The San Antonio Spurs have a knack for player development, and vitamins play a critical role. The players almost certainly take their Flintstones gummies every day like you and I do, but that’s not what I’m talking about. The coaching staff may develop an individualized set of drills to help each player build skills, to be repeated daily like taking a vitamin.
Kawhi Leonard’s vitamin is incredibly robust and complete, helping him grow from a freakishly athletic defensive specialist to one of the best two way players in the NBA. Every year, he comes back from the offseason with a new and improved skill set.
Robots don’t take vitamins, so that metaphor might not be quite right for Leonard. It’s closer to machine learning, or a system update. KawhiOS 6.0 was released in the preseason opener, and we got a preview of some exciting new features, such as enhanced pick-and-roll ball handler functionality and off-the-dribble 3-point shooting capabilities. The new operating system will no longer support outdated “system player” narratives.
Kawhi was a below average 3-point shooter in the 2014-15 season, but was one of the league’s best the next year. Among players who attempted over 3 shots from distance per game in 2015-16, Leonard’s 44% clip put him behind only JJ Redick and Stephen Curry, guys who make a living from beyond the arc. Leonard makes astronomical improvements like this because he works tirelessly, and he can apply that work ethic to any area of his game that he wants to improve. It seems he’s been working a lot on running the pick-and-roll.
On the first possession on Monday night, Leonard initiated a pick-and0-roll to his left, used the screen to create space and hit a pull-up jumper. Kawhi established his status as a dominant scorer last year, but in this game, he also showcased a newfound ability to facilitate out of the pick-and-roll. On one occasion, he hit the rolling David Lee with a bounce pass, and Lee finished a nifty layup. The roll man wasn’t the only beneficiary, as Leonard also came off a screen and hit new Spur Davis Bertans for a wide open 3.
The best plays from tonight’s preseason opener in Phoenix pic.twitter.com/mI6BPpSCzw
— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) October 4, 2016
Leonard attacked as the pick-and-roll ball handler 181 times last season, per NBA.com, a little over twice per game. In these situations, he scored 1.02 points per possession, which puts him in the top 5% of all NBA players. Of those with more than 100 attempts, only Curry scored more points per possession. Look for this hyper-efficient part of Kawhi’s game to grow this coming season.
Tony Parker didn’t make the trip to Phoenix, which gave Leonard more of an opportunity to attack as the primary ball handler. However, he was also without his top pick-and-roll partners in LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol. Both can effectively roll to the rim or hang back and pop a shot, and it will be very difficult to defend their pick actions for Leonard. Additionally, new Spur Dewayne Dedmon ranked among the league’s elite roll men scoring a whopping 1.38 points per attempt last year, almost as good as DeAndre Jordan.
The growth of Leonard from beyond the arc last year was a testament not just to his ability, but also to his shot selection. 86% of his made 3-pointers were off of assists, and he shot a very respectable 38.7% on his rarer pull-up attempts. 87% of the long range shots he took were open or wide open according to NBA.com’s player tracking data. Leonard did a fantastic job of knocking down easy 3-point shots in the flow of the offense.
It looks like the KawhiOS 6.0 update features upgrades to the existing long range shooting capabilities, allowing for more difficult attempts. On this play Monday, Leonard comes out of a pick-and-roll, which is well defended, dribbles back to the arc, crosses up his man and pulls up off a hang dribble with a hand in his face. It’s not a shot he would’ve taken last year, and it’s the kind of shot Curry takes about four times per game.
If Kawhi sinks these off-the-dribble-under-pressure-pull-up threes all season long, then … well, it’ll be cool. #Spurs #Kawhi pic.twitter.com/dlp8mmMEhv
— J.R. Wilco (@jollyrogerwilco) October 4, 2016
San Antonio got away from their typical style of ball and player movement in the playoffs last year, relying heavily on isolation plays for Aldridge and Leonard. Don’t expect Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich to do away with the motion offense, but he may encourage Kawhi to unleash his inner Mamba if the situation calls for it. Leonard certainly has the ability, and he seems more willing to take the game into his own hands to benefit the team.
The idea that Leonard is a system player is tired, inaccurate, and somehow widely held by lots of NBA fans. There’s no denying that Leonard has grown tremendously because of the Spurs’ exceptional coaching and player development, but that shouldn’t be held against him. Being part of a model organization and playing with great teammates does not make someone a system player.
Leonard is the best individual defender in basketball, in addition to being an elite and complete scorer. He is a top 5-player in the league, and he may be the only guy equipped to challenge LeBron James 1-on-1. “System player” implies that he only has success because he fits with the way his team plays, and he wouldn’t be as successful on a team that plays differently. The Spurs’ organization has nurtured Kawhi and helped turn him into arguably the best two-way player in the NBA, but their style of play actually constrains him.
On most other teams, a player of Leonard’s caliber would be expected to score at least 30 a night, but he has played alongside Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Parker, and Aldridge on a team that stresses the group over the individual. This is undeniably Kawhi’s team now, and at 25, he is in the athletic prime of his life. He is not a system player; he is the Spurs’ system perfectly embodied in the form of a basketball cyborg. System update complete.