Utah Jazz forward Bojan Bogdanovic has raised his defensive level in playoffs. Just ask Kawhi Leonard

Los Angeles • There was a point this season when Bojan Bogdanovic was a defensive liability.

Maybe the apex of Bogdanovic-defense-concern-syndrome was after one mid-March game against the Warriors. In that game, he was blown by multiple times by Andrew Wiggins, and just generally looked like he wasn’t all the way there in applying the team’s defensive construct.

Bogdanovic had a terrific final six weeks of the season, but still, questions lingered: would opponents attack the Jazz’s Croatian wing?

Whoops.

Not only has Bogdanovic held his own on the defensive end, he’s been a revelation. Through two games, he’s holding whoever he is guarding to 7-20 shooting, according to matchup data from NBA Stats.

Even more impressively, he’s been the Jazz’s fourth-quarter weapon on Clippers superstar Kawhi Leonard — who showed he could be a title-winning No. 1 scorer with the Toronto Raptors in 2019.

“He’s unbelievable. His footwork, his ability to hit tough shots,” Bogdanovic said said of the Clippers superstar. “I think the challenge for us is to keep him in front and make him take and make tough shots. We have a lot of great defenders on our team.”

They’ve done that — and Bogdanovic has been one of those great defenders.

The first step to Bogdanovic’s skill in defending Leonard has been his ability to deny him the ball capably. This video, from YouTube channel Drawing The Defense, shows Bogdanovic working throughout the course of a possession to stay in between Leonard and the ball, making it a real pain to even allow Leonard to have an influence on proceedings.

Sometimes, though, Leonard does get the ball, and Bogdanovic has had an ability to make an impact then, too. Take this play for example: Bogdanovic gets the ball at the arc, isolates, but Bogdanovic does a great job in staying in front while legally contested the pull-up mid-range shot. Can Kawhi make this shot? Absolutely. But Bogdanovic makes it tough.

This isolation defense continued a theme: in seven isolation possessions Bogdanovic has defended, the Jazz have allowed only two points, according to Synergy Sports.

His best play, though, was late in Game 2: Bogdanovic defended Leonard 30 feet away from the basket, one-on-one, with three minutes left. He reached his arm out to poked Leonard’s dribble away, which ended up deflecting off Leonard’s leg and to the floor. Then, Bogdanovic jumped on Leonard for the jump ball — which Bogdanovic won.

His defensive play is earning plaudits from teammates and coaches alike. In fact Jazz head coach Quin Snyder interrupted his own answer to an unrelated question just to talk about it.

“What Bojan did tonight should not go unnoticed. He epitomized when you talk about a warrior,” Snyder said. “… I just like the way he’s competing. And obviously it’s important to him and he knows how much we need him to win.

Snyder added: “It’s the playoffs and he’s ready and he’s locked in, and that’s what you’ve seen. He’s one of the most competitive guys that I’ve ever been around — that translates to both ends of the floor.”

This isn’t the first time he’s shown this in a playoff series. When he was with the Indiana Pacers in 2018, Bogdanovic went toe-to-toe with LeBron James, before one of the greatest players of all time took that series’ Game 7. But that was when Bogdanovic was 29, not 32.

Donovan Mitchell said that the Jazz like to rib Bogdanovic a little bit about his offensive game. It’s very prolific, of course — “He is so good offensively that you just kind of that’s, when you think of Bojan, that’s what you think,” Joe Ingles noted. Bogdanovic was a 20-point-per-game scorer last year, before the emergence of Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson took some of his attempts in the 2020-21 season.

Still, the team jokes with him, telling him “we pay you to shoot the ball” during his tendency to pass up on some open shots.

Now, though, the joke might change: maybe that salary goes to Bogdanovic to be the secret-weapon defensive stopper the Jazz need in this series.