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Can We Trust Kawhi Leonard in Fantasy?


It's hard not to lay out an argument either for or against Kawhi Leonard in any scenario, real or fantasy, without mentioning trust. It's the foundation upon which teamwork and chemistry are built. It's essential in a game where five men work together on the court in order to achieve a common goal. It's crucial for a player that wants to be considered a superstar and is looking for a max contract in a big market city, as well as looking to grow his own brand.

Trust was completely broken in San Antonio after Leonard sat almost the entire season despite being cleared by the Spurs' training staff in late February. He was then unceremoniously shipped to Toronto, where it was then reported he did not want to play. Although he's shown up, smiled for the cameras (sort of), and looked fine in his first preseason game, can the Raptors trust that he'll give them 100% all season while biding time to move to L.A. in 2019?

For fantasy purposes, we have a lot less invested in Leonard than the Raptors or any of his potential suitors do, but a first-round pick can make or break your team. With relatively safe plays like Paul George, Damian Lillard, and Chris Paul available at the turn of most fantasy basketball drafts, is it safe to take a chance on Kawhi Leonard as a top-15 pick?

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Undeniable Talent

By a measure of pure talent alone, the easy answer is yes. In the 2016-17 season, before the injuries and all the drama, Leonard was a top-10 fantasy player. His 48.5% field goal percentage was 14th-best among small forwards with at least 100 attempts and fifth-best at shooting guard, where he also qualifies. He was 18th in defensive rebounding among small forwards and sixth at shooting guard. In terms of blocks, he finished 10th at SF, third at SG. His 133 steals were tied with Russell Westbrook for seventh among all NBA players. Then there's the fact he finished fourth in points scored. You get the idea - he's good at basketball in every way.

Leonard should be a no-brainer in the first round as someone who can contribute in every roto counting category at a high level without sacrificing percentages. For god's sake, he even shot 88% from the free throw line that year. But two issues obviously remain: a new team environment and a questionable expectation of playing time based on health and character issues.

 

The Raptor Way?

Leonard is swapping place with fan favorite and former face of the franchise, DeMar DeRozan. They are not quite the same type of player but that's what both teams had in mind when making this blockbuster deal. The Spurs were looking for a quiet, unassuming All-Star to fit alongside LaMarcus Aldridge while ridding themselves of the Kawhi headache. The Raptors, meanwhile, needed to shake up a team that couldn't get over the hump despite regular season success and wanted to find a player who can perform at his very best in the playoffs. It would seem both got what they needed.

DeRozan, who has never been one to seek media attention the way many NBA stars do, should acclimate to Coach Pop's system rather easily in his workmanlike way once he adjusts to being outside the only team he's ever known. Leonard brings a Finals MVP award along with 87 games of playoff experience to the table. His Playoffs per game scoring average over his last three postseason appearances climbed from 20.3 to 22.5 to 27.7. DeRozan, by contrast, had seemingly plateaued by averaging 20.9, 22.4 then 22.7. DeRozan saw his minutes drop this past postseason while his FG% stayed at 43.7%. Leonard shot 53.8% from the field in the 16-17 playoffs, all while playing superior defense. It's clear that Toronto got the better talent of the two, so shouldn't it be easy to ascertain that fantasy owners should make Leonard a priority selection?

While Leonard has been growing each season as a player, he now must assimilate into a new system and a different culture. The Raptors hired assistant Nick Nurse to be the new head coach after firing Dwane Casey days after their postseason sweep in Cleveland. There is no way to have a full grasp of how the team will operate under a first-year coach, but Nurse was credited for opening up the offense and incorporating more outside shooting while under Casey, with a bigger focus on the three-point shot. The Raptors took the third-most three-pointers per game last year at 33, all the way up from 22nd in the league at 24.3 per game in 2016-17. Leonard had seen his 3PA rise up to 5.2 per game in 16-17, marking a career-high and surpassing DeRozan. We might expect this level to sustain itself in a less conservative offense than San Antonio, meaning a slight uptick is possible in the three-point categories.

In terms of shooting and scoring overall, there's little doubt the Raptors will run the offense through Leonard. He took an average of 17.7 shots per game in his last full season, scoring 25.5 points. DeRozan had an identical total last season at 17.7 shots each night, but only scored 23 points per game. The reason is that he posted an effective field goal percentage of 48.8% while Leonard's eFG was 54.1%. It stands to reason Leonard will see no downturn in the offensive categories. One slight concern might be that he will be used less often as a point-forward to bring the ball downcourt as he did in San Antonio. Coach Popovich has used many players in this role, including Manu Ginobili and Kyle Anderson. This is a non-issue, however, since Leonard averages 2.3 assists for his career and was used simply as a ball-carrier rather than a passer. As long as Leonard is healthy, his rebounding, shot-blocking, stealing and defensive prowess should remain the same as well.

 

The Caveat

All told, Leonard should have no problem at least replicating, if not exceeding, the All-Star level he exhibited when he played with the Spurs. Toronto posted the second-highest Adjusted Offensive Rating of all teams at 114.5, behind only Houston. San Antonio was 17th last year but finished second in 2016-17 when Leonard played 74 games. The Raptors were sixth that year. It's obvious how big of an impact he has. Leonard just turned 27 years old and with just six full seasons under his belt (and plenty of rest last year), he should be in prime form. This absolutely makes him a first-round pick in fantasy leagues. Now, here's the caveat.

It's never been admitted and possibly never will, but Leonard could and should have played through the latter part of the 2017-18 season and joined his team for the playoffs. He chose not to. Even the most ardent Kawhi fan couldn't tell you with a straight face that he was so injured that he was incapable of playing until the moment he was traded this offseason. As we've seen with him and now again with Le'Veon Bell in the NFL, as well as certain NCAA football players foregoing bowl games in order to preserve their bodies for big contracts, cash rules everything. If Leonard feels the slightest tweak or believes he is not getting enough rest, or simply wants to sit out part of the season with an "undisclosed injury" in order to make sure he's 100% ready to pass his physical for the Clippers, Lakers, or whoever his uncle insists should sign him, it will happen. The stats will be there, the impact will be felt, but for how many games? Much like Joel Embiid, a part-time All Star is great when he's on the court, but at that price point, you may prefer 70+ games of slightly less talent in order to ensure a more successful squad. If you trust Leonard more than I do and throw caution to the wind, by all means make him a first-round pick. If you read the warning signs and understand that he may not be fully invested in playing this season out for a team he never wanted to join, you may want to pass for now and let someone else inherit that risk.

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