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Kawhi Leonard: Has The Clipper Superstar Taken Another Step?

Kawhi Leonard: Has The Clipper Superstar Taken Another Step?

Kawhi Leonard has nothing left to prove.

NBA Champion. Finals MVP. Max contract in his hometown. In the span of just under 365 days, Kawhi Leonard went from a star to a legend. Despite his cornucopia of accolades — two rings, two defensive players of the year awards, two finals MVPs three All-NBA appearances–Kawhi is far from a finished product.

Following his heroic performance in the 2018-19 postseason, many have already crowned him as the NBA’s new king. Leonard’s metamorphosis from a shutdown, 3-and-D wing to a lethal isolation scorer at all three levels is remarkable. A hyper-efficient volume scorer, Leonard can pull-up from anywhere on the floor or bully his way to the rim, finishing with touch or drawing fouls.

His 2019 postseason numbers — 28.1 points per 36, 61.9 true shooting percentage, 32 usage rate–reflect those of some of the all-time great bucket getters. His stride is unbroken this season, peppering defenses with all sorts of buckets:

Kawhi’s incredible isolation scoring raises the floor for any offense. He can turn any broken possession into an efficient shot with his shot creation. However, Kawhi’s offensive profile as an offensive engine lacked the ceiling of the all-time greats. The missing piece was his playmaking, which was only average in Toronto. This inability to consistently generate good looks for his teammates while sporting such a high usage put a cap on the efficiency of his team’s offense.

In two games with the Clippers, Leonard’s playmaking has taken a noticeable leap forward. The sample size is small, but his assist numbers have spiked dramatically. Before this season, his career-high in assists per 36 was 3.8 in the 2016-17 season. This season, his assist totals per 36 have ballooned to a gaudy 9.5. Small sample size and an exorbitant 40.7% usage rate undoubtedly cause for overinflation here, but the eye test backs up what the numbers portray: Kawhi Leonard is a better passer this season than he’s ever been.

In his ninth NBA season, Kawhi Leonard isn’t done adding tools to his facilitating repertoire. His vision/craft for a primary initiator has always been rudimentary. This season, Leonard’s passing looks more advanced across the board. From improved craft to vision and anticipation, he’s teetering on the upper echelon of wing passers. His pick and roll distributing is more imaginative; he’s added more live dribble pocket passing, like this pocket pass with excellent timing and placement:

He’s incorporated more live-dribble passing to his offensive slaught, making him even more versatile of a threat:

Kawhi didn’t thread balls into tight windows often out of the pick and roll last season, typically opting for quick-trigger pull-ups or lofted passes. This window is tight, but Leonard does miss a chance to sling a pocket pass to Siakam on the roll here:

Leonard flashes advanced trickery here, leveraging his pull-up with a pump fake before bouncing this pass to the rolling Montrezl Harrell:

After watching the first two games, it seems like Kawhi is making more layup passes, though the numbers don’t say anything conclusive here. This season, 28.6% of Leonard’s assists have come at the rim, down from last season at 34.2% (per PBP stats).

It does look like Leonard is making a more concerted effort to feed cutters and bigs off of his rim attacks, though. He snakes this pick and roll back inside, bumping Steph Curry before shoveling the pass down to Ivica Zubac:

Kawhi’s passing has become flasher overall; this hook skip pass is a bit off target, but it still nets a wide-open triple:

Leonard’s vision still isn’t 20/20; he’s not LeBron James as a pick and roll orchestrator. He doesn’t need to hit that threshold to elevate his game to another tier. Leonard explodes into the paint with a gorgeous in and out dribble and head fake, feigning his pull-up. The more advanced read is a skip pass to the weak corner, but Leonard settles for a kick out to the strong side. Still, this pass is a good decision and adds three points to the board for the Clippers.

Playmaking value and scoring gravity are tethered together. Its why Lonzo Ball is an inferior creator to Trae Young, despite their pure passing vision being similar. Young warps defenses with his shooting, whereas Lonzo doesn’t have a mechanism to draw the attention of help defenders.

Few players can match Leonard’s scoring threat. On this pull-up jumper, four of the five Lakers finish the possession in the paint:

In his age 28 season, Leonard continues to learn how to weaponize his scoring gravity. When he blitzes the hoop, defenders must overcommit or give up points to him. This gravity makes his teammates lives easier, giving them plenty of catch and shoot threes and closeouts to attack. With threats like Lou Williams and eventually Paul George camped on the perimeter, defenses will have nightmares guarding Leonard’s drives if he continues to pass off of his gravity:

Notice how on this last clip Leonard gains momentum with a dribble handoff before flowing into the pick and roll. LA’s offense is far more fluid and motion heavy than Toronto’s last season. Nick Nurse had Leonard dribbling into stagnant pick and rolls (often to great success). Doc Rivers has Leonard moving off of the ball, taking full advantage of the wealth pre-pick and roll motion grants an offense.

These next three plays are the consummate encapsulation of who Kawhi Leonard has become as a playmaker. Everything is on display: high-level craft, reading defenses and anticipating rotations. Squaring up Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Leonard gets to his spot with ease, forcing Jared Dudley to help and LeBron James to tag the big man. Reacting to James’ help, he rifles a pass to the weak corner for three:

In his next game, Kawhi sets up at the top of the key with a double ball screen. Similar to the last play, he hop steps his way into the middle of the lane, drawing Omari Spellman’s attention. A savant team defender, Draymond Green is always anticipating. He sees Leonard’s eyes staring down JaMychal Green in the corner and stunts out to cover that pass.

On this play, Leonard’s brain comes out on top: like a quarterback toying with a safety, the look off coaxes Green into abandoning Harrell under the bucket, whom Kawhi finds for a dunk:

Later in the same game, Kawhi finds himself in a familiar scenario. Penetrating out of a ball screen (notice the pre-pick and roll motion again), he swerves to the middle of the lane. Curry is his victim this time, as Leonard stares down Landry Shamet in the corner before dumping the ball off to Zubac:

In a broad sense, Leonard’s general decision making speed and raw passing placement seem to be improved from last season. Kawhi is phasing out plays like these: Despite good team defense by Golden State, there are three unexploited passing windows here.

To the cutting Kyle Lowry on the double, to Fred VanVleet at the top of the key and to Siakam under the basket on the drive:

He drives into two defenders without a plan less often:

The speed of Kawhi’s decisions has increased. A scorer as prolific as Leonard sees multiple defenders often and this season (small sample size) Leonard’s passing against doubles has improved. Last season, Leonard placed in the 38th percentile on pass outs when the defense commits to him as a pick and roll ballhandler.

In two games this season (17 possessions), he’s in the 100th percentile here. This number is obviously unsustainable, but I expect this figure to be higher than last season’s. Compare this play, where Kawhi passes to Harrell right as Anthony Davis floats towards him:

To this play last season, where Leonard didn’t hit that same pass to Marc Gasol:

This will become increasingly valuable in the postseason when defenses sell out harder to limit his scoring. If Leonard is consistently making snappy decisions off of doubles, I’m not sure what defenses can expect to do to defend him.

The quality of Leonard’s decisions has improved across the board. He’s fading difficult jumpers for better shots more and more. Though Leonard is a laughably efficient scorer, layups and open threes will always be better than tough mid-ranger jumpers:

Through two games, Kawhi Leonard looks like an upper-tier wing passer. It is important to not make any super firm declarations off of such a small sample, but we also should not dismiss new evidence. Whether his playmaking remains at this level or drops off a bit, this playmaking jump looks real, despite the small sample. Kawhi Leonard improving as a passer is a league-altering development. One of the seven or so best players turning his greatest weakness into a strength doesn’t happen often. This is a testament to Leonard’s work ethic and the non-linearity of the development of superstars. Just because a player isn’t in his low 20s, doesn’t mean he’s done building his game.

This neo-Kawhi Leonard is not just a quality floor-raising engine. His deadly scoring combined with these newfound passing chops forms a primary initiator to bust through the ceiling. With Paul George, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell and an abundance of depth, the Clippers are in as good a position as any to win the 2020 NBA championship. And if Leonard’s early-season play is any indication, he might be able to finish off his trophy case with the all elusive MVP.