Kawhi Leonard thrives with stars out

February, 12, 2013

The San Antonio Spurs have a little secret that coach Gregg Popovich lets out of the bag every so often: Kawhi Leonard. Pop teased us with Leonard's upside for brief stretches last season; a week or so in January, when the rookie scored in double figures six straight games, and for much of March, when Leonard averaged 11.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 1.7 spg, 1.1 3s, and shot 55.5 percent from the field and 87.9 percent from the line.

Then there was the first game of this season, when Leonard played 34 minutes, took 13 shots and finished with 19 points, 7 boards, 5 steals and 3 3s. Since then, though, Leonard got hurt for an extended stretch and Pop's usage of his second-year guard has been so sporadic since his return to action that it's been tough to use Leonard in fantasy leagues. Things may be changing, though.

Pop has been resting Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili of late and gave Tony Parker Monday evening off. The result on Monday was that Leonard played a whopping 43 minutes, hit 11 of his 18 field goal attempts and finished with a career-high 26 points. He didn't contribute much else besides scoring Monday, but he has been hot overall this month, averaging 16.0 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 2.0 spg, 1.4 3s, and shooting 52.5 FG% (11.8 FGA) and 73.3 FT% (on 3.0 FGA).

That FT% is an anomaly (we can expect it to rise to well above 80 percent), but the rest of those numbers are easily attainable for Leonard whenever Popovich gives him enough run. That's the rub, though, because it's difficult to get into Pop's brain to predict how he will use Leonard after the All-Star break. That having been noted, the Spurs will want to keep Duncan, Parker and Ginobili as healthy and fresh for the playoffs as possible -- they're already battling injuries to varying degrees -- which means that Pop may lean more on Leonard leading up to the postseason out of necessity.

Even if Popovich doesn't give Leonard enough leash to truly break out, Leonard's overall production as a guard, who can shoot better than 50 percent from the field, rebound well and chip in 3s and steals is worth owning in just about any league. So go make sure he's not on your waiver wire.

Looking Back

Bradley Beal rested his injured shooting wrist for five games and did next to nothing in his return to action Friday, but he came up huge Monday night against the Milwaukee Bucks. Beal played 36 minutes off the bench and racked up 28 points (10-17 FG, 4-4 FT), 4 3s, 4 boards, 2 dimes, 2 steals and 2 blocks. Judging by that performance, it looks like Beal's wrist is OK and that he should soon be back in the starting lineup, replacing Garrett Temple alongside John Wall.

Josh Smith remains the No. 1 trade target on the market, and he appears to be making his case for his next gig. On Monday, he torched the Dallas Mavericks for 26 points (10-15 FG), 4 3s, 13 boards and 6 assists. Unfortunately, the hustle-stat beast failed to chip in any blocks and just one steal, plus he turned the rock over five times. Nonetheless, it's a nice reminder of his huge fantasy upside if he gets traded to the right team, a team that will turn him loose. Of course, if he lands on an already-talented team like the Brooklyn Nets, his value could take a significant hit overall.

• The New Orleans Hornets gave Eric Gordon Monday evening off, because he still hasn't been cleared to ball in back-to-back games (they lost to the Toronto Raptors on Sunday), which meant that Austin Rivers got a start. The trouble is that even though he played 34 minutes (the most since late December), his stats looked about the same as always: 7 points (3-7 FG), 1 3-pointer, 1 board, 2 dimes and 1 steal. In other words, he was a non-factor, just like fellow teammate and rookie Anthony Davis, who has hit just one of his 13 shots and failed to play even 20 minutes the past two games. However, I still recommend buying low on Davis, because I expect him to finish the season on a strong note. I'm not buying on Rivers, though. I just don't see the requisite talent in his game that is needed to generate respectable fantasy stats this season.

Looking Ahead

Leandro Barbosa was carried off the court Monday after suffering a left knee injury and will have an MRI Tuesday. However, Kevin Garnett said afterward that the team was told Barbosa's season is over. It's staggering just how many brutal injuries the C's have suffered of late. Look for Jason Terry, Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee to see a slight bump in production with Barbosa sidelined.

Andrew Bynum said he had "a lot of pain" in his right knee after two days of workouts that included a two-hour session Sunday. The facts are that he hasn't even done full contact or post moves in practice yet, which doesn't bode well for his return to game action anytime soon. He admitted yesterday that he's "not sure" if he will return in February, so it sounds like any chance he will return soon after the All-Star break is gone, and it's fair to wonder whether we will see him in a Philadelphia 76ers uni at all this season.

Deron Williams skipped Monday's game and will miss Wednesday's tilt with the Denver Nuggets, too, as he rests his troublesome ankles after receiving PRP injections into both joints. The Nets hope he will be able to push through the remainder of the season after the treatment and rest, but it seems clear he will not be 100 percent until surgery fixes the problem in the offseason. C.J. Watson (0-7 FG Monday), MarShon Brooks (9 points, 0 assists) and Tyshawn Taylor (12 points, 2 dimes) will get some extra run Wednesday but aren't exactly appetizing fantasy options.

Fastbreak Player of the Night

It's almost time to put a bow on Segment 1 of the Fastbreak game. We have a full slate of games Wednesday, two games Thursday and then the All-Star break before we begin Segment 2 next week. As for Wednesday's Fastbreak lineup, I like LaMarcus Aldridge. He's averaging 23.7 points, 10.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.0 blocks and shooting 53.4 percent from the field in six games this month and is facing the weak Hornets frontcourt. He should be a shoo-in for at least 25-30 Fastbreak points.



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