- Created on Wednesday, 13 February 2013 22:28
- Last Updated on Thursday, 16 May 2013 07:51
- Written by Jeff Noital
When the San Antonio Spurs drafted Kawhi Leonard, it was to fill a need that was lost with Bruce Bowen's retirement. The team was desperately needing a versatile defensive stopper, something backup George Hill wasn't capable. Hill was a shooting guard who was learning how to be a point guard and had long arms to guard the two guard, but he didn't have the mentality to be a defensive first player.
While many thought Hill was in the Spurs' future plans, that may have changed when Kawhi Leonard was available when it was the Indiana Pacers' turn to draft a player in the 2011 NBA Draft. This was the perfect opportunity for San Antonio even if it meant parting with George Hill, a fan favorite and favorite of head coach Gregg Popovich. Indiana was home to Hill before he moved to San Antonio and the Pacers welcomed him with open arms as a great basketball and marketing move. He was also in a contract year and the Spurs were hesitant to give him a long term contract with the way the team was designed.
When the Spurs drafted Leonard, the talk began about the Spurs getting their defensive identity back, but that talk was halted when Leonard only averaged 24mpg his rookie season. That wasn't Leonard's doing, but more about the (as some would say) failed experiment that Richard Jefferson was to the team. He came in with big expectations of being the "small forward the team hasn't had since Sean Elliott retired" with his flashy scoring and 3-point shooting, but he rarely brought that with the team and seemed to disappear in the playoffs. While Jefferson's play was poor for the most part with the team, his contracts while a member of the Silver and Black forced the hand of Popovich to play him more than he probably should have and that may have cost Leonard more minutes than he got.
This year, Leonard is showing flashes of different pieces the Spurs have been missing. He's not only been playing defense similar to Bowen in his prime, which is remarkable seeing as it took Bowen years to develop into the elite defender while Kawhi is in his second season, but he's also been playing like the exact same player the Spurs hoped Richard Jefferson was going to be. The team had many problems in fitting Jefferson into the scheme of things with Popovich even dusting off old Sean Elliott plays which didn't pan out at all since Jefferson can't handle the ball to create his own shot. Leonard, on the other hand, has been that player and he's shown it most recently when the short handed Spurs defeated the Chicago Bulls during the Rodeo Road Trip.
Leonard shouldered the offense for most of the game and created his own shot in the process at the top of the key. He scored 26 points (11-18 FG shooting) in a surprsing win without the Spurs' Big 3 stars in Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan. His shooting this season is equally as impressive with 49%FG to go along with 40% 3FG in 29mpg. These are statistics the Spurs kept wishing Jefferson would produce on a consistent basis and it seems the sky is the limit for the guard-forward from San Diego State. His versatile offense with being able to create for others, shooting, and moving off the ball to find an opening to score is something the team has lacked in the small forward position for years, but his defense is just as versatile. Leonard has given Coach Pop the opportunity to bring back his old schemes that he would use for Bowen when Bruce would switch positions on defense to guard the opposing team's best player. Leonard has taken his turn guarding point guards to power forwards, such as Dirk Nowitzki. It's no secret that Leonard is one of the many reasons the Spurs are a great offensive running team while bringing back a defense first strategy, which is impressive given the increasing number of possessions there are in a scheme like that. You could say Leonard is bringing in what Bowen used to and what Jefferson never did and it couldn't come at a better time with the Spurs' championship window closing. If he can develop more than he has, Leonard might just keep the window open longer than any of us thought it would be.