Kawhi Leonard is the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year; here’s how he uses his extraordinary limbs to be a menace on the defensive end.
Kawhi Leonard is without a doubt one of the most fascinating basketball players on the planet. His rise to stardom was as gradual as it was momentous. He became a full-time starter for the San Antonio Spurs in his second year, won a Finals MVP in his third, won Defensive Player of the Year twice in a row, and finished second in MVP voting in his fifth year (2015-2016).
But this year he’s been special, transcendent even, as he continues to expand his offensive capabilities. The Spurs are 0.5 games out of first place with their one All-Star, Leonard, doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Through it all, however, he has maintained his trademark stoicism and endearing, almost sheep-like modesty. I mean, look at this guy talk about himself.
If he went back in time like the terminator he is and buried a series-clinching jumper against my youth’s favorite team, the Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns, I wouldn’t even be mad. Well, maybe 12-year-old me would be.
Anyway, despite becoming a premier offensive talent, he has kept the majority of his defensive reputation intact. And what a reputation it is. Among his many nicknames (Sugar K, Ka-wow, the Silent Assassin), one stands out: The Klaw. Standing at 6’7, Leonard uses every bit of his massive 7’3 wingspan, per DraftExpress, and gargantuan hand size to poke, prod, and rip the ball out of his opponents’ hands.
Leonard is constantly moving these mitts for hands, hovering them around an opposing player’s eye and waist level, both in an attempt to dislodged the ball and make the player uncomfortable. I can’t imagine what it’d be like to have fingers that look like heptapod limbs menacingly floating in front of your face.
Leonard makes players so uncomfortable that some coaches have adopted a unique strategy to cope with his hounding ways. Earlier this year, Matt Moore wrote that teams were at times negating his presence by leaving the player Leonard was guarding in the corner — essentially playing 4v4 basketball on the rest of the court. Coaches were avoiding him, and for good reason. Leonard, through his go go gadget arms and timely instincts, makes plays few others are capable of.
He’s a danger to those who over-dribble but he’s also strong enough to not get out-muscled. While he won’t lock down big-time seven-footers any day soon, he makes it a helluva lot harder for a bigger perimeter player like LeBron James to bully their way into the paint.
When posting up, a player is usually safe from getting stripped as his body is situated between the ball and the defender. The defender may take a swipe at the ball from behind in desperation but this usually results in a foul or an open lane to the rim. Leonard’s length, however, essentially allows him to gamble without, well, the risk.
When Leonard makes contact with the ball, he hardly has to move his feet and he maintains his position between the ball and the basket. His right foot is still outstretched towards the baseline, wide of James’ right foot, and his body is parallel to James’ body. This allows him to slide laterally, cutting off any movement. But he makes a play at the ball anyway before James can make his move in the post. A lot of times a swipe like this would lead to a foul or a quick baseline drop step.
Watch James post up Jimmy Butler of the Chicago Bulls. Butler, like Leonard, goes for the inside swipe. Butler has to shift his body to reach for the ball and James quickly takes advantage, going baseline for a spin and finish.
The same abilities that allow him to poke at post ups also make him a bane to lazy passers. He turns ordinary passes into haphazard ones. Even some of the most gifted distributors in the league (Ricky Rubio, Nicolas Batum) are not immune to his raking talons.
For Leonard, steals aren’t always intensive undertakings. In some of the above clips he casually reaches out and grabs the ball like a friend that reaches out and grabs your french fries while you look on indignantly. Even on his lunging steals against the Minnesota Timberwolves he never guesses from more than a step or two away. Leonard isn’t always looking to force the action; he’s more than happy to just control it.
That control of space is a conviction he carries with him off the ball. When a player moves past Leonard, Leonard will extend his arms out in the hopes of deflecting an attempted pass; oftentimes his head will be turned and his eyes will be nowhere near the ball during this motion. While this is not at all unique to Leonard, few have the wingspan to be as troublesome as Leonard is in crowded passing lanes.
Here, he recognizes the big in the high post, Gorgui Dieng, will likely try to sneak a quick pass towards a cutting Andrew Wiggins. So he simply sticks his hand in front of Wiggins, without looking at the pass, and takes the ball.
Simply having the ball in a region of the court Leonard occupies can be a danger. If you pass near him he’ll use his extend-o-matic arms to grab for it. If you drive into the paint he’ll reach out for a quick dig steal. And if you dribble right in front of him you’d better be ready to protect the ball — Leonard is among the league’s best at picking your pockets in broad daylight.
He’s as good as anyone at striking exactly when the ball, and not an opponent’s arm or hand, is exposed. This is usually in the midst of a dribble, especially when the ball is coming back up to the waist level or during a crossover. On top of his timing, he often adopts a defensive stance where he is bent over at the hips, his back increasingly parallel to the ground — similar to a cobra rearing its head back, the stance leaves Leonard in a position to strike.
Included in those clips are some of the finest ball handlers around, including Stephen Curry and Chris Paul. Leonard is a huge nuisance for even the best. He turns the routine — from posting up, to passing, to dribbling — into a massive headache.
Despite his constant pestering, Leonard maintains defensive poise and rarely makes inopportune gambles. Watch him push Russell Westbrook into taking a bad shot, here.
Leonard makes sure not to foul him, even though he flashes his klaws in for a steal three times. He does this all while staying with Westbrook, keeping himself in between the ball and the rim to prevent a drive. Westbrook, hoping Leonard would eventually reach too far, tries to sell contact for a foul call in a poor attempt of a shot.
Avoiding fouls is a basic tenet of the Spurs’ defensive philosophy and Leonard is a devout follower. As Jae C. Hong pointed out, he is the only active player to have somehow managed to record more career steals than fouls. He’s content simply staying in front of a ball handler rather than pushing up against him and risking unnecessary contact. It’s an almost conservative approach that is evident when watching him play. Leonard rarely appears like he’s in a hurry on defense, but his patience belies his zealousness for the rock.
His devotion is often displayed when he lets an opponent into the lane. Leonard, for all his talents, is not immune to being beat off the dribble. He’s not the quickest player on the floor and guards often blow by him, but even then Leonard is not out of the play yet. In fact, he’s fully comfortable playing defense from behind. His insane length allows him to reach over players’ backs and contest, if not outright block, shot attempts.
As the dribbler goes by him he’ll trod a few paces behind, stalking his prey. When the ball goes up, he’ll leap and just completely smother the ball. The last clip of his clutch strip of Westbrook in the playoffs is perhaps the finest illustration of the Klaw in action. As Westbrook goes for a transition layup Leonard simply scoops the ball up clean like a shortstop on a ground ball. Just like that, fast break ended.
Leonard’s gigantic hands provide him with a grip strength magnifier that few in the league can match. His ability to quickly pounce for the ball combined with the mitts he has for hands allows him to literally rip the ball away from opposing players. If there’s a contested rebound or a loose-ball scrum you’d be pushing your luck betting against Leonard ending up with the rock.
So there you have it. Leonard uses his extraordinary wingspan and hand size to harass, to poke, to intercept, and to literally rip the ball away from opposing players. His unique blend of length and defensive acumen makes him such a nightmare to plan against that some opt to simply put the ball far, far away from the Klaw.
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