Embracing On-Court Stardom, Kawhi Leonard Looks Ready To Lead The Spurs To Another Title

Kawhi Leonard
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The reigning Finals MVP is his team’s key to repeating as champions. That shouldn’t be surprising, but everything about the San Antonio Spurs is different – and so, suddenly, is Kawhi Leonard’s role for basketball’s longest running dynasty.

It’s counterintuitive to suggest the fortunes of Gregg Popovich’s team rest heavier on the shoulders of any player other than Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, or Many Ginobili. It’s the Big Three that have led San Antonio to such unparalleled success since Duncan came aboard in 1998, after all, and it’s not like they’ve slowed to a standstill in old age, either.

Duncan is a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Parker just finished a calendar month averaging 18.2 points per game on 55.5 percent shooting. And Ginobili remains the Spurs’ true X factor, a playmaking genius from which his team’s overall ethos most directly stems.

But it’s Leonard who has become San Antonio’s best player in 2014-2015, an expectation Popovich and company have held for years but only seen come to obvious fruition over the past few weeks. And to hear the mild-mannered 23 year-old tell it, his development into San Antonio’s two-way bell cow is due to a confluence of strategy, experience, and confidence that’s all come together at the right time.

Here’s Leonard via Michael Wallace of ESPN.com:

“I guess I’m getting comfortable out there,” Leonard said of his blossoming, go-to role during — and now increasingly after — games as the Spurs’ catalyst. “I just got into a rhythm [and] some shots went down. So they started calling my number and I started to carry us a little bit.”


“It’s just easier because I’ve been through the league,” Leonard said of being more assertive as his role and responsibilities continue to increase. “This is my fourth year and Coach Pop has confidence in me, so I get to do a little more out on the floor rather than having him limit me on the floor. It’s just about working on your game off the floor and knowing where to go, and that’s pretty much it.”

This isn’t surprising for the Spurs. Popovich has been predicting Leonard’s rise to stardom since 2013, and indicated mere months ago that this season could be the time for him to shoulder a bigger load in terms of on- and off- court leadership.

But Leonard had exhibited little reason to believe he was ready to do so prior to his most recent play. Troubled by ill-effects from a preseason eye infection in November and early December, Leonard played something closer to supporting piece for 2014-2015’s beginning.  And when he suffered a hand injury that caused him to miss a full month of play from mid-December to mid-January, concerns emerged over whether or not he’d get the court-time necessary to thrive in a bigger role.

Those are long gone now, of course. Since returning to the lineup for good on January 16, Leonard is averaging 16.8 points and 13.0 shots per game, modest yet team-high numbers that suggest he’s grown to accept his place in San Antonio’s offensive pecking order. But those statistics don’t properly indicate just how well he’s playing on that end of the floor now, nor the way in which he’s doing it.

During the Spurs’ 12-3 binge in March, Leonard has taken the extra responsibility afforded him and ran with it. He’s orchestrating pick-and-rolls with ease and bullying overmatched defenders on the block, racking up a usage of rate of 24.0 with a sterling true shooting mark of 61.1 percent. And the most encouraging aspect of Leonard’s scoring uptick is that it’s come despite more isolation opportunities – 54.3 percent of his two-point baskets last month came unassisted, up from a season-long number of 48.1 percent in 2013-2014.

And for those of you wondering, his March counting stats are great, too: 19.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 2.7 assists per game while shooting 53.1 percent from the field.

We’ve come this far and yet to mention Leonard’s defense, the area of his game that might legitimately be without peer. It’s Duncan who’s garnering Defensive Player of the Year consideration and rightfully so – his health and consistency looms large for a Spurs defense that’s remained elite despite Leonard missing 18 games.

But even more than his league-leading 2.7 steals per game, this metric tells the most accurate story of The Klaw’s defensive influence: San Antonio’s defensive rating is 96.3 with him running the floor and 103.0 with him riding the bench, the latter of which is the team’s worst number by 2.3 points.

A super-efficient scoring hub and perhaps the league’s best perimeter defender – that’s the player Leonard has become for the Spurs, just soon enough for Popovich and company to try and buck past “failures” and win back-to-back titles for the first time.

With Leonard embracing stardom, it seems like they might just do it.