LEONARD’S BIG IM­PROVE­MENT

Lodi News-Sentinel - - SPORTS - By An­drew Greif

LOS AN­GE­LES — Less than a minute re­mained in the sec­ond quar­ter of the Los An­ge­les Clip­pers’ game Mon­day at Sta­ples Cen­ter when for­ward Kawhi Leonard palmed the bas­ket­ball in his mas­sive right hand while hold­ing it over his de­fender, like an adult play­ing keep-away from a child.

He drib­bled from the three­p­oint arc into the paint be­fore con­sid­er­ing his next move. A tri­an­gle of Char­lotte Hor­net de­fend­ers took one step for­ward and locked their eyes on Leonard, who stopped his drive, re­turned their stares and — with­out avert­ing his gaze — bounced a right-handed pass to team­mate Ivica Zubac, who had slipped into open space be­hind the Hor­nets’ trio.

Zubac scored on a layup and was fouled, and the Clip­pers’ two-point lead grew to five.

They never trailed again and the Clip­pers im­proved to 3-1.

The se­quence of pass­ing fancy was the lat­est in a four-game run in which Leonard has av­er­aged 7.5 as­sists, dou­ble his pre­vi­ous ca­reer high, while open­ing eyes with his abil­ity as a play­maker. They in­clude those of coaches such as Char­lotte’s James Bor­rego and Phoenix’s Monty Wil­liams, who re­mem­ber when plays like Mon­day’s no-look pass did not come so eas­ily for the 6foot-8 for­ward.

“No­body saw this com­ing in Kawhi Leonard,” said Bor­rego, who worked with Leonard in San An­to­nio as an as­sis­tant from 2015 to 2018. “He’s draw­ing more cov­er­ages than ever right now, but he’s try­ing to play the right way and move the ball. Did not have that early in his ca­reer.” Said Wil­liams, who also over­lapped time with Leonard as a Spurs as­sis­tant: “You’d be hard­pressed to find any­body that’s im­proved that dra­mat­i­cally. He’s just a phe­nom­e­nal, com­plete bas­ket­ball player.”

Leonard’s 30 as­sists are tied for sec­ond most in the NBA and eas­ily his most through the first four games of any sea­son in his ca­reer _ his pre­vi­ous high: 17.

The Clip­pers’ road game against Utah on Wed­nes­day could have pro­vided a most in­trigu­ing matchup, with Leonard’s play­mak­ing go­ing against the Jazz’s league-lead­ing de­fense, but Leonard rested as part of the Clip­pers’ strat­egy to man­age his work­load dur­ing the reg­u­lar-sea­son.

Though Leonard en­tered the NBA in 2011 as a will­ing passer, his play­mak­ing was not re­fined. For eight sea­sons to start his ca­reer he was in­su­lated from ex­ten­sive ball­han­dling du­ties by the pres­ence of San An­to­nio’s Tony Parker and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry.

Play­ing pri­mar­ily off the ball suited Leonard. Thanks to his work with renowned San An­to­nio shoot­ing coach Chip En­gel­land, Leonard made the first de­vel­op­men­tal leap of his ca­reer by be­com­ing a cred­i­ble three-point shooter. He was soon a three­time All-Star, two-time cham­pion and two-time most valu­able player of the NBA Fi­nals.

“He didn’t say any­thing, and he just put the time in, the ef­fort, the work, stud­ied his craft and if you do that day after day, year after year, sum­mer after sum­mer, you can be­come a spe­cial player in this league,” Bor­rego said. “It’s no co­in­ci­dence that he’s be­come this. He ob­vi­ously had the tools and some skill-set but it’s been the time, the work ethic.”

With­out a tra­di­tional point guard ini­ti­at­ing the of­fense, the Clip­pers needed some­thing dif­fer­ent from their best player. Leonard has been the pri­mary ball­han­der 37% of the time, a ca­reer high, and the most ef­fec­tive way of us­ing him thus far has been pick-and-roll plays. Only nine play­ers have av­er­aged at least 10 pos­ses­sions per game this sea­son as a ball­han­dler in pick-and-roll sit­u­a­tions, ac­cord­ing to Syn­ergy. Eight are guards. The ninth is Leonard, who’s scored 1.14 points per pos­ses­sion in those sit­u­a­tions, fourth best be­hind Brook­lyn’s Kyrie Irv­ing, Port­land’s Damian Lil­lard and Bos­ton’s Kemba Walker.

When he passes to the screener out of pick-and-roll plays, the Clip­pers have been even more lethal, scor­ing a league-best 1.7 points per pos­ses­sion.

“That’s an elite player, man,” said Mon­trezl Har­rell, the backup cen­ter whose rolls to the rim have helped him shoot 80% off passes from Leonard.

In 2017, Leonard’s last full sea­son with the Spurs, he han­dled the ball in pick-and-rolls on 25% of his pos­ses­sions. Last sea­son in Toronto, that share was nearly 27%.

Through four games with the Clip­pers, it’s up to 43%.

“The last two teams I played on, (there) was a dom­i­nant point guard with Tony Parker and Kyle, they did much of our play­mak­ing,” Leonard said. “But I feel like I have to step in that role right now and, you know, get our play­ers open shots.”

His com­fort han­dling the ball rep­re­sents the lat­est leap of his ca­reer pro­gres­sion, Wil­liams said. “All the great ones fig­ure out a way to get bet­ter,” said Wil­liams, the Suns coach said. “I was watch­ing the Mi­ami (2014 NBA Fi­nals) se­ries with San An­to­nio a few weeks ago and I was blown away at how hes­i­tant he was in that se­ries. He wasn’t the same guy.

ROBERT GAU­THIER/MBR

Los An­ge­les Clip­pers for­ward Kawhi Leonard (left) tries to wres­tle the ball from Char­lotte Hor­nets for­ward PJ Wash­ing­ton dur­ing their game Mon­day at Sta­ples Cen­ter.

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