The stoic star on the San Antonio Spurs relies on a flurry of offensive and defensive strengths so that his versatility provides more than his quiet words.
No, this is not about Tim Duncan, the 16-year NBA veteran who has become this generation’s top big man by continuously evolving his game en route to four NBA championships and three Finals MVP awards with little fanfare. This is about the man who plans to succeed Duncan whenever he retires.
Kawhi Leonard, a former standout at Riverside King High and San Diego State, has spent the past three seasons preparing for that moment, continuously adding wrinkles to his game that has made him the Spurs’ primary defender, complementary scorer and most promising prospect.
“I just have to keep working into wanting to be that guy,” Leonard said recently in an interview with this newspaper. “It’s all mental. I just have to worry about my game.”
The Spurs will enter Wednesday’s Game 2 of their first-round series against the Dallas Mavericks at AT&T Center with a 1-0 lead, thanks to a heavy dose of their so-called Big Three in Duncan (27 points on 12-of-20 shooting and seven rebound), Tony Parker (21 points on 9-of-16 shooting) and Manu Ginobili (17 points, six rebound and three rebounds).
The 37-year-old Duncan (who turns a year older on Friday) and the 36-year-old Ginobili have seemingly extended their career beyond infiniti. The 31-year-old Parker still appears in his prime. But whenever the Spurs’ Big Three fragments, is Leonard ready to carry the mantle?
“Oh, sure. He’s becoming more and more important to us,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who won his third NBA Coach of the Year Award on Tuesday. “He’s done a lot of great things for us to make us a consistent team.”
Leonard fulfills that job description in numerous ways.
Need Leonard to guard the opposing team’s top player? No problem.
His 7-foot wingspan has enabled Leonard to minimize the damage inflicted from the NBA’s elite, including Miami’s LeBron James (his 2013 Finals MVP partly diluted with scoring under 20 points in the first three games), and Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant (who needed 26 shots to score 28 points earlier this month). The Spurs also allowed 97.7 points per 100 possessions with Leonard on the floor, 4.8 points better than when he sat.
“I try to come in with a focus to stop my man and win the game,” Leonard said. “I’m always trying to be ready to catch them off their strides by being physical enough without getting fouls.”
Need Leonard to pick up the scoring slack? He usually can do that.
Leonard cracked double figures in 50 games, along with seven double-doubles. Leonard had a three-game stretch where he scored at least 20 points and led the team in scoring in five other games. When he wasn’t scoring, Leonard either led the Spurs in steals (28 games), rebounding (12 games) or blocks (12 games).
“He’ll catch it on the post a little bit more and actively take a mismatch down there and try to use it,” Popovich said. “Before he wouldn’t do that, he would just get rid of the ball and defer to Tony or Manu or somebody. He’s becoming more demonstrative with the basketball and making moves.”
With such qualities, Leonard has posted career highs this season in nearly every statistical category, including points (12.8), shooting percentage (52.2 percent from the field), rebounds (6.3), assists (two) and steals (1.75). The Spurs went 54-12 with Leonard in the lineup, while going only 8-6 when he nursed a fractured right hand.
“The thing you notice the most about him besides his physical skills and attributes is that he really cares about being a great player,” Popovich said. “His play has been the most consistent since he came back from his injury, both defensively and offensively.”
Popovich then gushed more about Leonard, describing him as a “hungry man” and “a sponge” for endlessly watching tape of Bruce Bowen, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, working on his jump shooting and appearing eager for more instruction.
It appears Leonard has rounded into the consummate Spurs player, endlessly completing his tasks without taking the spotlight. That shouldn’t be surprising.
After leading Riverside King High to a CIF Southern Section Championship in 2009, Leonard chose San Diego State instead of waiting for more high profile Division I schools, such as UCLA, to express interest. Leonard then guided the Aztecs to a regional semifinal in the 2011 NCAA tournament.
“I could have gone to a bigger school,” Leonard said. “I use it as motivation going to a school that loved me. I wanted to put them on the map and show everyone that you don’t need to go to a top school to make it in the NBA.”
Indeed, Leonard was selected with the 15th overall pick in 2011 before the Spurs acquired him through a trade from the Indiana Pacers for George Hill, a move San Antonio believes will pay off even more with each step of development Leonard takes.
“He’s on the right path,” Popovich said. “He can continue to become more demonstrative and put himself in a position where he makes me give him the ball more. Sometimes I’m not paying attention.”
After all, Popovich proclaims he has yet to draw a single play for Leonard.
“I’m holding him back,” Popovich joked.
Perhaps quite the opposite, knowing someday the Spurs’ franchise will no longer be in Duncan’s hands. It could be in Leonard’s.
“That’s going to be in the future,” Leonard said. “That’s really nothing to worry about right now. We still have our top guys.”
Yet, when the Spurs do not have those guys anymore, Leonard vows he will be ready.
It won't be long before the Spur brass devotes itself to lining up complementary teammates to build around Kawhi. Leonard's presence takes some of the sting out of the coming end of the Big Three era. What a great draft day pick-up!
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