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Old 09-11-13, 03:28 PM
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The potential of Kawhi Leonard

It’s been all Kawhi Leonard, all summer around the various sites and message boards that constitute Spurs cyberspace, and understandably so. Perhaps no single storyline of the upcoming season bears more scrutiny than the continued development of their budding young small forward.

With Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili creeping towards 40, and Tony Parker’s prime on fumes, nothing would help their cause more than an All-Star caliber leap from Leonard in his third NBA season.

Is Leonard capable?

This is a question that’s been on the mind of just about anyone who even casually follows the Spurs ever since it became clear during his rookie season that they’d landed a keeper. It makes sense. We already know pretty much the Spurs are going to get from the majority of their proven difference-makers.

But Leonard? Not even Gregg Popovich and his staff are quite sure what to expect.

Perhaps in broad terms, such as Popovich’s declaration last year that Leonard will one day be the “face of the franchise.” (Which might not be much of a compliment if you consider that Corey Maggette was once the face of the Charlotte Bobcats.) In terms of function, however, we don’t know because there’s still so much to discover, and that’s an intriguing prospect.

Cue Popovich again, when he marveled after the Finals that Leonard had averaged nearly 15 points during the series, and 11.9 over the regular season, despite having no plays called for him. That promises to change as Leonard, a sponge who has soaked up just about everything the Spurs have thrown at him, moves into the young veteran stage of his career.

The interesting thing is that, from a statistical standpoint, Leonard did not improve significantly from his rookie season.

Per 36-minute averages
2011-12: 11.9 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 1.6 apg, 2.0 spg, 0.6 bpg
2012-13: 13.7 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 1.8 apg, 1.9 spg, 0.6 bpg
2011-12: 49.3 FG, 37.6 3-pts, 77.3 FT
2012-13: 49.4 FG, 37.4 3-pts, 82.5 FT
2011-12: 16.6 PER, 57.3 TS%, 119 off. rating, 101 def. rating, .171 win shares/48
2012-13: 16.4 PER, 59.2 TS%, 114 off. rating, 99 def. rating, .166 win shares/48

A few bumps here, a few dips there, and a whole lot of continuance.

What Leonard did do was generally maintain his rates and production despite playing nearly seven more minutes per game, with a small increase in his usage rate (the number of possessions Leonard “used” by taking a shot or free throw, or committing a turnover). This is not a small achievement.

The next, and most important, step will be to improve those numbers with even more minutes. Which brings us to the sticky part. While Leonard certainly appears capable of taking a bigger role offensively, what with all the little wrinkles he added over the course of last season, we just haven’t seen it.

Of the 894 offensive plays he was involved in last season, according to Synergy Sports, less than 17 percent came on the go-to staples: Post-ups, isolations and pick-and-roll initiations. A whopping 55 percent resulted from spot-ups and transition, which typically happen in the flow of the game and aren’t always consistent contributions.

To be sure, none of that is bad. Indeed, the fact that Leonard could average almost 12 points while having almost no featured role is encouraging. Tack on two more buckets and a pair of free throws resulting from an expanded role, and suddenly Leonard is on the cusp of being a 20-point scorer, in addition to his sterling defense and above-average rebounding for his position. That’s the type of player who would get consideration for not only the All-Star Game, but the 2016 Olympics.

But, again, we just won’t know until we actually see it.

Rather than projecting, perhaps a more interesting discussion might be, what constitutes a superstar? Leonard used the word this summer to describe his ultimate goal, and it’s nebulous distinction. Where, exactly, are the cut-offs from good, to great, to even better than that? Can Leonard reach the ultimate level without becoming a significantly better scorer?

The list of players who have become legitimate, game-changing stars based mainly on their defense is short, and it’s almost entirely limited to centers like Bill Russell and Ben Wallace.

Sure, there have been plenty of elite wings who dominated in their own way, one of the best of which was Bruce Bowen. Leonard proved his mettle during the Finals, doing about as reasonable job as could be expected against a player, LeBron James, who will go down among the five best to ever put on an NBA uniform.

Thanks to the individual nature of perimeter matchups, however, it’s always going to be difficult, if not impossible, for a wing to match the macro impact of a dominant defensive big.

That puts more emphasis on the scoring piece, which loops us back to the previous paragraphs: At 22, with work ethic and ambition to match his prodigious physical gifts,

Leonard oozes with potential, even after already establishing himself as an impact player.

But a key component of potential is that it hasn’t happened yet.

Link to article: Spurs Nation The potential of Kawhi Leonard
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