Finding a Niche For: Kawhi Leonard

Finding a Niche For: Kawhi Leonard
May 04, 2011, 11:52 am
Kawhi Leonard is one of the tougher and more versatile players in this draft, but has some limitations that indicate that he wouldn't be a perfect fit for every NBA team. In what type of situation would he be best suited?

Video and Scouting breakdowns by Matt Williams

Flying largely under the radar as a freshman--as one of the youngest members of his class--Kawhi Leonard generated some buzz late last season as an athletic combo forward with a nose for the ball and a relentless work ethic. Returning to San Diego State for his sophomore season next to the Aztecs' talented senior class, the Riverside native did not light the world on fire statistically, but he did the little things to help his team win, lifted them to the best finish in program history, and showed progress in some areas.

It was Leonard's intense, consistent effort level down the stretch that generated the wave of praise that has propelled him towards the middle part of the first-round on draft boards and elicited his decision to declare for the 2011 NBA draft and hire an agent. Despite his current standing, the same questions scouts had about Leonard when he burst onto the national scene as a freshman have remained largely unchanged.

Kawhi Leonard (#15) Strengths/Weaknesses Video

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Able to do so many different things for Head Coach Steve Fisher at San Diego State, Leonard blurred positional boundaries every time he stepped on the floor, leaving NBA decision-makers wondering what spot he is best suited to fill at the next level. His defensive versatility was obvious, but his offensive inefficiency and lack of a signature skill on that end of the floor made the answer to that question even less clear.

The intrigue surrounding Leonard stems from the synergy between his unique physical profile and the terrific effort he gives on every possession. Listed at 6'7 and sporting a lean frame that he could stand to add weight to at the next level, Leonard does not look a power forward, but his exceptional wingspan (rumored to be around 7-2) and giant hands certainly allow him to rebound like one. If nothing else, Leonard's rebounding is a clear-cut NBA caliber tool.

Often compared to former MWC standout Shawn Marion, Leonard shares Marion's quick second bounce and ability to do a bit of everything. Though Leonard is often purported as a great athlete, he is far more smooth than explosive. He's not the type of player that can blow by a defender at will for an easy layup without first setting him up with a series of jabs, or someone who will finish at the basket because he can simply out-jump the players around him.

The trait that makes Leonard seem like such a physical specimen is how well his tremendous length and fluidity complement his current skillset. He is exceptionally good at pursuing the ball on both ends of the floor, keeping his feet moving on defense, filling lanes in transition, and, generally speaking, involving himself on both ends of the floor in almost every way imaginable.

What makes Leonard an enigmatic prospect is his lack of a go-to offensive skill, despite the many different ways he was involved in San Diego State's game plan. According to Synergy Sports Technology, no single offensive situation accounted for more than 17% of his touches, with Spot-Ups, Isolations, Put Backs, Fast Breaks, Cuts, and Pick and Roll situations each accounting for anywhere between 8-18% of his total possessions. Leonard ranks right around the 45th percentile amongst all NCAA players in each of those metrics in terms of Points Per-Possession.

His lack of tremendous situational efficiency stems from the fact that there are a number of holes in his game that he'll need to work on, especially out on the perimeter. Leonard's most notable weakness is his lack of jump shooting ability. Connecting on just 32% of his catch and shoot jumpers and 28% of his pull-ups last season, the sophomore struggled with his consistency from range. As with all players noted for their hand size, there are questions about Leonard's ability to develop a reliable jump shot. While there is some merit to that stereotype, if will be necessary for Leonard to continue honing that part of his game to the greatest extent possible.

In addition to his limitations out on the perimeter, Leonard finishes at just an average 53% rate around the rim, which is somewhat surprising considering his quick leaping ability, length and aggressiveness. What limited Leonard at the basket was his somewhat questionable decision-making off the dribble and the fact that his team looked to him to create his own looks late in the shot clock. His rangy strides and solid ball-handling skills made it exceedingly easy for him to create decent looks from 7-12 feet virtually any time he wanted to. Though he knocked down some key midrange shots for San Diego State late in the year, those were not high percentage looks.

Leonard will need to continue to hone his shot-creating and finishing ability to become a far more efficient player than he was in college, as he ranks amongst the worst prospects in the draft in the [url= Shooting Percentage and Effective Field Goal Percentage categories.

Though Leonard does not excel in one area quantitatively, he has a number of tools that could become very significant should he connect the dots and fill out his game. In addition to his obvious energy and rebounding, Leonard has good court vision and the ability to use his dribble to make plays for others, something he showed regularly on the pick and roll this season. He's also quite capable of scoring with his back to the basket down low. Using the same fakes to get open that he does off the dribble from the mid-post, he can exploit mismatches in the post, a useful ability for a player who doesn't have a defined position.

On the defensive end, Leonard has some truly impressive tools. He does an exceptionally good job fighting over screens, and his length often allows him to make plays in the passing lanes and contest shots. He'll be able to switch on the pick and roll at the NBA level and defend both wing positions effectively and even slide over to matchup with some power forwards and guards depending on the situation. Though he doesn't have truly elite lateral quickness, you can see in our scouting video how well he moves his feet when defending one-on-one.

At this juncture, Leonard's lack of defined, efficient offensive tools makes it difficult to indisputably pigeon-hole him in a given niche. There are, however, a few different roles he could play immediately. Similarly to Terrence Jones, Leonard would excel in a hustle-based role for a half-court oriented team with the ball-movement to capitalize on his energy level, a stretch-four to give him position versatility, and the shooters and interior scorers to take advantage of his passing ability.

The ideal setting for Leonard as a rookie would likely be one next to a slew of shooters who can push tempo and score one-on-one. Though he may not have the tools to be an high-level option from day one on the NBA-level, his ability to get up the floor, crash the glass, and do a little bit of everything would fit well on a team with a defined offensive hierarchy in their backcourt. He has the tools to excel in a fast break oriented system that would allow him to get out and run, something he didn't get a chance to do all that regularly in the NCAA on a San Diego State team that ranked 301 of 345 in terms of the tempo they played at.

In terms of his fit defensively, Leonard is essentially a plug and play option. His length, versatility and intensity are ideal, and with additional strength and experience he could be a terrific team defender. The team drafting Leonard would optimally let him defend comparable sized and athletic forwards, since matching him up against stretch fours and pure shooters would take away from his ferocious rebounding.

Insofar as Leonard lacks a high-usage role to play immediately at the next level, he can make an impact with his hustle, length, and rebounding, but until his offensive efficiency pieces itself together, he's going to be a lower usage player offensively. That means he won't be spending near as much time with the ball in his hands isolating or spotting-up out on the perimeter like he did at San Diego State, which plays away from his weaknesses. With that in mind, the opportunity to develop his game, see consistent minutes, and receive regular attention from a team's coaching staff are as significant a part of the niche he fits in as what his role will be as a rookie.

Despite his raw offensive game, Leonard has an excellent foundation to build on. His few bad habits are correctable and his extreme youth (he won't turn 20 until late June) and work ethic should allow him to develop his skill set and provide direction to his value in the NBA while his rebounding and hustle help him see the floor early on in some capacity. Whatever team drafts him will need to manage their expectations of what he can offer early on offensively, but Leonard's gym-rat nature and late-blooming status could accelerate his development if he lands in the right environment.

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