By Jeff McDonald
By all accounts, except maybe his own, small forward Kawhi Leonard enjoyed a standout rookie season for the Spurs last year.
He averaged 7.9 points and 5.2 rebounds, collected more double-doubles than all but three first-year players, and started 53 games — including all 14 of the Spurs’ postseason contests.
At season’s end, he was named to the league’s All-Rookie first team, only the second Spurs’ player to garner that laurel since Tim Duncan did it in 1997.
And Leonard did it all in a lockout-shortened season, without the benefit of a summer league, full training camp or practically any practice ? time at all.
“I was learning the plays during the games,” Leonard admitted recently. “I was playing mostly on instinct.”
Thrown head first into the NBA’s deep end, Leonard taught himself to swim.
Now, as the former San Diego State star enters his second professional season at the ripe age of 21, the Spurs only are asking Leonard to walk on water.
With 13 players back from last year’s Western Conference finalist, the Spurs will require internal improvement to remain among the league’s upper crust of contenders.
The 6-foot-7 Leonard, Spurs’ players and coaches believe, is the poster child for that plan.
“If you’ve watched anything he’s done all summer, he’s improved himself as a player,” Duncan said. “We expect more from him this year. We’ll see what load he’s ready to carry.”
Obtained in a 2011 draft-day trade that sent popular backup guard George Hill home to Indiana, Leonard was billed as a high-energy defender, rebounder and around-the-basket scorer whose only glaring weakness was a lack of long-range shooting prowess.
So, naturally, Leonard knocked down 37.6 percent of his 3-point tries during the regular season, a success rate that climbed to 45 percent in the playoffs.
During the offseason, Leonard continued to work with team shooting guru Chip Engelland to refine his stroke, while also adding a dribble-drive game to his arsenal.
At the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, the Spurs showcased Leonard’s newfound ability, running the pick-and-roll offense through him. He averaged 25 points in two games, then headed back to San Antonio for more work.
“He’s going to handle the ball more this year,” coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s going to be involved more in pick and roll this year. We expect a lot out of him.”
Soft-spoken and stoic by nature, Leonard also is learning to be more communicative, and to smile more.
Part of it comes with being more comfortable in his surroundings.
“On the court, I know I’ve got to communicate more,” Leonard said. “Last year, it was more me not knowing what to say. I didn’t know all the defensive rotations or all the offenses we were running.”
After starting more games last season than any Spurs rookie since Tony Parker, Leonard has been penciled in as a first-teamer again this season.
Yet his value to the franchise stretches beyond the campaign to come.
Spurs’ management has long been ruing the day when Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili mosey off into the sunset, while simultaneously planning for that very eventuality.
More and more, team decision-makers have come to view Leonard as a bridge to the post-Big Three future.
To quote Popovich from a summertime mailbag feature posted on the club’s official website:
“I think he’s going to be a star. And as time goes on, he’ll be the face of the Spurs, I think.”
And on the eve of training camp earlier this month, Popovich all but offered Leonard the job security of a Supreme Court justice.
“If the planets and agents and that sort of thing line up,” Popovich said, “we’d love him to be a Spur for life.”
That’s a question for 2015, when Leonard’s standard rookie-scale contract expires.
Leonard says he is open to remaining with the Spurs for as long as he can, citing another Spur for life — Duncan — as the model.
For now, the effusive praise Leonard’s coach keeps tossing his way daily only serves as motivation.
“It makes me want to work hard so I can live up to that standard,” Leonard said.
That job will not prove easy, but Leonard will have one advantage in his sophomore season.
At least now he knows the entire playbook.
MORE WHERE THAT CAME FROM?
In 2011-2012, small forward Kawhi Leonard turned in a rookie season rare by Spurs’ standards. Here is a look at what the former San Diego State All-American accomplished in his first NBA campaign:
Starts: 53, including all 14 playoff games, most for Spurs’ rookie since Tony Parker in 2001-02.
Stats: Ranked 13th among NBA rookies in scoring (7.9 points), fourth in rebounding (5.2 per game) and third in steals (1.33 per game) and field-goal percentage (49.3).
Accolades: Second Spurs’ player since Tim Duncan in 1997 to be named to NBA’s first-team All-Rookie squad. Gary Neal (2011) was the other. … First rookie to lead the Spurs in steals since Parker. … Chosen to participate with U.S. Men’s Select Team that worked out with Team USA ahead of London Olympics over the summer.
Praise: “We’d love him to be a Spur for life, because he’s a sponge, as far as absorbing information, seeking out information, adding a work ethic to it.” — coach Gregg Popovich
Life's tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late.
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