It’s immediately apparent when watching Kawhi Leonard score that he patterned his game after the late great Kobe Bryant. Leonard has raved about Bryant in the past, stating that he idolized the Laker great growing up as a kid from Southern California. However, it has now been confirmed that the San Antonio Spurs molded Leonard into the player he is today with Bryant as the offensive template.
Kirk Goldsberry, current ESPN writer and former Vice President for Strategic Research for the Spurs, recently made an appearance on the “Lowe Post” podcast to discuss Bryant’s induction into the Hall of Fame. Goldsberry praised Bryant’s signature midrange game:
“He has this beautiful unassisted midrange jumper that he could get to almost any time he wanted,” Goldsberry said. “He was the greatest midrange scorer between Jordan and now. He gets that wherever, whenever he wants and he can sink it.”
Goldsberry, who worked for the Spurs from 2016 to 2018, then recalled a conversation he had with longtime Spurs’ shooting guru Chip Engelland about Kawhi Leonard, whom San Antonio traded for on draft night back in 2011.
“I talked to Chip Engelland, the Spurs’ shooting coach, about Kobe a few months ago for a story,” Goldsberry remembers. “He [said] that was the mechanical model they used when they were developing Kawhi Leonard...Chip was like…’oh, I’ll give him a role model to look at and watch this Kobe film.'”
Engelland is notorious for turning non-shooters into players that opposing defenses cannot leave open, and Leonard is the poster child for this. He was touted as a defensive specialist coming out of San Diego State, and not known as a shooter (particularly not off the dribble). But by his fourth year in the league, he was the Spurs’ leading scorer, and began to put together an offensive package that was eerily similar to Bryant’s midrange mastery.
Leonard loves to either post up or get to the elbow of the dribble, just as Bryant did, and his footwork and jump shot mechanics are flawless, just as Bryant’s were. Even the line-drive arc of their jumpers mirror each other.
“What Kobe did was take incredibly difficult shots,” Goldsberry continued. “Some of them were ill-advised, okay, but when he got into his shot, his mechanics were impeccable. He was able to make those difficult shots because of those...launch mechanics...Chip was very obsessed with getting Kawhi to learn.”
Goldsberry would go on to compare Bryant’s infamous buzzer-beater in the 2006 playoffs against the Phoenix Suns to Leonard’s also-infamous 2019 buzzer-beater that sent the Philadelphia 76ers home in the second round of the postseason.
“When I think of that play in Phoenix, it captures a lot of what makes Kobe special. Obviously, there’s the clutch thing. But the ability to dribble into and create your own shot, Kawhi’s biggest shot in his history is similar: dribbling into a crazy midrange shot over a very large defender who knows you’re going to shoot it, and making it.”
Bryant’s influence has spread beyond just Leonard; around the league, players like Paul George and DeMar DeRozan swear by Bryant’s brilliance, and emulate his midrange package. Leonard is by far the closest anyone has ever come to Bryant, but it is clear that coaching staffs will be using his skillset as the gold standard example for years to come.