After missing all but nine games last season with a quadriceps injury, many wondered if Kawhi Leonard could return to being the MVP candidate he was in his last fully healthy seasons with the San Antonio Spurs.
Through 68 games with the Toronto Raptors, it's clear that he has.
While Leonard has sat out almost 20 of those games mostly due to load management, he is averaging a career-high 27.0 points per game on the season. He's shooting 49.9 percent from the field, 35.4 percent from the 3-point line and 86.0 percent from the free throw line, splits that give him the third-best True Shooting Percentage of his career.
Leonard, however, isn't exact the same player as he was during his time with the Spurs. His game has actually changed in a couple of ways under Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. That much becomes clear when you compare how he generated his scoring in his last two full seasons in San Antonio to this season in Toronto using NBA.com's Play Type data.
The biggest difference is that Leonard is creating more of his own offence this season. According to NBA.com, he is averaging 4.3 isolation points per game with the Raptors. Not only is that way up from the 2.1 he averaged in 2015-16 and the 2.7 he averaged in 2016-17, it's tied with DeMar DeRozan and LeBron James for the fourth-highest mark in the entire league this season.
The only players ahead of them? James Harden, Chris Paul and John Wall, the latter of whom hasn't played since late December.
Leonard isn't quite as dominant as Harden in isolation, but he still ranks in the 87th percentile with an average of 1.07 points per possession. He's been practically automatic from midrange this season and he's been getting to the free throw line at a solid rate while rarely turning the ball over.
Leonard's ability to create his own shot against almost any defender has helped the Raptors the most in crunch time. In addition to being one of the league leaders in clutch scoring this season, Leonard has already made seven shots to tie or take the lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter and overtime, the most in the league.
A lot of those baskets have come in similar fashion, with Leonard putting his defender on an island and using his size to shoot over them.
Leonard has seen an uptick in pick-and-roll possessions with the Raptors as well. It's a side of his game we began to see more of in 2016-17, but he's taken it to an even greater level this season.
In total, pick-and-rolls have made up over a quarter of Leonard's offence on the season, making it his most-used play type. He's been a foul drawing machine, earning free throws on almost 20 percent of his pick-and-roll possessions.
That's a rate only a handful of players - one of them being Giannis Antetokounmpo - can beat.
The final area Leonard is scoring more frequently in a Raptors uniform is in transition.
The Raptors rank in the top-10 in how quickly they score after a defensive rebound and turnover this season, per Inpredictable. Kyle Lowry is always looking to push the ball in those situations, as is Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, freeing Leonard up to sprint to the basket or float to the 3-point line.
The Spurs, for comparison, ranked in the bottom five in both categories in 2016-17.
Leonard has also been aggressive pushing the ball himself after rebounds or steals this season. He's a bulldozer when he gets a full head of steam and he's been shooting more 3-pointers off the dribble this season, albeit to mixed results.
As for what Leonard is doing less of with the Raptors, he isn't spotting-up nearly as much as he used to.
Two seasons ago, Leonard ranked behind only DeMarcus Cousins in spot-up scoring. This season, more than 100 players are averaging more points per game than him on those plays.
Leonard was clearly the Spurs' No. 1 option that season, but they still had Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol, plus Patty Mills off the bench. With all of them being capable playmakers, Leonard spent much more of his time running around screens and waiting for kick outs.
Other than Lowry, Siakam and VanVleet, the Raptors didn't have quite as many players on their roster prior to the trade deadline who could set Leonard up in some of those same ways in the halfcourt. They at least have two more now in Jeremy Lin, who often ranks near the top of the league in drives, and Marc Gasol, who has long been one of the best playmakers at his position.
The hope is that Lin and Gasol will be able to bridge the gap between the two styles Toronto has been playing this season - the iso-heavy one when Leonard is on the court and the free-flowing one when he's on the bench - particularly at the end of games. As dominant as Leonard has been with the game on the line, the Raptors' overreliance on him could come back to haunt them in the postseason if teams begin to load on him to make someone else beat them.
With how deadly Leonard was off-ball in San Antonio, the Raptors have good reason to believe that it would make them almost impossible to guard if Lin and Gasol can unleash that part of his game again.
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