The mid-range jumper has become something of a lost art in the modern NBA.
While players like DeMar DeRozan and Carmelo Anthony still make their bread and butter as midrange scorers, front offices tend to prioritize perimeter shooting, floor spacing and getting clean looks at and around the basket.
Of course, some of the best players in the NBA are relatively inefficient perimeter shooters.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has certainly improved from beyond the arc, but he is a star because of his unparalleled size, length, athleticism and skill. In a similar vein, LeBron James dominates due to his physical stature and athleticism, in addition to his tremendous basketball acumen.
But the thing these two share in common is the recognition of the skills that allow them to dominate. The same can be said of any midrange scorer.
Michael Jordan was more of a slasher earlier in his career, because he could jump through the roof and finish through contact with phenomenal body control. But as he aged, Jordan realized ways in which he could carve out space on the block and utilize an assortment of midrange J’s in the post.
The late Kobe Bryant would come to pattern his game after MJ, adding some unique footwork to his offensive game in order to score over defenders.
“Air Jordan” and the “Black Mamba” have become arguably the most renowned midrange scorers in NBA history. But Los Angeles Clippers star Kawhi Leonard is staking his claim as one of the best in that department as well, at least in today’s game.
Is the “Claw” on the same level as Mike and Kobe?
By the numbers: Jordan and Kobe
When performing a statistical breakdown, nobody comes close to Jordan in terms of efficiency from midrange.
Unfortunately, Basketball Reference does not have the resources to assess the scope of shooting metrics over the length of a full career. But for the purposes of this study, let’s take a look at some individual seasons.
We start with Jordan’s 1996-97 campaign, the first available season on Basketball Reference in terms of shooting stats.
MJ took 1,402 shots in the range between 10 feet and the three-point arc. He made 697 of those attempts, good enough for a field goal percentage close to 50 percent on all midrange attempts.
This would seem like an anomaly in today’s game, where the midrange jumper is considered by most to be the most inefficient shot in basketball. Yet, Jordan torched opponents with ease.
Perhaps even more astonishingly, Jordan was more efficient shooting longer midrange J’s. He converted 343 of 668 jumpers between 16 feet and the three-point arc, equating to a 51.3 field goal percentage.
Much of Jordan’s success stemmed from his patented fadeaway jumper.
The slow evolution of the NBA becomes more evident when looking at Kobe’s numbers during the 2006-07 season.
Bryant was still prolific from midrange, though he took over 500 fewer shots than Mike between 10 feet and the three-point line.
Kobe was about as efficient from 10-16 feet, but he experienced a drop off beyond 16 feet, converting at a 42.5 percent clip on 605 attempts between 16 feet and the three-point arc. Overall, Bryant shot just over 44 percent from midrange that season.
By the numbers: Kawhi Leonard
Given Kawhi does not have a full sample size for this season, let’s take a look at his numbers with the Toronto Raptors last season.
Leonard took a total of 537 attempts in the midrange last year, which is pretty staggering considering that is just over 38 percent of Jordan’s volume over 20 years prior.
However, Kawhi was still very efficient. He converted on 45 percent of his midrange attempts, including close to 46 percent on all attempts from 16 feet to the arc. The two-time Finals MVP is hovering around 45 percent yet again this year, which evokes a sense of consistency even in spite of a smaller sample size.
For reference, Leonard was even deadlier from midrange during the 2016-17 season, his last full year with the San Antonio Spurs. Kawhi shot close to 50 percent on 302 attempts between 16 feet and the three-point line.
The differences… and similarities
Of course, statistics can only tell us so much. We must also account for the way in which these three stars get the majority of their shots.
As previously noted, both Jordan and Kobe became savants at creating space in the post and doing their midrange work from there.
Leonard will receive the occasional post entry, but he is more adept at getting easy twos in transition.
However, all three share similarities in terms of their ability to flawlessly execute pull-up jumpers over smaller defenders.
Jordan and Kobe might have excelled at the fallaway jumper. Leonard is more likely to step back off the dribble and rise straight up.
Regardless, it is clear Kawhi’s ability to score from the midrange is indeed something more akin to Jordan and Kobe than almost any player we have seen in years.
It is hard to say Kawhi is “on the level” of a Jordan or Bryant because of how much different the game is today.
Not only is Leonard excellent in the midrange, but he has also become a pretty dependable knockdown shooter from beyond the arc.
Plus, Kawhi is still just 29 years old. He still has the burst and athleticism to get to the basket and finish through contact, much like Mike and Kobe did in the earlier stages of their respective careers.
Still, it is hard to ignore just how effective Kawhi is in the midrange, and he might adapt his game to become a more lethal threat from midrange as his career goes along.
For now, basketball fans should learn to appreciate Leonard’s scoring ability. Much like Kevin Durant, he is one of the rare pure scorers who can hurt opposing teams from anywhere on the floor.
This includes the midrange game, where Leonard has carved out his own lane despite the constant evolution of the NBA.