How did the Spurs get a player like Kawhi Leonard?

San Antonio Spurs Big 4

The Spurs’ best player, along with Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan


Over at Grantland, Andrew Sharp has written an article lamenting the fact that the Spurs were able to get a player as good as Kawhi Leonard with the 15th pick. Sharp, who is a Wizards’ fan (my condolences), has the following to say about watching Kawhi Leonard play:

Rooting for a perpetually hopeless franchise will drive you insane for a number of reasons. You know this. But you know when it gets really bad? The playoffs, when you have to watch players your team passed up dominate on another team.

Kawhi Leonard has been a very productive player during his short time in the league. A quick look at his stats on the NBA Geek gives us the following numbers:

Season WP48 Wins
2011-12 0.284 9.1
2012-13 0.247 9.3
Totals: 0.264 18.4

He lead all rookies in total wins during his first year. This year — in relatively fewer minutes — he ranked third among second year players in total wins (although it should be noted that he posted the highest per-minute efficiency in that group). He’s also leading the Spurs in wins during the 2013 NBA playoffs. How could the Spurs — who, due to their consistent regular season success, typically draft in the the 25-30 range — get their hands on such a productive young player?

First, let’s talk about how Leonard was drafted. Leonard was taken with the 15th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. However, many might forget that it was actually the Indiana Pacers who drafted him. The Spurs acquired him by trading George Hill to the Pacers. So not only did 12 teams take a pass on Leonard (both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Utah Jazz had two picks in the top 14), but Leonard was obviously available to be had for the right price. Which means that it’s possible that more than 12 teams could have had a shot at acquiring Leonard. Why didn’t other teams try to acquire him?

Because other teams didn’t think he would be a good player. Coming into the 2011 draft, Leonard was not too highly regarded due to the fact that he didn’t score that many points. In his two years of NCAA basketball, Leonard averaged 12.7 and 15.5 points per game (PPG) — a far cry from highly touted prospects like Kemba Walker (23.5 PPG) and Jimmer Fredette (28.9 PPG), who were drafted ahead of him. Since NBA decision makers and fans consistently rely on points to evaluate basketball players, Leonard appeared to be nothing but a mid-first round pick.

But had these teams looked at more than Leonard’s scoring, they would have seen a player who was likely to succeed in the NBA. In June of 2011, our own Arturo Galletti examined all of the 2011 NBA draft prospects with NCAA experience and ranked Leonard third. The only players ahead of Leonard in Arturo’s rankings were Kyrie Irving and Kenneth Faried. While Irving was the consensus #1, Faried — like Leonard — was also not very highly regarded, and was taken by the Nuggets with the #22 pick. Sixteen teams had a chance at drafting Faried, but decided to pass.

And that brings us to the important point: most NBA teams are bad at drafting. Players like Leonard and Faried frequently last past the middle of the first round. Charlotte, Cleveland, Minnesota, Utah, and Washington all had the opportunity to acquire Leonard and Faried in that draft. Had these teams been looking at the right stats, these decisions would have been obvious. Instead, these teams focused more on the wrong stats — like points and how much weight a player can bench press — and on subjective qualities like “length”, “upside”, “motor”, and flashy shot-making.

Unlike many teams, the Spurs have consistently shown that they know what they’re doing when it comes to drafting. So I disagree as strongly as possible with what Sharp wrote immediately following the quote at the top of this page:

It gets REALLY bad when you watch someone like Kawhi Leonard dominating for the Spurs and realize that this never would’ve happened if he’d landed with your team….It’s knowing that if Veseley had been the one who was drafted by the Spurs, he’d probably turn into a weapon for years to come, and if Leonard went to the Wizards, he’d probably turn into an über-athletic wing with limited skills who becomes indistinguishable from about 50 other wing players in the NBA.

Yes, it gets really bad, but not because Leonard wouldn’t have become a good player on the Wizards, Cavaliers, Timberwolves, or any other traditionally bottom-feeding NBA team. It gets really bad when you realize that, not only was it possible to recognize that Leonard (or Faried) was a very good NBA prospect, but that it was so very easy to recognize. All you had to do was examine publicly available data from his time in the NCAA. Fans of perpetually losing NBA teams should be upset every time they see players like Kawhi Leonard and Kenneth Faried step out onto the court, and they should be asking themselves why their favourite teams keep missing on these players.

– Devin

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