Less than a minute remained in the second quarter of the Clippers’ game Tuesday 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 three-point arc into the paint before considering his next move. A triangle of Charlotte 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 to open the regular season that saw Leonard average 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 Tuesday’s no-look pass did not come so easily for the 6-foot-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 hard-pressed to find anybody that’s improved that dramatically. He’s just a phenomenal, complete basketball player.”
Leonard’s 30 assists were tied for second most in the NBA after the victory over the Hornets, 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 night 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 three-time 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’s 37% usage rate is a career high, and the most effective way of using him thus far has been pick-and-roll plays.
“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. You watch him now and he’s like a totally different player.”
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.
“You watch him now and he’s like a totally different player.”
And Williams said that before Leonard had a career-high 10 assists against Phoenix.
“A lot of guys kind of over-hold the ball and then pass it,” coach Doc Rivers said. “It throws shooters out of rhythm. He does a great job — when a guy is open, he gets the ball. And he just keeps it simple.”
In turn, so have the Clippers.
“Kawhi’s been easy to integrate,” Rivers said. “Just put the ball in his hands. I’m no fool.”