Kawhi 'Sugar K' Leonard is so much more than stats
By Ryan Rodriguez
39 mins, 16 points (7-16 FGs) (1-4 3s) (1-2 free throws), 6 boards (1 offensive), 2 assists, 3 steals, 1 block, 1 turnover, 2 fouls, +12. At first glance you would look at Kawhi Leonard’s stat line from last night and come to the conclusion that he had a good, but slightly inefficient night, gaining most of his plus/minus differential from playing a large role in the Spurs’ small ball units that blitzed the Thunder to the tune of +22. However, for the man now dubbed ‘Sugar K’, stat lines don’t quite do him justice as he brings a different element to the Spurs through his athleticism and uniqueness that has pushed them back into championship level these last few years.
Its not just the fact that defense is largely unquantifiable, at least to the common fan, or that he has to operate among the cracks and fringes on offense as the Spurs run their motion offense through their ageless ‘Big 3’ that sometimes allows Kawhi to float outside the main focus of the Spurs. It is also that he isn’t the role player who is going to get hot from three-point land, like Marco Belinelli or Danny Green, and change a game so visibly or come in out of nowhere like Aron Baynes in Game 1 of the Portland series and give an unexpected contribution. Kawhi is transforming into that souped up role player, someone like Lamar Odom or Robert Horry on past Laker championship teams, that constantly has an impact to where it can be muted if you don’t pay attention to him. It isn’t overly flashy and it is rarely captured in crazy looking stats, but the impact is nonetheless undeniable.
The big draw to Leonard’s game comes from the uniqueness of his physical attributes and the calm, almost unassuming demeanor he plays with on the court. Lately, all the rage has been about his hand size which measure, “11.25 inches from thumb to pinkie when fully stretched, 52 percent wider than the average man’s hands”, as Scott Cacciola wrote in an article from the New York Times on Sunday. But his arm length seems equally as freakish, as is his reaction and quickness that allow him to help on drives and still close out on three point shooters, sometimes even stealing the passes the driver attempts to kick out to Kawhi’s man. He has given these Spurs the new age Bruce Bowen, someone who is equally the on-ball defender and annoyance that Bowen was, while adding a dash of athleticism and versatility to play three positions that has helped the Spurs transition into the new era of small-ball NBA.
Yesterday, Kawhi displayed the brilliance and potential that has so many people rejumping on the bandwagon these playoffs after staying away during a season where he had to battle injuries and didn’t make the jump that people were expecting him to make. His defense on Kevin Durant, while not of the shut down variety, definitely made the MVP work for his shots, constantly putting KD in tough positions to hit shots. Early in the first, for example, Kawhi was guarding KD on the right block, forcing Durant out to about 14 feet crowding him the whole way. Durant finally caught the ball and had to face up with Kawhi draped all over him, only able to get his shot up and in because he had the help of an elbow to Kawhi’s dome when he ripped his arms through. Everyone knows this is going to be Kawhi’s biggest challenge of the series, make KD as uncomfortable as possible, and last night he was able to do this most of the time, as KD was constantly working to get and make shots while Leonard was on him.
Halfway through the 4th, with the Spurs looking to turn this back into a blowout, Kawhi showed his most unique asset and helped to push the Spurs into blowout territory. As Russell Westbrook drove from the top of the key, Leonard began to help on the drive, working off KD who was rotating from the right wing to the top of the key. Most players would never attempt to help on a drive like this, knowing that any sliver of daylight is all KD needs to make this a single digit game again, but Kawhi, with his unique physical gifts, was able to show enough attention to Russ to get him to pass the ball to KD, only for Kawhi to get his huge paws on the ball, avoid KD before mid-court, and then avoid two more Thunder players for an easy finger roll. Spurs go up 13 and three minutes later they were emptying the bench, up 19. This ability to help on drives but still recover and disrupt passes out to the three point line makes Kawhi the ideal defender for the new age NBA, where so many teams are employing some form of drive and kick offense, predicated on spacing and putting those spaced defenders in a bind. Luckily for the Spurs, they have that perfect space defender.
All this talk of Kawhi’s defense puts his offense on the back-burner at times, but that is more than ok. As last night showed, he still has work to do in that area, namely in the form of an off the bounce game that will allow him to be a little more creative in the way he gets his scoring chances. Last night, you could see his defender, usually KD, affecting him when he didn’t have that easy, clear path on either a drive or a jumper, contributing to the subpar shooting night. However, you still see the steady growth he has and is showing in getting his own shot, something that should only keep improving as he stays continually immersed in the Spurs’ lab of offense. And he has always had the cutting gene and transition ability that can match the go-go-ness of Tony Parker and Patty Mills, something that gives the Spurs another way to create easy buckets, as if their half court offense doesn’t do that enough.
Kawhi is that perfect Spurs player, the one they identify early with a specific skill set that will allow him to play early, while also seeing the room for growth he had and working with him to become this player over time. He isn’t force fed scoring opportunities because he isn’t there yet, but they still put him in positions to challenge his skill and help him suss out the finer points of his game that he will need in two or three years when it’s him and Parker running the show. But for this current version of the Spurs he is still in the growth stage, someone who is best working on the perimeter of things and picking advantageous spots to assert his physical and mental gifts on the game, and so he goes unnoticed at times in the stat book, all while having a huge impact on the game nonetheless. Last year’s Finals gave us a taste of future Kawhi and this year’s playoffs are only going to further that vision, and, from the looks of it, the sugar is going to be sweet for a long time.