If we know anything about Kawhi Leonard, it’s that he certainly won’t vocalize that he’s “back.”
He had this to say two weeks ago after posting his first 30-point game since tearing his ACL in the 2021 Western Conference Finals:
“That’s just how the game played out,” When the Wizards were defeated, Leonard said. “I managed to find my spots, ascended to the top, and made some shots. When the game is in that phase where you want to be as aggressive as you can, you’re either going to make shots or pass it to your teammates so they can make shots. I simply want to act.”
Leonard describes his mental state in detail for the performance, but he doesn’t exactly announce his numbers, so let’s do it for him.
After dealing with persistent knee stiffness and an additional right ankle sprain, Leonard’s long, gradual recovery from his injury really didn’t reach its full potential until this past December. Prior to Thanksgiving, he played five games, never making it to 25 minutes.
But since his return from the ankle injury in December, Leonard has averaged over 27 minutes of playing time each night. 5. During that time, he has averaged 20.7 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game.
When Leonard plays, the 21-18 Los Angeles Clippers are 11-5 overall. (Having been ill, he was absent from Monday’s defeat to Miami. When Leonard is on the court, they outscore opponents by a startling 16.7 points per 100 possessions, which, according to Cleaning the Glass, places them in the 98th percentile of players this season.
As one of the most all-around superstars of this generation, LA’s leading man is doing almost everything we’ve come to expect of him, including scoring as well as creating as a scorer, providing assistance when needed, and anchoring a top-notch defense.
Leonard’s comfort zone is still the mid-range area. He is shooting in the intermediate range on more than 50% of his attempts, and he is currently connecting on 52% of those shots, which is a career high. In his sparse game action this season, the 31-year-old has also reestablished himself as a dominant isolation scorer. He gets those buckets in typical Kawhi fashion—with strength, touch, and precision rather than with a viral handle or quick-twitch speed.
Check out how Leonard’s faring among 69 players who have logged 40 or more possessions in isolation, per Synergy:
|Actual Field Goal Percentage
It’s a small sample, but Leonard has only participated in 16 games this season. He participates in iso games 15.1% of the time, which is a fairly high rate, and he continues to succeed.
However, Leonard is more than just a master of the mid-range shot or an iso scorer. His offensive strategy is surgical, and it shows in his attacking and playmaking presence. Less than one-fourth of his shots are made at the rim, and he only drives the ball 9.1 times per game.
When Leonard drives the ball, he’s difficult to stop. If anything, that puts him and Giannis Antetokounmpo in a tie for 15th place with his season scoring rate on driving field goal attempts (56.5%). 10.3% of his drives result in an assist, and 2.7% of his possessions result in turnovers. Among the 100 NBA players who have averaged six drives per game this season, the latter rate is the lowest.
The Athletic’s Mike Prada brilliantly illustrated how Leonard’s strength and processing speed make him a puzzle for opposing defenses:
I have more where that came from. In his most recent game, a narrow 131-130 loss to the Indiana Pacers, Leonard distributed 7 assists. Four of them were particularly remarkable:
In this game, we see:
- Quick recognition and feed to a cutting Paul George out of a post-up
- A no-hesitation extra pass to a wide-open Reggie Jackson
- A spin out of a post-up into a baseline drive, and then, an automatic kick-out to a drifting PG (this one’s gotta be particularly fun for Clippers fans)
- A face-up drive, engaging Myles Turner as the help defender, and pass inside to an open Ivica Zubac
None of these dimes are particularly eye-catching or mind-boggling. They do, however, provide additional evidence of Leonard’s impeccable timing. To him, nothing appears to be a big deal because, well, he just understands everything that is going on.
Leonard’s status as one of the greatest defenders in sports history is unquestionably well-known. But it’s worth mentioning again because, despite not being at the top of many steals leaderboards or metric quantifiers, the veteran’s impact is still extremely important. When Leonard is on the court, the Clippers are 10.1 points per 100 possessions stingier—a 97th-percentile improvement.
Here is one instance where Leonard won’t receive credit for any specific action, but he ruins a Boston Celtics drive by using the nail as assistance. He is skilled at not overcommitting to a play and losing control of his positioning, while still covering just enough ground to get a huge hand on the ball.
While superstar explosions are currently dominating NBA headlines, Leonard has managed to remain unnoticed by simply being himself. His icy 27.4% three-point clip is still more than capable of improving due to positive regression; this is almost certain.
But there’s no need to ponder whether Kawhi Leonard will ever revert to his former self. He has returned and is more than capable of leading the Clippers in the chaotic Western Conference.
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