Creator: David Zalubowski | Credit: AP Copyright: Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. Kawhi Leonard NBA

Teams are always looking for the next so-and-so. Whenever Ben Simmons was a prospect, people compared him to LeBron and Magic. Everyone said Lonzo was going to be the next Jason Kidd. There’s been a string of next generation’s KD comps pop up for guys like Brandon Ingram and Michael Porter Jr. as well. It’s hard to try to compare young guys to absolute legends, but it happens all the time. Player comparisons help people who haven’t seen a prospect understand how they could be viewed when they’re at their peak. Someone who has started to pop up in prospect circles for player comps more and more is Kawhi Leonard. There are a number of young guys in the league today that could end up being as good as the 2-time NBA champ. Here’s just a few.

Before we get into who might be the next Kawhi I want to look at why this comparison has become more popular. Leonard is one of the more well-rounded players the NBA has ever seen. He’s been an incredible defender and has added new elements to his game every year to where he has no real weakness. If it weren’t for LeBron, I might consider calling Kawhi the best all-around player in the league today. I liken him to Mookie Betts in baseball. There may be players who do some things better than him, but his entire package of skills are unmatched. Players are becoming more positionless and it has allowed wings to unlock skills that enable them to do a little bit of everything. As they get older, they can add more to their game until their isn’t any true hole in their repertoire. 

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So what exactly am I looking for? What makes some players qualify for this comparison while others don’t? Some of it based off of feel. Do I feel like so-and-so can develop into a legitimate superstar? Does player X have the potential to play with the ball in his hands the way Kawhi does? Some of it is completely arbitrary, but some of it is based off of numbers we’ve seen to this point. Defense and the ability to knock down threes are the two skills needed to even begin to be in this conversation. Without further ado, here are your contestants for the next Kawhi. 

Mikal Bridges

Both Bridges and Kawhi have very similar body measurements. They both stand at 6’7” with wingspans of 7’. The both came into the league as terrific defenders and showed that right away. Bridges’ could’ve been on an All-Defensive team last year if it weren’t for Phoenix’s poor record and middling team defense. So far this year, Mikal’s actually improved on defense. He’s gained confidence and believes he can lock down anyone who he’s up against and that’s been the case so far. If you need proof, go look at how Donovan Mitchell fared when guarded by Bridges earlier this year. Mikal has a chance to be just as good of a defender as what we’ve seen Kawhi be and, realistically, he’s not that far off now in his third season. 

The other major qualifier is three-point percentage. Mikal’s been shooting 35.4% from deep as of today and has gotten better over time. He had a hitch in his jumper that was corrected last season and it made all the difference. He shot only 21.4% from three in the first two months of last season, but that number drastically improved after the mechanical change took hold. From December on, Mikal shot 39.8% from beyond the arc. To take that a step further, Bridges has shot 46.3% on nearly seven attempts a game to this point in the 2020-21 season. He has the two things needed to be considered Kawhi-lite down. 

Credit: Yukai Peng, Deseret News Kawhi Leonard NBA
Utah Jazz forward Bojan Bogdanovic (44) protects the ball against Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges (25) during an NBA preseason game at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020. Credit: Yukai Peng, Deseret News

The two things I like to look at as indicators as to whether or not a player can reach Leonard’s heights is how effective they are inside of the three-point line and how often they do it themselves. Kawhi is a master of the mid-range and has seen the number of isolations go up every year. For Mikal, he doesn’t score inside the way the Klaw does but he shows some flashes. He has shot the ball well from two-point range throughout his career and has seen the percentage of his baskets off of assists drop from one year to the next. It’s a small sample size so far this year, but he’s been creating shots for himself in a way he hasn’t before. I thought he would be relegated to spot-up role with Chris Paul being added to the team, but that hasn’t been the case. If Mikal continues to be empowered by the Suns to find his own shot when he’s feeling it we could see him develop some serious star upside.

Realistically, I don’t think Bridges is he next Kawhi Leonard. As much as I like Mikal and for as good as he has looked so far this year for Phoenix I don’t see that type of future for him. I think of him more like a wing version of Jrue Holiday. Mikal may average somewhere around 17 points, 5.5 rebounds, and a couple assists while being one of the best defenders at his position when he gets to his peak years. I don’t think Suns fans would complain all that much if that’s what they got out of the Villanova product. 

OG Anunoby 

Anunoby has quickly become one of the more beloved young players in the league. He was taken int he middle of the 2017 NBA Draft due to concern about his health and it has panned out well for the Raptors. They just signed him to a contract extension that I think will be a steal for Toronto once it’s all said and done. Anunoby shows off a very impressive skill set predicated on his ability to play on both sides of the ball. He falls into the same category defensively as Bridges in terms of him being someone who should garner some All-Defensive team looks. The edge OG has over Mikal is his size. Bridges is very skinny while OG is a grown man with room to add more good weight. He is currently listed at 232 pounds per Basketball Reference but he moves like a guard given his fluidity. His size and strength makes him extremely versatile defensively; just like Kawhi. OG isn’t always consistent on defense, but he should work that out over time.

Creator: Vaughn Ridley | Credit: Getty Images Copyright: 2019 Vaughn Ridley Kawhi Leonard NBA
TORONTO, ON – DECEMBER 05: OG Anunoby #33 of the Toronto Raptors shoots the ball during the second half of an NBA game against the Houston Rockets at Scotiabank Arena on December 05, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Anunoby’s offensive game has also be inconsistent as he has seen his shooting percentages rise and dip from year-to-year. One thing worth mentioning is that the subpar shooting numbers he put up in his sophomore campaign were in large part due to his sporadic playing time. OG dealt with some health issue that season and it hurt his on-court production. With that being said, there’s a lot to like about his offense game. His free throw shooting has gotten better from one year to the next, showing his touch is getting better. He’s been capable of creating for himself even when he has players around him that can get him the ball. For his career, 61% of OG’s two-point makes have been assisted on. Kawhi’s percentage of twos assisted on in the first four years of his career hovers right around 50% just for comparison. That number keeps dropping for Anunoby from one year to the next, showing he’s making progress towards being Kawhi-esque. 

If there is one player on this list I would bet on being the next Kawhi Leonard it would be OG. I don’t know if he ever gets to be the offensive threat Kawhi is, but the defense is comparable for sure. If Anunoby doesn’t quite reach that superstar ceiling, he should still be an All-Star. I would imagine he would be somewhere in the range of Khris Middleton but with more athleticism.

De’Andre Hunter

This one may not be at the forefront of some people’s minds, but there is reason to think Hunter could be a Kawhi carbon copy somewhere down the line. Many saw him as just a high floor, 3-and-D wing in the 2019 Draft, but he was taken fourth overall. You don’t take someone who’ll be a role player fourth. 

Even though he was tagged to be a great defender, De’Andre wasn’t that last year. It is awfully hard to very good defensively as a rookie, but it was supposed to be his calling card coming into the league. He has all the tools to be a great, highly switchable defensively and he has shown it in the past when playing in college. Because of that, I don’t think there’s too much reason to worry about him falling apart on that side of the ball. Hunter’s 6’7”, 225 frame is perfect for the modern NBA as far switchabilty goes. The defense will come in time.

Creator: Sarah Stier | Credit: AFP Copyright: 2021 Getty Images Kawhi Leonard NBA
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – JANUARY 01: De’Andre Hunter #12 of the Atlanta Hawks reacts during the second half against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center on January 01, 2021 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The Hawks won 114-96. Sarah Stier/Getty Images/AFP

The more intriguing part of De’Andre’s game to this point is his offense. He was much more than just a catch-and-shoot player last year despite that being his M.O.. Last season, Hunter had only 56.4% of his two-point makes be assisted on. That’s comparable to Leonard’s rookie number of 53.2% and makes me believe he has some serious untapped potential as a ball-hander. Something else worth noting is how his assist percentage has went up this year while his turnover rate has fallen. The guy knows how to take care of the basketball and has the ability to create for himself in ways people didn’t realize coming out of the draft. It will be hard for him to get the necessary in-game touches to help him develop the on-ball skills given the depth of Atlanta. Despite that, he’s shown some very serious skill.

De’Andre’s probability of becoming the next Kawhi isn’t as high as what it is for OG in my opinion, but it is there. The guy has skills that I didn’t think were there whenever he entered the league. He may get pigeon holed here early in his career given the Hawks current depth, which would be disappointing. If he does get the chance to be the clear cut number two in Atlanta I think he could be more like Khris Middleton. Khris is a step below Kawhi, but still a very effective player and would be a terrific outcome for Hunter. 

Rui Hachimura

There was a week after the 2019-20 season ended where people started bringing up one evaluator’s comment on Rui being like Kawhi. Because of that, I felt obligated to add him to the list. I personally don’t think there’s much of a chance for Hachimura to be that kind of player, but you never know. 

Rui has an interesting offensive profile. The guy can play with the ball in his hands very well for someone his age. He essentially had a 1:1 assist to turnover ratio in his rookie season. That may not sound all that impressive, but it highlights how confident he is in how he plays when he’s got the ball. Another thing worth citing is that he had a usage rate of 19% while his turnover rate was 8%. Here are a list of guys with similar usage rates and their turnover rates:

Joe Harris: USG% – 18.3% TOV% – 11.2%

Lonzo Ball: USG% – 18.5% TOV% – 21.1%

Derrick White: USG% – 18.9% TOV% – 12.1%

Marcus Smart: USG% – 18.9% TOV% – 12.1%

Creator: Pool | Credit: Getty Images Copyright: 2020 Getty Images Kawhi Leonard NBA
LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA – AUGUST 11: Rui Hachimura #8 of the Washington Wizards calls for a play during the second half against the Milwaukee Bucks at Visa Athletic Center at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on August 11, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. (Photo by Ashley Landis – Pool/Getty Images)

It goes to show how capable Hachimura was last year when he had the ball. He’s improved upon these numbers so far this season as well. His assist rate has gone up by 5 points while his turnover rate had hovered around 10%. He’s also shooting the ball much better from three, which was a major issue for him last year.

The major problem I have with seeing Rui being the next Kawhi is his defense. He is listed at 6’8” 230 and I don’t think he will be able to guard smaller players the way Kawhi does as he gets older. He isn’t the superb athlete the other players listed above are and that’ll only become more apparent with time. I think he could be a solid defender who guard power forwards and centers well, but never small forwards. The players that come to mind when I think of Rui are guys like Rudy Gay and Tobias Harris. He will be a very solid offensive player at his peak who could make an All-Star game or two. However, his defense will never really be able to help support a Kawhi-lite comp.

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There are a few other guys worth mentioning. Johnathan Isaac is an elite defender already with enough time left in his career to figure it out offensively. He has become more efficient over time so there is some hope he can become a two-way powerhouse. Injuries have gotten in the way, though, and that always makes for an uncertain future. Cam Reddish is another guy that has two-way superstar potential as well. He played great in the final 10 games of last year and was a better defender than Hunter last year undoubtedly. He’s still so young, though. He’s going to need plenty of time and the roster crunch Atlanta is dealing with makes me concerned about his playing time. Keep an eye on the upcoming draft as well. Johnathon Kuminga has been pegged as the Kawhi guy in the draft class. His athletic profile is very similar to Anunoby’s which bodes well for his defensive potential. His offense is somewhat of a question mark but he shows flashes of playing with ball in his hands. Maybe none of these guys becomes next Kawhi. No one really knows what the future holds exactly for these young guns; it’s all just assumptions to this point. The league is becoming more skilled, though, and I think we may start to see more high-level players model their game after the Klaw. 

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