Kawhi Leonard already dominates the game with robot-like efficiency, but with playmaking added to his game, he and the LA Clippers will be unstoppable.
Kawhi Leonard, a two-time NBA champion, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, two-time Finals MVP, three-time All-NBA selection and three-time All-Star, has very little left to prove to anyone in this league.
All that “system player” talk from a few years ago? That’s been buried by an avalanche of money mid-range jumpers. The complaints that he bailed on the San Antonio Spurs during an injury-stunted season that ended with a trade demand? Spurs fans may never forget, but the rest of the league has already moved on after watching him lead the Toronto Raptors fans to their first NBA championship during one of the most dominant postseason runs ever.
There’s been one big knock on Kawhi’s game that hasn’t been eradicated yet, however. It’s an area of his repertoire that’s always been subpar compared to the NBA’s other elite talents, and one that may have prevented him from winning MVP when he finished as the runner-up in 2015-16.
That blemish is playmaking, and it’s the latest area of the Klaw’s game that’s now showing robotic efficiency.
So far in 2019-20, Leonard is averaging 8.0 assists per game — a stark improvement from the 2.4 per game he’s averaged over his eight-year career to this point, as well as the career-high 3.5 per game he averaged in 2016-17. He recorded a career-high nine assists in the LA Clippers‘ second game of the season, and then surpassed it with 10 against the Phoenix Suns Saturday night. Per 36 minutes, he’s now averaging 10.1 assists. His prior career best? A mere 3.8 per 36 minutes.
This isn’t just some random October fluke either; Leonard showed signs of this growth throughout his scorched-earth postseason run in Toronto. From the second round onward, the Klaw averaged 4.2 assists a night over a span of 19 games. It wasn’t a massive leap, but it was the most well-rounded programming update to Kawhi Leonard’s software yet.
Early on this season, it’s looking like those glimpses of improved playmaking were just a teaser for what’s coming with his new team. While the Raptors had Kyle Lowry to run the offense and serve as the team’s primary facilitator, the Clippers’ main point guards — Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams — aren’t leading assist men. Toronto’s offense often devolved to getting Kawhi the ball and letting him work, but Doc Rivers‘ system revolves around a lot more player movement.
All of that has empowered Kawhi to embrace the one area of his game that’s needed to evolve, and he’s seizing the opportunity to show it.
“He can, and he does,” Rivers said of his capacity for creating for others. “He keeps the game very simple. His IQ is off the charts. He knows that guys are gonna help on him, and he hits the open man. He hits him on time too, that’s a gift. A lot of guys kinda over-hold the ball and then pass it and it throws shooters out of rhythm. He does a great job of when a guy is open, he gets the ball. He just keeps it simple.”
True enough, quite a few of Leonard’s assists this season have come from making simple reads, zipping the ball to open 3-point shooters when help-side defenders sink in just a little too deep.
However, Leonard’s shown true progress with his passing as a pick-and-roll ball-handler too, particularly in his immediate chemistry with Ivica Zubac and Montrezl Harrell. This kind of pocket pass is not something we’ve seen from the Klaw too many times in the past:
Similarly, the highlights below showcase both the easiest and more advanced playmaking he’s flaunting these days.
His gorgeous dump-off pass to Harrell after drawing the defense’s attention to the wing represents an optimized and fully operational Death Star version of Kawhi:
Through three games, six of Leonard’s 24 assists have gone to Harrell, while another four have gone to Zubac. Against the Suns on Saturday, Leonard continued to build that connection with his big men, even in a surprising eight-point loss.
“Yeah, we’ve worked on it a lot,” Rivers said of that pick-and-roll chemistry with Zubac. “Him, and also with ‘Trez. Just trying to build that chemistry. They don’t know each other that well, so putting them in as many situations as you can in practice to be able to see that and do that is important for us.”
Suns head coach Monty Williams, who was on the Spurs’ coaching staff during Kawhi’s time in San Antonio and also faced him in the 2019 NBA Playoffs as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers’ staff, had the pleasure of having to game-plan for Leonard’s automatic scoring ability, which now includes the threat of advanced court vision and facilitation.
Williams doesn’t think the outside world understands just how hard a “lunch pail guy” like Leonard works on his game.
“I don’t know if there’s been a player that has improved as much as he has from the start of their NBA career to where he is now,” he said. “You’d be hard-pressed to find anybody that’s improved that dramatically.”
Leonard’s 3-point touch is often the area where most pundits note the insane progression in his game compared to his college days, but if this upward trend continues, “playmaking” will shoot to the top of the list.
“All the great ones figure out a way to get better,” Williams said. “I was watching the Miami series with San Antonio a few weeks ago and I was blown away at how hesitant he was in that series. He wasn’t the same guy. You watch him now, he’s like a totally different player. He’s just gotten better every year, he’s added something to his game.”
Through three games, Leonard has tallied 27 actual assists and 69 assist points created. The Clippers had a little hiccup in Phoenix, possibly because the Suns look like a surprise team in the Western Conference that opponents will overlook as an easy win, but LA is still 2-1 and figures to be one of the best teams — if not the best — in the NBA this year.
Remember, they don’t even have Paul George to make opponents pay for giving Kawhi too much attention, and they’re already terrorizing defenses with Zubac, Harrell, Landry Shamet and Lou Williams feasting on those chances.
The scary thing is, Leonard is displaying these playmaking chops while still bringing his terrifying blend of matter-of-fact, efficient scoring and smothering, multi-positional defense. Most players have to draw back on their other strengths to emphasize a new addition to their game, but Kawhi is still averaging 26.0 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals in only 28.4 minutes per game. He’s also shooting 50.8 percent from the field and 35.7 percent from downtown.
Kawhi Leonard was already perhaps the scariest player in the NBA when fully engaged. If he’s really added playmaking to his arsenal, the debate over the league’s new alpha might become obsolete.