Nylon Calculus: Kawhi Leonard’s impressive development

Jan 29, 2017; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) looks on during the first half against the Dallas Mavericks at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 29, 2017; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) looks on during the first half against the Dallas Mavericks at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports /

Given Kawhi Leonard’s current polish on the offensive end of the floor, it’s easy to forget about the limited offensive repertoire he had when he entered the NBA. When Leonard was drafted in the 2011 NBA Draft, he boasted an extreme wingspan and an unwavering motor. Yet Leonard was far from a guarantee, still needing to hone these physical tools into tangible basketball skills and actual production on the court.

In the 2014 NBA Finals, Leonard’s coming out party took place, as he went toe-to-toe with LeBron James. Leonard averaged 17.8 points per game while posting an otherworldly true shooting percentage of 75.3, a five-game stretch that culminated in Finals MVP honors.

But that success hasn’t bred complacency in Leonard. As Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have aged, Leonard has taken on a bigger role in San Antonio’s offense. Although it seems unlikely that Leonard can continue to add more to his game, he comes back with a new trick every year. Whether it be improved ball handling, a silky turnaround jumper or better playmaking for his teammates, Leonard has steadily improved in every season of his NBA career.

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Leonard’s most noticeable improvement from his college days has occurred behind the 3-point line. At San Diego State University, Leonard made only 41 of his 164 3-point attempts in two seasons. Although his 74.4 percent free throw percentage in college (a surprisingly useful predictor of NBA 3-point percentage) may have been a little more optimistic about his future shooting ability, he has still crushed expectations from behind the arc.

Leonard is shooting 42.9 percent from behind the arc over the past two seasons, and he’s nearly on track to join only seven other players in NBA history in the 50-40-90 club. Unsurprisingly, Leonard’s 3-point expertise has opened up all parts of his game, one of the reasons he has improved his scoring in every season he has been in the league.

However, Leonard’s development from the perimeter hasn’t just been limited to shooting. Leonard has learned how to adequately handle the ball and make plays in a variety of situations, a trend that is easily observable using the tracking data from NBA.com (available since the 2013-14 season).

Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi Leonard /

This season, the Spurs are getting the ball to Leonard more than ever. These touches have become more complex as Leonard’s career has progressed, as the Spurs are now asking him to do much more than just spot up behind the arc. With his increased reliance in both volume and complexity, Leonard is currently posting the highest Time of Possession percentage (or the percentage of Leonard’s minutes that he possesses the ball) of his career. With the ball in his hands this much, Leonard is now figuring out how to involve his teammates offensively. He is becoming more comfortable in surveying a defense and distributing the basketball, averaging a career high 3.5 assists per 36 minutes.

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Advanced stats have captured this improvement in Leonard’s playmaking as well. Leonard’s usage percentage is higher than ever, bolstered by the highest free throw rate of his career. And despite San Antonio’s heavy reliance on Leonard, his exceptional efficiency hasn’t wavered. Leonard’s true shooting percentage has never been higher, even though the majority of his field goals are unassisted for the first time in his career.

Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi Leonard /

In the end, Leonard is one of the rare prospects who has blended a unique physical profile with improbable development, a true testament to his work habits and competitive fire.

Sources: NBA.com/Stats, Basketball-Reference