By Mike Monroe
LAS VEGAS — Unlike the amazing display of ball-handling by Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving, there was no video on YouTube leaked out of USA Basketball select team scrimmages against the United States Olympic squad showcasing Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard.
Irving’s full-speed spin move and crossover dribble of Kobe Bryant went viral, with hoops junkies worldwide viewing, over and over, mouths agape.
But a smaller, more important audience saw what Leonard could do against the star-laden Olympic team.
“You see Kawhi, but you don’t hear him,” Team USA assistant coach Nate McMillan and former Trail Blazers coach said after a practice session at the Mendenhall Center on the UNLV campus this week. “He’ll make the right play and he just moves on to the next play. Then, a few minutes later, he does it again.
“He’s opened a lot of eyes here this week.”
McMillan and the rest of the U.S. coaching staff discovered what the Spurs have known since the NBA lockout ended last December: Leonard is the Sphinx of the Spurs, a budding star willing to let his game talk without flashing even a hint of bravado.
Leonard’s approach to challenging Bryant, LeBron James and their London-bound friends has been typical of the NBA’s quiet man.
“I get to be around great players and just compete and get better,” he said. “I get to learn from the older guys. You don’t get this chance every year to compete with guys at such a talent level every day.”
Before he got to Las Vegas, identified as a potential future Olympian by USA Basketball, Leonard already had opened eyes in the Alamo City.
The Spurs had loved Leonard’s potential enough to send coach Gregg Popovich favorite George Hill to the Pacers to secure his draft rights a year ago. They never anticipated he would make 49.3 percent of his shots as a rookie, a figure that included shooting 37.6 percent from 3-point range. After all, he had made only 25 percent from the shorter line in college.
So when Leonard showed up for training camp in December with an NBA-ready jumper, the Spurs were amazed. On his own during the long lockout summer that bled into autumn, he diligently had applied a few pre-lockout lessons from Spurs shooting coach Chip Engelland.
The improvement was dramatic, even though the team shot doctor was forbidden to prescribe offseason reinforcement. Engelland was mightily impressed, as was Popovich.
“All we did for him was change his release point, make it simpler and more repeatable,” Engelland said. “Then he went and worked his tail off during the lockout.”
By continuing his improvement, day to day and game to game, Leonard became a starter and a first-team All-Rookie selection. And when the playoffs arrived and both his production and efficiency increased, Popovich understood general manager R.C. Buford and his staff had discovered another potential gem.
“He wasn’t awed by anything,” Popovich said. “He reminded me of Timmy (Duncan) in a way, where he came into the league and did his job, didn’t say boo to anybody, but he listens to anybody. He takes it in and then you see it translate onto the court.
“Whatever it is, he reacted better in his first year than anybody I’ve ever seen other than Tim. Coming out of school in just two years, he was incredible.”
Leonard’s development this summer, beginning with the week spent matching up daily against the likes of James, Bryant, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, figures to produce an even bigger jump in his skill set and, more importantly, his belief that he belongs among the league’s elite.
“Whatever basketball he plays against NBA people is huge,” Popovich said. “(Team USA camp) is a motivating factor. Being there with Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski), the whole staff, the other players, just to feel like he belongs, so to speak, is huge for a guy like him. Then when he moves on to Summer League and things are focused on just him will be just as important. He’ll be a completely different player in some ways when he steps on court in November and we start playing games.
“We think the jump is going to be even more obvious than the surprise we saw his first season.”
Leonard headed back to San Antonio after the final practice session with the Olympians on Wednesday afternoon. He will be back in Sin City for Summer League when the Spurs play their first game on Sunday against the Hawks.
The emphasis in Summer League: Turning Leonard loose on the offensive end. He will be the Spurs’ go-to guy, running pick-and-roll plays by the dozens. Repetition is the key, and he will get plenty.
“You can drill it all day long, and we do,” Spurs assistant coach Chad Forcier said. “You can study it all day on film. But until you get out there and you’re going 100 miles an hour, that’s where the improvement is really going to come. We need to get some live reps on it.”
“I want to show the coaches I can make plays,” Leonard said. “Whether it’s dribbling the ball when I’m on the ball, just dribbling and coming off pick and rolls or in isolations, I want to show them that I can score the basketball and I don’t need help. I want to show them I don’t need to be just sitting in the corner, standing out there looking for somebody to play off me and give me a wide-open shot.”
Popovich can hardly contain his excitement for training camp.
“We’re wild with anticipation,” Popovich said. “We can’t wait to see what he’s going to be like next season.” [email protected]
Twitter: @Monroe_SA Spurs Nation