By Connor Cavanaugh
This article will compare and contrast three similar players in Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Each of these players are young, athletic wings who excel on defense and are able to consistently hit the three ball.
Kawhi Leonard- age 22- 2012-2013 statistics. 31.2 MPG, 11.9 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1.7 SPG, 49.4 FG%, 37.4 3P%, 16.4 PER, 59.2 TS%
Kawhi Leonard is entering his third season in the NBA, and is looking to build on a stellar rookie campaign, followed by an improved sophomore effort as a forward for the San Antonio Spurs.
At San Diego State, Leonard was a national standout who excelled as an elite perimeter defender and a very capable rebounder from the wing. Oh, there is also his 7’3” wingspan, despite standing just 6’7”, no doubt aided by his enormous hands that measure 11.5 inches in length. Leonard’s draft stock was based primarily on his defensive ability and his physical attributes that allow him to pester ball handlers and shooters. There were, however, doubts about his ability to develop a consistent 3-point jump shot in the NBA.
In two seasons for the Spurs, Leonard has shot 37.5% from downtown, and was one of the best midrange shooters in the league last year at 48.3%. His shooting performance has put him in the conversation as an elite 3-and-D player, but is that his ceiling, or just his foundation?
Basketball fans got a glimpse of Leonard’s potential in the 2013 NBA Finals, where he upped his numbers to 14.6 points per game on 51.2% shooting, 11.1 rebounds per game and 2.0 steals per game, while spending most of his time guarding the best player on the planet, LeBron James. His scoring numbers were quite high, given his relatively low usage rate of 17.5%, just the sixth highest of all Spurs who played significant minutes in the Finals. Leonard was easily one of the Spurs two best players in the series, and he showed an uncanny ability to step up when it mattered most (see 1:45). According to Matthew Tynan over at 48 Minutes of Hell, Leonard posted a fourth-quarter true-shooting percentage of 74.5% in the Finals, an incredibly high number against an elite defense tightening the screws in crunch time. The Finals was Leonard’s coming out party on a national stage, and he looks to carry that momentum into the 2013-2014 regular season.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has acknowledged that Leonard’s role in the team’s offense will grow this coming season and he will become more of a playmaker on offense, rather than the bystander of the past two years. Leonard was mostly the beneficiary of the Spurs system, which got him assisted open looks from the corner, and assisted lay-ups and dunks off of cuts to the basket.
If Leonard is able to take on more responsibility this year without a significant drop in efficiency, watch out for him to become one of the better two-way players in the league. Popovich has publically stated that he believes Kawhi is the future of the Spurs organization, and has praised his work ethic and drive. Coming from the notoriously terse and tight lipped Popovich, this is extremely high praise.
Leonard might not be an all-star this coming year, but expect him to continue to improve in all facets of his game, which the Spurs will desperately need as they seek redemption for last year’s bitter ending.
Part three of this series will be posted on Oct. 25. For part one, click here.