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Leonard's transition to bigger role remains work in progress

Spurs' talented forward will need to make adjustment to more double-teams as he becomes focal point on offense

POSTED: Nov 4, 2015 11:59 AM ET

By John Schuhmann

BY John Schuhmann


Gregg Popovich knows 'progressing' Kawhi Leonard will need to adjust to more attention from opposing defenses.

— The reigning Defensive Player of the Year is the next big thing on offense.

Tony Parker is 33 years old. Manu Ginobili is 38 and Tim Duncan is 39. The San Antonio Spurs' added LaMarcus Aldridge this summer, but he's also on the wrong side of 30. Kawhi Leonard is just 24 and it will soon be his time and his team.

It won't be an abrupt transition. The Spurs have eased Leonard into a larger role every year he's been in the league. As his minutes have increased, so has his usage rate. This season, he leads the team and ranks 12th in the league with a usage rate of 30.0 percent. And he's not just finishing plays. Leonard has the ball in his hands for 2 minutes and 50 seconds for every 36 minutes he's on the floor, up from 2:27 last season and 1:51 the season before.

He's gotten pretty good pretty quickly. And he wants it. He works hard, so he'll continue to get even better.

– Spurs' Gregg Popovich on Kawhi Leonard

But Leonard isn't quite ready to take over for Parker and Ginobili in regard to making plays for his teammates. Through four games, he has just four assists, 10 potential assists, and three secondary assists. Of the top 45 players in usage rate (minimum 100 minutes played thus far), only two -- Bradley Beal (3.8) and Jahlil Okafor (3.0) have a lower assist rate than Leonard (4.3).

Usage rate = Percentage of a team's possessions used while on the floor.

Assist rate = Assists per 100 possessions used.

Leonard is a natural scorer. When he has the ball, he's looking to put it in the basket, not create an open shot for his teammates. When Parker came into the league, he was similar, and it took a long time for Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to mold Parker into the playmaker that he is today.

Kawhi's Double-Double

Kawhi Leonard records a double-double (18 points and 14 rebounds) in the Spurs win over the Knicks.

"Tony Parker is not the same today as he was 10 years ago," French national team coach Vincent Collet told last summer in a conversation about San Antonio's system. "When he left France in 2001, he was a scoring point guard, but he wasn't taking care, a lot, of his teammates. Now, he's a real point guard."

When the Spurs faced the Miami Heat in the 2013 and 2014 Finals, Parker's most important job was to "get off the ball" when Miami brought two defenders to the ball on pick-and-rolls. If Parker got rid of the ball quickly enough, the Spurs had a 4-on-3 situation, which would eventually result in an open shot. The 2014 Finals, in particular, was an absolute clinic in ball movement, and it started with Parker's willingness to make the initial pass.

Decision-making -- knowing when to shoot, when to drive, when to pass and who to pass to -- is a critical part of being a ball-handler in the Spurs' system, or any system for that matter. Leonard has a long way to go in that regard.

"Nobody's perfect," Popovich said Monday. "The best players in the game make mistakes. Understanding that, it's just a process. But for him, probably the most important part is that people are coming at him now, and there are going to be double-teams, and that's new for him.

"He'll have to learn how to deal with that sort of a situation. So we're working on that more than anything. But he's getting the ball a lot more than he ever has before, and for good reason."

The talent is there, and Leonard has obviously enhanced that talent with a strong work ethic. Leonard may already be an MVP candidate. Imagine if he eventually becomes as dangerous offensively as he is on defense, where you can't be loose with the ball when he's in the vicinity.

"He's at a point where he's discovering his talents, testing everybody, and is hungry to score," Ginobili said. "He's determined to score. His strength and length and stroke has been so nice that he feels like he can score every time. So it's a process.

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"Once you start seeing other things, you start shifting and you see your teammates more. But he's very young. He's still learning. And what he's accomplishing is incredible."

Neither the Spurs nor their opponents have put Leonard in too many decision-making situations. He's not running too many pick-and-rolls, and most of his offense is coming via transition, isolations or post-ups, or as the beneficiary of the attention paid to his teammates.

"For the playmaker thing, it's going to come," Parker said. "Right now, he still has me and Manu, and we can do the playmaking, do all the pick-and-rolls, and Kawhi can just focus on scoring. Maybe he can add that later. Right now, he's doing a lot of stuff already."

While Parker isn't ready to give up his status as the Spurs' primary playmaker, Leonard knows that he has to be ready for more attention from opposing defenses.

He's at a point where he's discovering his talents, testing everybody, and is hungry to score.

– Spurs' Manu Ginobili on Kawhi Leonard

"Once you're being aggressive offensively and start scoring," he said, "people are going to start either double-teaming you or collapsing, and you just got to find the open man."

The Spurs have already taken a somewhat raw talent and turned him the Defensive Player of the Year and someone who's ready to take on a bigger role in their offense. Now it's time to see Leonard take the next step.

"He just keeps progressing," Popovich said. "He's been a sponge. He's gotten pretty good pretty quickly. And he wants it. He works hard, so he'll continue to get even better."

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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