An early look at Kawhi Leonard's return in 8 plays as the Spurs' star searches for rhythm
His jumper's a little flat, but his body control remains elite and his efficiency is through the roof
Kawhi Leonard is back.
The Spurs superstar returned to the floor last week for the first time since suffering his injury in the Western Conference finals six months ago. San Antonio fared well without its franchise wing, but with Leonard back, the margin for error increases exponentially. The Spurs consistently find wins through their discipline and fundamental play, but the Leonard's return means that when those things fail, they can find ways to win through his individual influence on both ends.
So how has Leonard looked?
Short answer? Really good so far.
In three games against the Mavericks, Rockets, and Clippers, Leonard put up a line of 10.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, one steal and one block in just 16 minutes per game. That's pretty efficient, even before you get to shooting 14 of 28 from the field. Obviously, he's still on a minutes restriction, and he has had areas where his injury was apparent. Especially his burst and elevation, like this shot which he hasn't had blocked by humans who aren't Anthony Davis or Rudy Gobert in years:
You see the same thing here on his turnaround, where he's short on the fadeaway. On Leonard's misses, this was a pretty common theme, and not surprising for a guy who hasn't played since May:
And again, way short on the step-back:
But there was a lot to like.
His confidence, however, was great. Here, he bursts past Chris Paul like he's a pylon, gets into the teeth, absorbs the contact but is able to adjust. The body control here is what really matters:
Again, his ability to absorb contact, and his willingness to take it, has not been compromised:
Leonard doesn't need to be able to burst and explode to the rim for the dunk when he's able to take bumps like the one in this clip and slip past multiple guys to get to the shot he wants:
When the Mavericks left him with room, he took advantage. Leonard's ability to manipulate space is important when he's injured. When healthy, it doesn't really matter. He makes contested shots like it's nothing, but here, he finds room when the defense lets up for a second:
Breaking: Dirk Nowitzki cannot guard Kawhi Leonard, even on one leg:
The most encouraging sign? In the 48 minutes Leonard has been on the floor, the Spurs have given up just 89.7 points per 100 possessions, relative to 101.9 when he's on the bench. The problem is the Spurs have scored just 87.8 in this tiny sample. That number figures to go up, but that has been the problem so far: They're not scoring enough when Kawhi is on the court. That's to be expected, but it is the learning curve they're working past.
The Spurs have a mostly easy schedule the rest of the month so they can let Leonard work his way back into game shape. The loss to Houston, a massive blowout, was obviously disappointing, but the Spurs' objective is to be ready for Houston in May, as they were last season.
Leonard doesn't look like himself yet, nor should that be expected. However, he's still Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs have the No. 2 defense in the NBA despite Houston blowing up their team like the Death Star in that game, and Leonard will only make them better. The Spurs proved that they can win with or without Leonard, but getting him back means that they're a near-lock to win 50-plus games for the zillionth time in a row.
Leonard doesn't have to be great for a while, but at this point, Kawhi is like pizza. Even not-great Kawhi is still pretty great.
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