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Old 05-01-12, 10:44 PM
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Article: Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard leaves draft-day peers behind

NBA: Spurs? Kawhi Leonard leaves draft-day peers behind | The Salt Lake Tribune
NBA: Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard leaves draft-day peers behind
NBA • After sliding to No. 15 pick, former San Diego State forward excels.

By Brian T. Smith

The Salt Lake Tribune
San Antonio Spurs' Kawhi Leonard, left, shoots above Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward during the first half of an NBA basketball game on Saturday, Dec. 31, 2011, at the AT&T Center in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)

San Antonio • Draft day was supposed to be special for Kawhi Leonard.

Then he started falling.

At one point, Leonard was told he could go as high as No. 5 overall in the 2011 lottery. At worst, he’d been advised he might drop to 16.

But as players such as Brigham Young University’s Jimmer Fredette went to Sacramento at No. 10 and ex-Colorado guard Alec Burks was selected by the Jazz at No. 12, all Leonard could do was wait.

Finally, Indiana picked him at 15 last June. But the future Pacer immediately became a Spur. Leonard was unexpectedly traded for well-liked San Antonio guard George Hill, and two strong seasons at San Diego State were quickly washed away by draft-day questions about what it felt like to be an overlooked first-round ’tweener dealing with an uncomfortable situation.

“I was just happy to get picked and be on a team,” Leonard said

Nearly a year after falling, Leonard’s higher than ever.

The Spurs rookie averaged 7.9 points and 5.1 rebounds in 64 games (39 starts) this season. He earned the trust of his teammates and the respect of hard-to-please coach Gregg Popovich. And while young athletes such as Kemba Walker, Brandon Knight and Fredette spent 2011-12 stuck on losing teams, Leonard’s impressive first season hasn’t stopped.

“The fit’s been great,” he said. “We won a lot of games during the regular season. We won our first playoff game. I’m just adjusting to everybody well. … Pop is a great coach and taught me a few things. It just got me better as a player.”

Leonard has exceeded initial expectations by drawing from a collection of offensive weapons. He shot 49.3 percent from the field and 37.6 percent behind the 3-point line during the regular season, while his athleticism and basketball intelligence have allowed him to overcome a slightly undersized frame.

How much trust does Popovich have in Leonard? The 2011-12 NBA Coach of the Year willingly shipped Hill to Indiana so San Antonio could acquire the Steve Fisher product. Then the ex-Aztec started Game 1 against the Jazz.

First-unit teammates Tony Parker and Danny Green raved Tuesday about Leonard’s sharp learning curve. Parker, the speedy point guard who’s seen many of Popovich’s projects come and go, believes Leonard’s sticking around.

“Pop was very high on Kawhi and thought he could be a great addition to the team and a great defender,” Parker said. “All year long he’s been playing great, adapting to the way we play and the defense that Pop wants. … It’s only his first year, so he’s only going to get better. That’s good for us.”
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