Nigel Broadnax: Is Kawhi Leonard an NBA Superstar?

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On the most recent Bill Don’t Lie podcast, Grantland’s Zach Lowe told Bill Simmons that Kawhi Leonard is without a doubt a top-10 player in the NBA. Lowe is an NBA savant so his judgement on this is certainly one to be taken seriously, but that statement sounds strong upon first hitting the ears.

Despite Kawhi being the reigning Finals MVP for his San Antonio Spurs, the image of a soft-spoken youngster invades your mind when you hear his name. The mere thought of Kawhi Leonard doesn’t give off a top-10 player vibe; It doesn’t feel a like a natural match at this point.

Kawhi was drafted 15th overall in 2011, and it was known then that he could be solid on defense in the pros at the least. So far, he’s more than maxed out his potential as a defender as he is probably the best one among perimeter players.

It’s hard to notice who the top perimeter defenders of the league are without a disciplined eye when watching the game, but when Kawhi is guarding his man one-on-one, he makes it pretty obvious he’s one of the elite. His defense jumps off the screen and is palpable to viewers almost as much as it is to his opponents.

He just reaches into the possession of a ball-handler and either swipes the ball away, or just simply grabs it from him. He’s also a wizard when it comes to flying in to deflect a pass and turning it into a forced turnover. Those plays are becoming common from Leonard and essentially are his go-to moves (Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry recently illustrated Kawhi’s defensive game much better than I can here).

His skill set resembles one of a free safety/strong safety hybrid built for basketball.

On offense, he’s not quite the same asset, but far from a liability, and Leonard has benefited playing in the Spurs’ beautiful system his whole career.

San Antonio is very big into space and pace offense, and Kawhi fits into that very well. When getting a pass while cutting to the basket, it’s so tough for defenders to stop him from using his wide shoulders to bulldoze his way to two points. Since his college days he’s made great strides as a shooter, and he takes advantage of open perimeter shots manufactured by the system nowadays. His three-point shooting has hovered around the 37 percent range throughout his career, but he’s hitting 42 percent of his shots from deep since March 1st.

Being a Spur has helped a lot, but this year he’s formed a little bit more offensive identity as an individual and is a threat when given the chance to create his own shot.

With his massive hands, its easy for him to maintain ball control while maneuvering against defenders. There won’t be any electrifying ball-handling, but there will be hard dribbles paired with the aforementioned wide shoulders to abuse and overpower opponents en route to the paint. Those shoulders also come in handy when posting up prior to hitting a floater or jump hook over smaller defenders, and pull-up jumpers are slowly becoming a dangerous aspect of his arsenal as well.

The crazy part about Kawhi’s scoring production is that he’s not even San Antonio’s first option. That just proves that he has the most diverse mix of offensive skills on the roster — which gives him the ability to score in a system that doesn’t favor any individual player.

Bottom line, Kawhi is pretty good on offense and he’s really really good on defense. He’s a superstar defender, if you will, and makes that aspect of the game exciting to watch.

Does a two-way combination like that make him an elite player?

Many NBA observers don’t characterize defense in the same light they hold offense when considering the upper echelon of players. Those kind of players are typically associated with having the ability to score 30+ multiple times per week.

Kawhi, on the other hand, has a career high of just 26 (29 in the playoffs).

Last week, Matt Moore of CBSSports.com pondered on Twitter whether Kawhi was a better player than Carmelo Anthony, and was met with many ridiculing responses belittling the thought. Mainstream or casual NBA fans just can’t appreciate the things that Kawhi brings to the table like more sophisticated analysts, and he’s certainly no superstar based on popularity.

But the reality is that he’s the best defender on a top eight defense, the most versatile offensive player on a top two offense, and he’s a flat-out secret weapon on all of the 94 feet of hardwood.

Shouldn’t that be the definition of a superstar? Why should anything less than what’s described in the paragraph above be considered the blueprint of a superstar?

When Kawhi missed a stretch of games earlier in the season, San Antonio was essentially a .500 team. With him in the lineup, they’ve won more than 70 percent of their games.The Spurs have kicked it into another gear over the last few weeks, propelling  themselves into the favorites to win it all again in some people’s eyes, and Kawhi has been the x-factor.

That also sounds like the makings of a superstar.

Limiting a top 10 player to someone with the qualities of producing flashy highlights every game, or being absolutely adored by the majority of fans is unfair to other players impacting their team at an elite level.

Kawhi may be redefining how we view superstars. Perhaps with his continued improvement and the increasing availability of advanced stats through larger platforms, more of the general public will soon see that Leonard potentially belongs among the ranks of LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

Until then, there’s more than enough appreciation from the real focused observers who also love the game just the same.

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