Exactly How Good Can Kawhi Leonard Be?
Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs are one win away from ending the Miami Heat‘s two-year reign as NBA champions. That the Spurs are so close despite not yet getting genuine star performances from Tony Parker or Tim Duncan is not only a testament to their depth, but also an indication of just how good Leonard has been.
The lanky small forward out of Riverside, CA has taken over the series’ last two games, putting up 49 points, 18 rebounds, five assists, five blocks, five steals and just two turnovers in 78 minutes at the American Airlines Arena. Leonard showed similar flashes during last year’s series against the Heat, but not quite to this magnitude. There is no denying how good Leonard has been; a more interesting question, then, is to ponder how good he could be.
The Spurs’ No. 2 has all the physical tools in the world. He has solid size for a small forward and is proficient playing the four in small ball lineups. Leonard has athleticism in spades, but generally plays a more quiet game; while he is perfectly able to throw down something vicious like he nearly did against Chris Andersen in Game 4, he doesn’t attempt it very often. Leonard’s wingspan is a silly 7-foot-3, a number which would be average for someone six inches taller than he is. His enormous hands are a well-documented story that has reached almost legendary status.
At just 22, Leonard is already one of the league’s best perimeter defenders, as well as one of the few who has proven himself capable of handling LeBron James without constant help. His shooting stroke — a significant issue at the time he was drafted — has been vastly improved with the help of Spurs’ shooting coach Chip Engelland. Leonard is a consistent threat from beyond the arc, and his field goal percentage and points per game have risen each year that he’s been in the NBA.
A 2012-13 Paul George-like leap is certainly on the table for Leonard next season, and is probably the most reasonable expectation for him. His defensive dominance is well established and he is still finding his offensive game just as George was. With Duncan either retired or continuing to take on a lesser role in 2014-15, the increased opportunity for others will go largely to Leonard; Greg Popovich hasn’t called him the team’s future for no reason.
The sky is truly the limit here. Leonard evidently thinks the game as well as any veteran, and has steadily bettered himself each season he’s been in the league. The absolute ceiling for him would seem to be something in the mold of Scottie Pippen.
Drawing comparisons to one of the best two-way players of all time in just your third season isn’t too bad.