A cyborg, a lethal scoring machine, the terminator — whatever label people attached to Kawhi Leonard, one thing was certain: He performed, produced and excelled like no other — if anything, much similar to an automated machine.
But this season proved otherwise.
Kawhi Leonard, just like the 450 or so other players in the NBA, is human. He can go cold; he can go through slumps; he can get hurt. Over and over again.
In the three games he played in November, the former Finals MVP posted an underwhelming 8.3 points on 41 percent shooting with 4.3 assists and 2.3 rebounds.
We didn’t see the same near-omnipotent forward that would muscle his way past double teams for an electric finish at the rim. Rather, Leonard mostly settled for mid-range jump shots that he couldn’t convert on as well as he usually does.
His three-point shot also bogged down his offensive production. In his first five games, the forward capitalized on just two of his 15 shot attempts from behind the arc.
As exciting as it was to finally see Leonard back on the court, it was painful to watch a future Hall of Famer struggle that badly in the regular season. Let’s not forget — in the 11 playoff games he played prior to his injury, the five-time All-Star was averaging 30.4 points on 57.3 shooting from the field with 4.4 assists and 7.7 rebounds.
But a third of the way into the 2022-23 NBA season, Leonard has finally started to show progress. And, to a considerable extent, he is starting to resemble his old self.
In the Clippers’ win against the Washington Wizard last Saturday, the fourth-year Clipper logged a season-high of 31 points on 12-for-26 shooting from the field.
This prime Kawhi-Esque performance was the peak of the steady climb Leonard made in recent games. He looks more comfortable and explosive with the ball; he is knocking down his go-to mid-range jumpers with more consistency; he’s been catching boards left and right — especially on the defensive end.
The statistics back up his recent headway: in the past three contests, the California native averaged 25 points on 51.8 percent shooting with 8.7 rebounds and 2 steals.
But as happy as we may be to see him back and comfortable in the driving seat for the Clippers, we can still expect more from the superstar.
His mid-range shot — whether that’d be him fading away in the post or his dribble-and-stop pull-up jumper in the paint — is unguardable. But his three-point shot? Not so much.
Even in the last three games where he’s caught on fire, Leonard has sunk just 5 of 14 looks from downtown. And it didn’t necessarily look like a defender’s presence was what bothered him. Especially early in the season, he has missed a handful of open looks from the wing and the corner.
In a similar vein, his shooting struggles continued on the free-throw line. A career 86 percent free-throw shooter, the veteran forward is shooting just 73 percent this season.
As Leonard continues to pick up his aggression near the rim and picture-perfect shot creation from the mid-range, his shooting from the three-point and free-throw lines could be the missing puzzle pieces to the return of the elite three-level scorer he once was.
The superstar has 50 games left until he has to return to the prolific scoring robot, should the Clippers want finally put an end to their championship drought.