Maybe it was bombast, or the result of Kawhi Leonard hanging 16 points and 16 rebounds on the Mavs last night in Dallas, including a game-clinching three-pointer in the final minute, but Charles Barkley proclaimed the third-year wing, “a top 10 or 15 player in the NBA.” Kawhi certainly looked the part during a coast-to-coast sprint against the Mavs that culminated in a dunk Dirk Nowitzki wanted no part in trying to prevent.
As CBS Sports’ Zach Harper shows in this granular look at Leonard’s improvement over the course of his three seasons in the league, Kawhi isn’t just getting DAP from Chuck.
First, Leonard’s coach — the notoriously hard-to-please Gregg Popovich — extolled the virtues of his work ethic, so much so it sounds like he’s wearing out the development staff in San Antonio:
“Everybody doesn’t improve,” Popovich said before a recent Spurs’ game in Minnesota. “You know, some guys can’t learn and there’s a lot of guys that have been talented that haven’t made it in the league or made it for just a short time because they couldn’t go to the next step or continue to get better.”
“But he has a great capacity to absorb things and he works hard. He comes early to practice; he stays after. Our development guys work with him constantly and he wears them out. He really wants to be good and he’s got some talents to work with, so that’s a good combination.”
Then there’s ‘Wolves coach Rick Adelman, who noted all the playoff run Kawhi’s gotten in his first two seasons as a primary factor in his supercharged progression as a player:
“He’s really good,” Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman said. “He’s gotten better every year. He’s gone against all the people in the playoffs, I think that really helps him, like [LeBron] James last year and then all their match-ups. He’s just gotten better every year and he gives them that guy that he doesn’t demand a lot but he’s a key to what they do.”
The Spurs almost lost their double-digit lead in the fourth quarter Thursday night as the Mavs fought to stave off a loss, which now puts their playoff future in a precarious position during the season’s last week. But even though he only shot 5-for-14 on the night, Leonard drilled a three after the Mavs had cut the deficit to six with under a minute to play. That was the breathing room San Antonio needed to finish off a 109-100 road win.
While Leonard’s numbers this year aren’t staggering, his defense and versatility, not to mention a rapidly improving offensive game, has turned him into a key cog in the Spurs’ machine. San Antonio is giving up 5 less points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court, per NBA.com, and his shooting — 37 percent from deep and a career-high 52 percent overall — spaces the floor nicely for Popovich’s various motion sets and pick-and-roll actions with Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. Leonard’s offensive rebounding and ability to defend the other team’s best opposing player (hello LeBron) is just the cherry on top of his talent. When you add all that up, Chuck might not be embellishing when he proclaims Leonard one of the Association’s 10 or 15 best.
Where does Kawhi rank in the NBA today?
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