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Old 03-31-13, 05:50 AM
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Leonard up for challenge of guarding James

By Jeff McDonald

Miami Heat star LeBron James will arrive at the AT&T Center on Sunday night as an NBA champion for the first time, with three MVP awards on his way to a fourth, and in the throes of one of the most havoc-wreaking individual seasons in league history.

The player the Spurs will place in the path of that runaway freight train is a 21-year-old they call “Why-Why” who still lives with his mother.

“I don’t think nothing of it, really,” said Kawhi Leonard, the second-year small forward coach Gregg Popovich has designated his “stopper-in-training.” “It’s how I’ve been playing my whole life, guarding the best player on the other team.”

Every night is an education for Leonard, the 6-foot-7 product of San Diego State who many NBA observers believe to be a star in the making.

Popovich views Leonard as a burgeoning Bruce Bowen, a player willing and able to take on the toughest defensive assignment night in and night out.

“He guards the people who are the difficult matchups on the other team,” Popovich said. “It doesn’t matter what team we’re playing. That’s the guy he’s going to take.”

In addition to James, Leonard’s to-guard list this season has included names such as Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, Houston’s James Harden and the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant.

Popovich likens Leonard’s growth to a child learning to ride a bike by moving from a three-wheeler to a two-wheeler.

Sunday night, in one of the most widely anticipated regular-season games in AT&T Center history, Popovich will hand Leonard a unicycle and ask him to cross the Grand Canyon on a high wire.

James’ scoring average of 26.9 points per game ranks fourth in the NBA, and he also averages 8.1 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 1.7 steals. It will take a village to contain him. ?Leonard is simply the first line of defense.

“I think I’m doing a good job, coming in and stepping on the floor with veteran guys who have been in the system,” Leonard said. “Just feeding off of them and what they know has made it better for me.”

In Leonard’s first meeting with James this season, a 105-100 Heat victory Nov. 29 in Miami, the King had a manageable 23 points to go with nine rebounds and seven assists.

Drafted six days before his 20th birthday in 2011, the soft-spoken Leonard — who contributes 11.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game himself — has blossomed, on and off the court.

Though he still shares a house with his mother, Kim, who moved to San Antonio from Los Angeles, Leonard is beginning to bloom into his own man.

“He’s just beginning to realize there’s a world out there,” Popovich said.

Sunday night, the best player in the NBA enters Leonard’s world. The Spurs hope James doesn’t rock it.

Rest of the story: Spurs Nation
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