The 2011 NBA Draft planted the seeds for two of the most dynamic wings in the NBA to play alongside each other in Indiana. Within hours those seeds found new soil in the infamous George Hill for Kawhi Leonard trade that gave San Antonio a successor to their Big 3, and Indiana a significant upgrade over T.J Ford. For the rest of the NBA, we are all left to wonder if this fantasy dynamic duo could have rivaled Jordan and Pippen and ended LeBron’s reign atop the Eastern Conference.
Separated by 2100 miles, both George and Leonard were nurtured in their rookie seasons, and both lived up to the defensive potential they showed in college. Falling in the draft as they each did was due to their jerseys not saying “Duke” or “Kentucky” across the torso.
Despite their draft slide, both had decent rookie years, averaging 8 points per game, and battling the opposing primary wing scorer. Although George’s shooting stroke labeled him a prototypical 3-D wing, Leonard shot better from the outside at 37% from three compared to 29% by George. Despite his early shooting troubles, George was able to develop better as a primary ball handler just in time for Indiana’s surge atop the Eastern Conference.
In 2013, George stepped into a larger role with knee surgery hampering All-Star forward Danny Granger for the majority of the season. George played extremely well, making his first All-Star team with career highs in all statistical categories.
His breakout season culminated with a showdown with LeBron in the conference finals where he went tit for tat with the King, earning his stardom and offering superstar potential.
Meanwhile, Kawhi Leonard proved to be the Spurs secret weapon throughout the 2013 playoffs. His nose for the ball and ranginess on both ends gave the Spurs their missing ingredient for another championship: athleticism.
The secret was let out in that year’s Finals and The Claw was born as he also threw down with LeBron and came out of it better despite not taking home the championship that season. Though it would take Leonard just one year later to defeat LeBron in the Finals, George is still looking for his first win against the four-time MVP in the postseason.
Playoff success aside, Leonard and George compare well with each other on both ends. George is a nightmare matchup with his 6’9 frame along with the speed and shiftiness to come off screens and slice his way to the rim.
On the other hand, Leonard has proven to play well off others, relying on spot up three pointers for the majority of his jump shots. Due to their respective offensive systems, Leonard and George carry similar burdens offensively.
While not developing yet as a pick and roll ball handler, Leonard is still the focal point of his offense, relying on his mid-post game as well as his length around the basket to score. On the other hand, George has strayed more and more into the land of isolation as the talent on his roster has depleted.
By default, George has had to be the Pacers best scorer and playmaker for the majority of his career, a burden he carried well early, but a job he has declined in since his return from his broken leg. His career assist average of 3.1, doesn’t scream all-around talent, but compared to Leonard’s 1.5, George has the edge in the playmaking department.
Defensively, there are few better than George and Leonard, both with three All-NBA Defensive selections with Leonard most recently beating out George for 1st-team honors last season. As pesky as George is, Leonard has become a menace defensively, earning back to back Defensive Player of the Year honors.
As good as these talents are there is still room for improvement for both of them. Leonard will live in a day where Tony Parker is not the primary ball handler and he will have to carry the load of distributing the rock. The hope, at least for the Spurs, is that he isn’t a product of the system and will succeed past the years of Popovich, Parker, and Ginobili.
George is nearly at the peak of his ability with the only thing missing being a player just as good as him to compliment his skillset. George is a case of a star that looks more like a star playing with others, evidenced by his performance for Team USA this past summer. In the small market that is Indiana, there is only so much the Pacers can do to recruit another established star to play with George.
Even though Leonard’s ceiling looks higher than George, the key to unlocking their truest potential may be recreating the magic that put them on the same team momentarily during the 2011 NBA Draft.
photo via llananba