the integrity of the Spurs’ defensive structure is even more impressive considering he has yet to play the equivalent of a full NBA season.
And it’s not as if he’s judicious to the point of excessive caution. Leonard’s 2.3 steals would rank third in the NBA if he had enough games to qualify, and his 4.3 steal percentage — which measures the frequency in which he pilfers the ball on opposing possessions — would tie for first.
Leonard’s takeaways typically bring yet another bonus.
Because of the nature of many of his steals, snatched up in full stride, he’s only a short gallop away from a dunk at the other end. Indeed, he’s had three such sequences over the past two outings alone, including one just before the half against Toronto that Manu Ginobili cited as a game-turning moment. “Those type of plays really lift you up,” he said.
Even if Leonard doesn’t throw it down, the ball usually ends up in the basket one way or another. His 28 steals have directly resulted in 39 points, including nine apiece in victories over Dallas and New Orleans.
Because I’m not privy to any site that tracks such data, I have no idea where his ratio of 1.39 points per steal ranks among the NBA. But to provide just a little bit of perspective, I pored over the play-by-play to chart the steals for Chris Paul, the league leader with 2.7 per game, and Russell Westbrook, another elite athlete who excels at speeding through the open court and finishing at the rim.
It’s not as exact as studying film, but I counted any point scored by any player within six to seven seconds as having been directly produced by the steal. And neither Paul nor Westbrook compares to Leonard. The former’s NBA-best 76 steals have resulted in 70 points for a ratio of 0.92 per, while the latter’s 56 steals have netted 62 points for a ratio of 1.11 per.
Popovich said earlier in the week that the Spurs are grooming Leonard, with his long arms and quick feet, to become an elite defensive stopper in the mold of Bruce Bowen. You can see the resemblance after moments like the Toronto game, in which Leonard helped limit Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan to eight points on 3-for-9 shooting. But even at his best, Bowen — career steals average: 0.8 — couldn’t force turnovers like Leonard. Not many Spurs ever have. To find a ball hawk of his ilk in silver and black, you to go all the way back to Alvin Robertson, the NBA’s steals champion in 1985-86 and 1986-87.
Rare company for a player with a rare gift.