Kawhi Leonard is a basketball robot with a freakish wingspan, massive hands, back to back Defensive Player of the Year awards, an NBA Finals MVP and a NBA championship. The hardware is impressive, but we already knew that. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Leonard is the constantly improving software, the basketball programming that makes him so effective.
In the preseason we got a sneak peak at KawhiOS 6.0, and now that it has been released with its full complement of features and functionalities, it’s time for a proper review. Our beta review covered Leonard’s newly developed skill for operating in the pick-and-roll, as well as the more aggressive shot selection algorithm that reflects his enhanced scoring ability. In addition to these updates, Kawhi has been handling the ball and getting to the free throw line a lot more.
Leonard started out as just a defender for the Spurs, but quickly developed into the team’s best who drew the toughest assignment on that end every night. That continued as his offensive game grew, and he eventually became the team’s primary scorer in addition to being one of the best defenders in the league. Now his responsibility on the offensive end is even greater, as he has become the primary ball handler for San Antonio.
Usage rate measures the percentage of a team’s possessions that a player uses while on the floor, and the last Spur over 30% for the season was Tony Parker in 2008-09. This year Kawhi is at 34% while the struggling Parker is way down to 15%, from 26% and 21% respectively last year. This has put Parker in a tough spot because so much of his offense is based on penetrating with the ball in his hands, but Kawhi is thriving in his new role.
Kawhi came out of the gate firing, and he’s averaging over 26 points through the first 7 games. His shot attempts are up a bit from last year and his shooting percentage is slightly lower, but he’s drawing fouls at a much higher rate. He hasn’t shot the 3 nearly as effectively as he did last year, but that should correct itself with time.
Leonard has so many attacking options with the ball in his hands, both in transition and in the half court offense. He’s been the one taking the ball up the court for the Spurs, and if nobody picks him up at the arc, he isn’t afraid to pull up for three or attack the paint. His quick first step gets him past so many defenders, and if the lane is open he takes it to the rack, but if not, he can pull up for a nice mid-range jumper. He’s also been excellent at creating for others, often by drawing in multiple defenders and then kicking it out or dumping it off to a wide open teammate for a high percentage look.
Leonard is a premier wing defender and one of the most efficient and most heavily used scorers in the league. He scores confidently, methodically, mechanically and viciously. He commands the attention and respect of the entire defense when he has the ball in his hands, and most of the time it hardly matters.
Pick and Roll
Leonard has become San Antonio’s primary ball handler, and he is running a high number of pick and rolls very successfully. He has attacked very patiently and methodically in the pick-and-roll for such a strong and powerful player, and it’s paying dividends for him and for his teammates.
Last season, Leonard initiated two pick and rolls per game and was one of the league’s most efficient at doing so. His 1.02 points per possession put him behind only Stephen Curry among players with more than 100 attempts. This year Kawhi has nearly quadrupled his attempts per game, and he’s actually been even more efficient scoring a ridiculous 1.24 points per possession.
One reason for this efficiency is Kawhi’s patient reading of these situations as they develop. He will often size up the defense, dribble quickly around the pick, hesitate and reassess. He isn’t just using these screens to attack the rim; he can hit the roll man with a bounce pass, or kick it out for an open 3, or shoot the pull up, or get switched onto a bigger defender, dribble back out of the paint and drain a shot in his eye hole.
While the volume of field goal attempts has increased slightly, Leonard’s number of free throw attempts has grown dramatically. His complete offensive skillset allows him to get defenders out of position, forcing them to either foul or give up the open shot. He uses an array of post moves, hesitations and pump fakes to get defenders in the air and earn a trip to the line. If a defender reaches, he pulls up for the shot and draws contact.
Kawhi has shot an average of 9 free throws per game this season, close behind James Harden, Damian Lillard and Demar DeRozan who are among the league’s best at getting to the line. Perhaps Leonard is focusing on this part of his game because he knows how easily he gets points at the charity stripe. He’s been automatic at the line so far, hitting an eye-popping 97% of his 63 attempts.
Kawhi is officially a superstar now, and referees seem to be giving him the benefit of the doubt. The narrative around Leonard has always been that he’s a silent assassin who isn’t at all demonstrative on the court, but that seems to be changing.
KawhiOS 6.0 Initial Review
All of these updates still have some bugs to be worked out, but Kawhi is now programmed to be the most efficient two way superstar in the NBA. Leonard’s consistency on both ends of the floor has driven the Spurs to their early success, as he was key in both blowing opponents out and running the offense down the stretch to win close games. The team suffered when he had a rare off night against the Los Angeles Clippers, as he scored just 14 points on 3/13 shooting in the 116-92 loss.
These are the reasons that the ‘Klaw’ will likely be one of the MVP candidates at the end of the year. His development into one of the league’s elite ball-dominant scorers is completely revolutionary for the 25 year old, and exactly what the Spurs need from him in the post big three era. KawhiOS 6.0 will definitely get the job done for the Spurs for now, but once they work out all the kinks in future updates it could be really special.