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Los Angeles Clippers

Stat Just Happened: LA Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard has turned his biggest weakness into a strength

"Stat Just Happened" is our new series where we'll pair an important stat with how it actually unfolded on the floor. Our aim? To answer key questions, uncover hidden truths and peel back the curtain on why some numbers matter more than others.

Today, LA Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard takes the spotlight.

26.2

According to NBA.com, that represents Kawhi Leonard's assist percentage this season, meaning he has assisted on more than a quarter of the shots made by his teammates during his time on the court.

Why is that notable? It's far and away the highest mark of Leonard's career. If you remove the 2017-18 season from the equation - the one in which he appeared in only nine games because of a quadriceps injury - Leonard's previous career high was 18.2 percent, set during the 2016-17 season.

For context, the jump from 18.2 percent to 26.2 percent is the difference between Leonard being on the same page as Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins, who has never been known for his passing ability, and Utah Jazz forward Joe Ingles, who is widely regarded as being one of the better passers at his position.

Leonard's turnover percentage has increased alongside his assist percentage, but he's still posting the highest assist-to-turnover ratio of his career.

Kawhi Leonard's growth as a passer
Season Games Assist Percentage
2011-12 64 6.6
2012-13 58 7.7
2013-14 66 10.3
2014-15 64 12.4
2015-16 72 12.8
2016-17 74 18.2
2017-18 9 19.1
2018-19 60 15.9
2019-20 51 26.2

Since becoming an All-Star, the biggest knock on Leonard has been that he's never been much of a playmaker for others. It's not that he can't pass, per se. (There have been several times in his career when he's proven to be a capable facilitator, most notably in the 2017 NBA Playoffs when he averaged 4.6 assists per game). It's that he's never been someone who consistently picks teams apart with his passing.

This season has been a different story.

Through 51 games, Leonard has recorded seven or more assists 12 times. Care to guess how many of those games he had in his career entering this season? Six. In other words, Leonard has had double the amount of seven-assist games this season than he did in the first eight seasons of his career combined.

That's insane!

It still pales in comparison to the likes of LeBron James, James Harden, even Giannis Antetokounmpo, but for Leonard it's a big deal. To understand why you have to understand just how dominant of a scorer he is.

According to NBA.com, Leonard is generating almost half of his scoring in isolation and as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls this season. His rank in efficiency on those plays? The 85th percentile and 82nd percentile, respectively. Not only does he score at a volume few players can match in isolation and pick-and-rolls, he's among the most efficient scorers in the entire league on those plays. The combination makes him a double team magnet. Anytime he puts the ball on the floor, Leonard commands the attention of multiple defenders.

Again, that's nothing new for him - Leonard is averaging 24.5 points per game over his last five seasons - but he is now leveraging his ability to score against anybody to create high percentage opportunities for his teammates in ways he never has before.

MORE: Is Leonard the NBA's most clutch player?

It helps that the Clippers can surround him with the right personnel. Almost every time he takes the court, Leonard is surrounded by 3-point shooters and a roll man in either Ivica Zubac or Montrezl Harrell. As soon as a second defender commits to doubling him or helping out, it makes his job relatively easy - either hit the roll man or kick it out to whichever shooter is open.

The result: 85.8 percent of Leonard's assists this season have either led to a basket at the rim or a 3-pointer, a healthy mark in today's NBA.

"When I run pick-and-roll with him, the defence is so focused on him that I just roll hard and I'm open pretty much every time," Zubac told The Athletic's Jovan Buha in preseason. "And he's making that pass. I have to be ready, hands ready, gotta catch it and be ready to finish. But set a screen and roll hard.

"I didn't know he can playmake like that."

To be fair to Zubac, nobody did. It's not just the amount of baskets Leonard's setting up this season that's impressive. It's the manner in which he's doing it. As The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor detailed in a video earlier in the season, Leonard has transitioned from throwing "underhand baseball tosses" in the early part of his career to "fastballs" this season.

His evolution shows on plays like this:

There aren't many players that can make reads like that, particular at Leonard's position. Had he made his pass even a split second later, Miami Heat forward Bam Adebayo would've likely picked it off. Ditto for had he lobbed the ball over Derrick Jones Jr. and Meyers Leonard instead of throwing a laser. That's where the whole "fastball" versus "underhand baseball tosses" comes into play.

The stats speak for themselves. According to NBA.com, the Clippers are averaging 115.7 points per game this season with Leonard in the court. With him on the bench, that number falls all the way down to 107.6. Leonard had an almost identical impact on Toronto's offence last season, but his role this season is different. He's no longer playing alongside an All-Star point guard in Kyle Lowry, who is one of the best passers at his position. He is the primary facilitator on a Clippers team that currently has the third-best offence in the league.

Leonard improving as much as he has as a passer is a scary sign considering he was already considered by many to be the best player in the league.

Now that he doesn't have a real weakness, it only helps his case.

The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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