Last Word on Pro Basketball’s Top 30 NBA Players: Kawhi Leonard

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 12: Kawhi Leonard (2) of the LA Clippers walks back to play defense against the Denver Nuggets after a change of possession during the fourth quarter of Denver's 114-104 win on Sunday, January 12, 2020. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Although ranking the top 30 NBA players in today’s game is an incredibly difficult task, The Last Word on Pro Basketball staff has taken it on. Coming in at number 3 in the countdown is Los Angeles Clippers small forward Kawhi Leonard.

Top 30 NBA Players

Number 3 – Kawhi Leonard

Kawhi Leonard played for the San Diego State Aztecs in college from 2009-11. In the 2009-10 rookie season in college, he averaged 12.7 points and 9.9 rebounds. He led his team to win the Mountain West Conference and to get into the NCAA Tournament. They would lose to Tennessee in the first round 62-59.

In his sophomore year, Leonard averaged 15.5 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. His team would win the Mountain West Conference again and make the Sweet 16. However, they lost to eventual champions Connecticut. As a result of his play at college, his jersey was retired by the San Diego State Aztecs according to City News Service. He was the first player in the program’s history to have his number retired.

Leonard was selected 15th by the Indiana Pacers in the 2011 NBA draft. However, the small forward from San Diego State was traded at draft night to the San Antonio Spurs along with Erazem Lorbek and Davis Bertans. According to Sporting News, the Pacers got George Hill from the Spurs.

Leonard had a productive rookie season. He finished fourth in NBA Rookie of the Year Award according to NBA.com. At the start of his career, Leonard’s offensive stats were not that impressive. However, his incredible defense is what made him stand out early in his career.

Furthermore, the NBA championship DNA for Leonard existed at day one in the NBA. The Spurs were always contending to become NBA champions with great players such as Tim Duncan.

His defensive prowess served the Spurs well in 2013 and 2014. In the 2013 NBA playoffs, he made it to the Finals but lost to the Miami Heat in seven games. However, the Spurs would get revenge in 2014 and Leonard won the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award. He would also win the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award in 2019 against the Golden State Warriors as a member of the Toronto Raptors.

In the 2019 NBA offseason, he signed with the Los Angeles Clippers and was introduced with Paul George in a press conference.

 

Strengths

Leonard is a special player and that is why he is ranked so high on this list. His most notable strength is being a two-way player. According to Slam Sports, Leonard is the best “two-way player” in the game. His defense has always been there since he entered the NBA. For example, Giannis Antetokounmpo describes the tough defense he had to face in the Eastern Conference Finals with Leonard and Marc Gasol according to ClutchPoints.

“Now, every day in my head, I’m seeing Gasol double-team me,” Antetokounmpo said. “You think I’m joking, but I’m not. I’m not seeing anybody else. I don’t care who’s guarding me. Give me a name. Thaddeus Young. All I’m seeing is Kawhi, Gasol coming.”

He played a key role in the Raptors defeating the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals with both his offense and defense. Leonard is also adept at stealing the ball. In the 2019-20 NBA season, he is averaging 1.8 steals per game. His career-high in steals came in the 2014-15 NBA season with the Spurs, where he averaged 2.3 steals per game.

Unlike his defense, it took some time for Leonard to become a scorer. His breakout season was the 2015-16 NBA season, where he averaged 21.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.8 steals, and 1.0 blocks per game. Since the 2016-17 NBA season, he has averaged over 25 points per game three times.

Leonard was also a particularly good free throw shooter. Except for his NBA rookie season, he has always averaged above 80 percent from the free-throw line. Currently, he is averaging a career-high with the Clippers with a free-throw shooting percentage of 88.9 percent.

He is also a decent three-point percentage shooter, currently shooting at 36.6 percent. Leonard is also a proficient two-point shooter shooting 51.0 percent in the 2019-20 NBA season. He also has an impressive field goal percentage, which includes shooting 49.6 percent with the Raptors in the 2018-19 NBA season.

Weaknesses

Leonard like many players in the NBA has some weaknesses in his game. The most glaring one until recently was his passing ability. Leonard has been criticized for his passing game being one step behind the rest of his game. However, he has improved this tremendously in recent years. Doc Rivers, coach of the Clippers said this according to The Ringer:

“You can tell that is something he was focusing on over the summer, to be a better playmaker. His passing ability is unbelievable.”

However, he had improved his play since then and passing has become a strength. This is also true for his elite scoring ability, which he did not have when entering the league. While a lot of credit should be given to Leonard, he was not an NBA All-Star or natural superstars like LeBron James, Stephen Curry, or Kevin Durant. This might affect him at the end of the day when people judge whether Leonard will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer or not.

Lastly, in the last few years, Leonard has been doing load management. Yes, it worked out with the Raptors with a Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy. However, the Raptors were already a good team before Leonard came with the Raptors. Not all teams in the NBA have the ability to do that and simultaneously get a high playoff seed.

Kawhi Leonard Career Accolades

Leonard, the four-time NBA All-Star (2016-17 and 2019-20) has a lot of accolades attached to his name. His first came in 2012 where he was selected to be a part of the NBA All-Rookie First Team in 2012. He was the NBA steals leader in 2015, was part of the All-NBA First Team (2016-17) two times, and the All-NBA Second Team (2019) one time. Furthermore, he has lots of accolades as a defensive-minded player.

He was named the NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 2015 and 2016, he was part of the NBA All-Defensive First Team from 2015-17 and was part of the NBA All-Defensive Second Team in 2014 and 2019. Leonard also was named the 2020 NBA All-Star Game MVP.

Lastly, he is an NBA Champion with the Spurs in 2014 and with the Raptors in 2019. As a result, he also won two NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Awards. He and the Spurs ended the James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade era with the Heat. Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors might have also ended the Warriors dynasty. However, it remains to be seen if the Warriors will bounce back next year or not.

According to basketball reference, Kawhi Leonard has a 54.77 percent chance to make the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. This is the second-highest for a player drafted in the 2011 NBA draft. The only other player from the draft with a higher chance is Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets.

Last Word on Pro Basketball Ballots

We believe in full transparency in the top 30 NBA player rankings, so we are going to disclose the ballots of our player rankings and where each contributor had each player ranked.

Tyler Marling – Site Manager – 4
Chase Gage – Managing Editor – 3
David Knight – Marketing Manager – 5
Zack Kircher – Associate Editor – 3
Matthew Waldman – Associate Editor – 4
David Ward – Associate Editor – 4
Avinash Chauhan – Contributor – 3
Adam Zigner – Contributor – 1
Albert Dadson – Contributor – 3
Dylan Guest – Contributor – 3
Raheem Bashir – Contributor – 3
Nathan Levine – Contributor – 1
Bill Huan – Contributor – 2

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