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The growth of Kawhi Leonard offensively

In the last three games of the NBA Finals, San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard scored 71 combined points, as he helped lead the Spurs to the franchise’s 5th NBA Championship. After bouncing back from only scoring 18 combined points in the first two games of the Finals, Leonard was named the 2014 NBA Finals MVP.

With Leonard being in just his third year in the NBA and only 22 years old, you can see by the statistics, how much his offensive arsenal has evolved and expanded in just three seasons. Using the Synergy Sports database, I’ve charted Leonard’s five preferred scoring possessions from his rookie year, all the way to his third year. Each chart is broken down by scoring type of possession, percentage of time Leonard used the possession, how Leonard shot on the possessions, and his overall rank amongst all NBA players that season.

Rookie Year (Lockout) 2011-2012 (Lost in Conference Finals)

Scoring Type Percentage of time FG% Rank
Spot-Up 36% 38% 140
Transition 19.5% 64% 55
Offensive Rebound 12.1% 60% 50
Cut 11.2% 65% 27
Isolation 5.6% 43% 72

Second Year 2012-2013 (Lost in NBA Finals)

Scoring Type Percentage of time FG% Rank
Spot-Up 33.3% 41% 121
Transition 21.9% 65% 44
Cut 9.7% 67% 40
Offensive Rebound 7% 62% 65
P&R Ball Handler 6.7% 39% 115

Third Year 2013-2014 (Won NBA Finals/ Finals MVP)

Scoring Type Percentage of time FG% Rank
Spot-Up 28% 40% 145
Transition 21.4% 67% 28
P&R Ball Handler 10.7% 51% 3
Isolation 9.1% 50% 5
Post-Up 8.1% 55% 7

Leonard’s number one scoring option throughout his young career is the one that is developed from the Spurs’ system – the Spot-Up. Ball movement and motion allow Leonard his Spot-Up possessions, which are usually 3-pointers, or pump fake and drives. Leonard’s second scoring option throughout his career has been in transition, which he benefits from his quickness and athleticism, as he makes steals in the half court, blocks shots, or grabs defensive rebounds, and heads down court, where he’s quickly becoming one of the best finishers in the open court.

Leonard’s third scoring option is where you’ll see his growth offensively. During his rookie year, he mainly attacked the offensive glass to create extra possessions and scoring possessions. By his second year, Leonard was being more active off the ball, moving around, and cutting for his teammates to find him for scoring possessions. This previous year, it’s apparent he’s now a playmaker even in the halfcourt, as being the pick-and-roll ball handler was his third preferred scoring possession.

Today, Leonard has not utilized the cuts and offensive rebounding as much as his first two years, because he’s now a player that can create scoring possessions on his own as indicated above, by either running a pick-and-roll, scoring in isolation, or posting up his defender, mainly smaller guards in mismatch opportunities. By Synergy’s rankings, Leonard was the 3rd best player in the NBA at scoring off the pick-and-roll as a ball handler, as he scored 1.02 points per possession (PPP). He scored 1.07 PPP when scoring in isolation, ranking 5th in the NBA. Lastly, the Post-Up was one of his strongest additions this season, as Leonard scored 1.11 PPP when scoring by Post-Up, which ranked 7th best in the NBA.

After Game 5 of the Finals, Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich explained how offensively, Leonard is beginning to score on his own, but not by needing plays called for him.

“And it starts with his defense and his rebounding, and he’s starting to feel his oats offensively, obviously, because I have not called a play for him the whole playoff,” said Popovich. “I do not call his number. Everything he did was just out of the motion and out of offense, and he’s learned it well.”

“In the future, obviously, we’ll use him a lot more on an individual basis,” continued Popovich on Leonard. “But it’s not really our style, and he appreciates that.”

Due to the Spurs’ offensive system that was on display during the NBA Finals – multiple passes on possessions, constant player movement and cutting, penetration into the paint, swinging the ball from sideline to sideline – individual plays are something that the Spurs didn’t have to rely on for huge portions of a game. This was evident as 2014 was San Antonio’s first NBA title where the team did not have one player average over 20 points per game in the playoffs. For now, the system is allowing Leonard to still score within his usual elements  – spot-up shots, transition opportunities from rebounds and defense, but it’s also allowing him those individual possessions where he can do what he wants offensively, like he displayed in those last three games of the NBA Finals. Then, Leonard was shooting quick-fire 3-pointers, driving to the rim with aggression to earn trips to the free throw line, and even pulling up for mid-range jumpers or 3-pointers in transition.

As Leonard recently said in an interview with USA Today, he knows with winning the Finals MVP and becoming one of the Spurs’ primary options on offense, he’ll have to expand his game and continue to develop.

“The next step is learning how to carry a team and carry the full load, scoring-wise,” Leonard said. “I know people are going to put the main focus on stopping me, so I need to learn how to make my teammates better by passing and creating opportunities for them.”

The chart below shows Leonard’s overall metrics offensively by Synergy. The “PPP” is called Points Per Possession, and I’ve included the total possessions each year, as well as where Leonard ranks in those possessions, and his field goal percentage on those scoring possessions.

Year Rank Possessions PPP FG%
Year 1 16 589 1.06 49.5%
Year 2 16 894 1.08 50.8%
Year 3 15 1081 1.08 51.8%

As you can see overall offensively, Leonard’s continued to grow each season in each area, while his shooting percentage has continued to increase. The bar graph below gives a visual representation showing how Leonard’s possessions have increased year by year.

Screenshot (89)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leonard said Wednesday at the Spurs’ championship river parade, he’ll rest then get back to working out, before departing to Las Vegas to try out for the United States National team. As Leonard will now have more of a spotlight and focus on him from opposing teams in the upcoming season, he’s likely to continue his strong work ethic as he’ll prepare to continue to add to his arsenal and individual game.

Leonard is known for his quiet demeanor both on and off the court, but as you can see from the data above, he and the Spurs have been adding new weapons to his game offensively year after year, and so long as he continues to work as hard as he already does, he’s likely to continue to develop in all facets of the game.

(Statistics via Synergy Sports)

Paul Garcia

About Paul Garcia

Paul is a San Antonio Spurs credentialed media member for Project Spurs. He covered the 2013 NBA All-Star Game in Houston, TX, and the 2013 and 2014 NBA Finals. Paul has been featured on WOAI, Fox 29, and numerous nationwide radio shows.

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