Kawhi Leonard is 27 years old, enjoying the prime of a career that’s already turned him into the most complete basketball player in the world. He can score efficiently at all three levels, shoot, rebound, create for teammates, and, without help, defend just about every player in the league.
But when Phil Handy—an assistant coach for the Toronto Raptors who specializes in skill development and has worked closely with LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Kyrie Irving, among many others—met Leonard over the summer and asked what part of his game he most wanted to improve, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year had ball-handling at the top of his list.
“Great players are great players, and I think they become even better players when they’re willing to get out of their comfort zone and just work on different things,” Handy told VICE Sports. “Kawhi was already a good ball-handler. I just think a lot of people didn’t really get to see that part of his game. It was there.”
They started with simple combinations and focused on improving his balance, base, and footwork, then blended in additional moves with multiple variations. Repetition was key. The objective wasn’t necessarily to teach Leonard new ways to transport himself from Point A to Point B on a basketball court so much as it was to plow what he already knew even deeper into his psyche. Now, when Leonard does something with the ball, his reflexes kick in before his brain has time to process what’s going on.
“Sometimes the dribbling exercises you put guys through, it may not be something they actually use on the floor but it gives transference. Their instincts become better,” Handy said. “They just instinctually start to go from one handle to another to another when they’re in different situations in games.”
He's availing himself with a broader palette. Here’s Leonard getting hounded by Minnesota Timberwolves rookie Josh Okogie. When he goes between his legs and Okogie reaches in for the steal, Leonard spins baseline fast enough to convince viewers the move was directed by a choreographer.
The result of Leonard's hard work during the offseason is clear every night. After a lost year in which he only appeared in nine games, Leonard has not only re-inserted himself into MVP and “best player alive” debates, but has also emerged in his first year with the Raptors as arguably the best ball-handler at his position. Plays like the one seen below are already typical.
On the San Antonio Spurs, Leonard’s handle felt like a pencil sketch of the Mona Lisa. Greatness was imminent, but operating in place of flair and spectacle was a robotic efficiency that never really needed to evolve. Every dribble inside Gregg Popovich’s system was a wasted opportunity to pass or shoot, and who was to argue with that calculus? His straight line drives regularly led to tomahawk dunks. The Spurs were a juggernaut. That doesn’t mean Leonard was stagnant, though. He itched to journey past the fundamentals which had already been mastered. There was strobe-light training and a demand to create more than separation for his own shot, particularly in the playoffs, as Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili aged out of their responsibilities.
“He always was able to get to his spots, but now he is so comfortable anywhere,” Jamal Crawford told VICE Sports. “His handle is to the point where he does things to hop into shots, along with getting to the rim, along with using it to get his space in the mid-range.”
Today, Leonard’s ball-handling is an ideal marriage between style and substance; it’s grown from garnish to bedrock. There's more fluidity and jazz at a higher volume. His dribbles per touch are at a career high, and shots attempted after at least three dribbles account for over 57.2 percent of his own offense. (Two seasons ago that was 42 percent, and one before that it was 37.1 percent.) Leonard is also averaging 5.3 more drives per game than he did three years ago, and 1.5 more than his last healthy season with the Spurs. (So far, only 36 percent of Leonard’s shots have been assisted. His previous career low was 48 percent, and in his third year that number was all the way up at 59 percent.)
"San Antonio did a phenomenal job developing Kawhi and helping him become a better player. I just think it was a different system." Handy said. "The flow of our offense puts him in different situations where he’s able to expand a little bit more."
The hard work is paying off, but a change of scenery hasn’t hurt. When I asked why he’s been able to showcase his ball-handling a bit more this season than in year’s past, Leonard acknowledged Toronto’s system and how he’s being utilized: “It’s pretty much just the offense that we’re running. I’m just able to come off pin downs and there’s a lot of cross screens and dribble hand-offs. Nick’s just doing a good job of spacing out the floor.”
Where lineups earlier in his career rarely prioritized offensive gravity over defensive intimidation, Leonard now operates with four three-point shooters by his side (including Pascal Siakam, who's making a relatively impressive 34.6 percent of his threes right now), in an era designed for stars to take advantage of extra room. When he receives a pick high above the three-point line, Leonard skis downhill and sticks the screener’s defender on an island. It’s impossible to guard, but switching isn't much of an alternative.
“We knew he could score in and out and off screens and all those kind of things. Play in transition some. And now we’re kind of getting him more in the screen-and-roll game, so he’s learning. And I think he’s starting to see things a little bit better too. He’s finding some kick-outs and passes out of there, and those guys are gonna need to step in and make them,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “So he can do everything, right? He can do everything, and we’ll just keep progressing with keeping it in his hands in all situations.”
Sit 15 feet away when he warms up at the free-throw line, as I did before a recent Raptors game, and it’s impossible to ignore just how small everything looks in his hands—if the basketball is Earth's surface, Leonard’s hands are its oceans. At the NBA combine in 2011, his hands were 11.25 inches wide—which is wider than every player measured at the last four combines—and served as exclamation points at the tip of his 7’3” wingspan. They’ve always been his closest friends, around to help deflect passes and tally unreachable steals, sky for a rebound or finish a contested layup. And now more than ever, it’s hard to negate their usefulness when he handles the ball, too.
“Kawhi is really long, so my tendency when I’m working with guys that are long is to help them tighten their handle,” Handy said. “It makes sense biomechanically with your body, if you’re sitting in a wider stance it’s going to help you keep your length in.”
Leonard has more control over his entire body than the average person does over their big toe. Merge that discipline with unparalleled physical dimensions that directly impact his ability to manipulate a basketball, and what you get is a unique handle that defenses can’t really stop. He’s even more compact and under control than he used to be, which, when talking about someone who already takes care of the ball better than any star in the league, is really saying something. It allows him to alter tempos whenever/wherever he wants.
“He doesn’t play at a breakneck speed, but when he changes speeds he’s fast,” Handy said. “He just kind of puts you to sleep with the way he plays, and then boom. He’s really deceptive like that.”
The first time I re-watched this video, I thought the fourth dribble was a glitch; I’m still not 100 percent positive the ball physically travels went between his legs:
Already one of world’s best players, Leonard’s growth in this specific area has elevated his ceiling and made it even less possible to slow him down. Try and trap him and he'll turn the corner, draw two defenders and still create enough space for a baseline fadeaway. Leonard regularly rips the ball off the rim and goes coast-to-coast, swiveling through defenders with an in-and-out move that's executed to perfection at top speed. His between-the-legs crossover is lightning and his one, two, three-dribble pull-ups are virtually unguardable. Leonard's handle isn't the entree of his skill-set, but it complements everything else that makes him a franchise-altering talent. And just like every other gem who thrives in the same rarefied tier, the best is yet to come.
“I don’t care who you are, Kyrie, Steve Nash, Chris Paul. I don’t think you ever get to a point in your career where you say ‘OK, that’s enough with my ball-handling,’” Handy said. “You always have to constantly continue to get the rhythm of the basketball, and keep your handles tight, so wherever you are on the floor there’s any combination of dribbles you can use.”