Kawhi Leonard Is Absolutely Worth a First-Round Pick in Fantasy Hoops
After a year like that, a player usually becomes a surefire first-round pick the next time draft season rolls around, as long as his situation remains relatively stable and most signs point toward the chance of a repeat performance. Kawhi is a 24-year-old coming off a Defensive Player of the Year award -- preceded by a Finals MVP trophy in 2014 -- and yet some are hesitant to declare him as a first-round asset for this coming season.
In general, the disagreement regarding Leonard's value spans across pundits and fantasy players alike. He currently ranks 15th on FantasyPros.com's Expert Consensus Rankings for 2015-16, ESPN has him at 12th on theirs, and his Yahoo O-Rank is 10. Despite that fringe first-round average price tag, Kawhi has slipped to me in the late second round in a couple of the recent mock drafts I've done. I've also been in or witnessed several debates about his first-round worthiness on different forms of social media, and it's still only early September.
If he finished sixth overall last year, why does it seem like people aren't ready to draft him in that range this year?
In an attempt to bust some myths about Kawhi's value, let's start by looking at his 2014-15 numbers and how they stacked up against other standard-league fantasy assets (where a standard league has 12 teams, 13 players per team, and nine stat categories).
Note: "BBall Monster Values" in the table below refers to BasketballMonster.com's system of assigning a value to each fantasy basketball category, where the standard-league average is represented by 0.0. In other words, anything positive is better than the league average in that category, and anything negative is worse.
|BBall Monster Values||0.52||0.05||0.62||-0.19||3.06||0.13||0.38||0.30||0.34|
Jack of All Trades, Master of One
One argument against drafting Kawhi Leonard early is that his numbers aren't considered very "flashy." Of the players who finished as a top-12 value in nine-category leagues last year, Kawhi and Chris Paul were the only two to average fewer than 20.0 points per game (and CP3 was close at 19.1).
Casual fantasy players hold a bias for popcorn numbers and typically like to grab guys in the first round who can give them one of at least, say, 20-plus points, 10-plus rebounds, or 7-plus assists. There's something about those big, sexy marks that makes people think that scoring, boarding, and dishing is somehow worth more than any of the other six fantasy categories. In most standard formats, however, all categories are indeed created equal and you can take advantage of owners who act like they're not.
Getting Kawhi's league-leading 2.3 steals per game and the 3.06 value that it represents against the average should be just as important to you as Russell Westbrook's 28.1 points per game (3.02 point value), Andre Drummond's 13.8 rebounds (3.09 rebound value), or Ty Lawson's 9.6 assists (3.17 assist value).
Reverse Leonard's steal and point values and you essentially have peak Carmelo Anthony (2013-14) with slight dips in threes and free throw percentage, but better numbers absolutely everywhere else. No one was scoffing at drafting Carmelo in the mid-first round after an eighth-ranked season in nine-category leagues (10th-ranked in eight-category), so it doesn't make sense that Kawhi isn't getting the same treatment.
Maybe there's a problem with his being a "jack of all trades and master of one (steals)," but there shouldn't be. Kawhi is the only player in the entire NBA to be above average in eight of the nine standard categories, as well as the player with the highest minimum value grade at -0.19 (his 2.5 assists). The list of fantasy hoops assets that can help you at an average to above average level everywhere and hurt you absolutely nowhere is one player long; that player is Kawhi Leonard.
Some concerns stem from Leonard's injury history and the fact that he has never played more than 66 games in a single season. Granted, that kind of prudence is warranted -- especially on a team like the Spurs that isn't afraid to rest injured (or old) players -- but none of Kawhi's injuries were of the lingering or chronic variety.
Besides, if we're going down that path, let's not forget that Anthony Davis has never topped 68 games in his three-year career. For that matter, who exactly can you select in the first round that's bionic and injury-proof? If you're going to label Kawhi Leonard as a risky draft pick because he might get hurt, don't ignore the recent injury-plagued seasons of other first-round guys like Kevin Durant (27 games in 2014-15), Russell Westbrook (46 games in 2013-14, 67 in 2014-15), Chris Paul (60 games in 2011-12, 70 in 2012-13, 62 in 2013-14), Jimmy Butler (67 games in 2013-14, 65 in 2014-15), DeMarcus Cousins (59 games in 2014-15), and LeBron James (69 games in 2014-15 and due for a lot more in-season rest going forward).
Being a Spur and the Arrival of LMA
The final argument you might hear against drafting Kawhi Leonard in the first round is the fact that he plays for the Spurs, a team where no one averaged over 31.8 minutes or 16.5 points per game in 2014-15. Yes, Leonard was the leader in both of those categories, but the added signing of LaMarcus Aldridge this offseason -- along with his averages of 23.4 points, 19.9 field goal attempts, and a 30.2% Usage Rate -- might have some prospective owners worried that LMA is about to start stealing from Kawhi's cookie jar.
Would it make sense for an aging team to take away reps from its budding star with All-Star and MVP aspirations, or just continue taking away from the old guys?
|2012-13 Usage||2013-14 Usage||2014-15 Usage||2012-13 FGA||2013-14 FGA||2014-15 FGA|
Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili have all seen their Usage Rates and shots per game diminish over the last three years, while Kawhi Leonard's have been heading in the opposite direction. Why would San Antonio choose to buck that trend as the Spurs' big three gets even further up there in age and while Leonard is entering his prime?
We're all aware of coach Gregg Popovich's penchant for resting his old guys as much as the NBA will allow him to do. Given an extra star to afford him even more rest for Tim, Tony, and Manu, what seems like the more likely scenario: he takes advantage of his newfound embarrassment of riches and continues to lessen the responsibilities of his elder statesmen or that he starts taking away well-earned touches from a young Kawhi Leonard -- the clear-cut future of the franchise?
If you're worried about drafting Kawhi Leonard in the first-round after the obvious studs like Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James are all off the board, you shouldn't be. If you're worried about a lack of pizzazz in his stat line, don't sleep on the elite steals and the fact that he's one of the only true nine-category threats the fantasy game has to offer.
If you're concerned about his injury history, good luck finding someone in the first round that doesn't have one. If you think LaMarcus Aldridge could lessen Leonard's value, think again. If anything, shouldn't LMA draw a lot of double teams and create even more opportunities for his teammates?
You can go ahead and skip over Kawhi in the first round of your drafts if you like, but savvy owners will be there to scoop him up and reap the benefits of owning him if you do.