Kawhi Leonard: An Unassuming Star in the Making
It’s rare to find a player and an organization that are perfectly suited for each other, but Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs are about as close at it gets.
The Spurs are often derisively referred to as the league’s most “boring” team. However, although they might not be characterized as flashy, they have been extraordinarily effective and incredibly successful. In fact, over the past 15 years, San Antonio has been the most successful team (based on regular season winning percentage) not only in the NBA, but amongst all of the four major North American sports.
Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford – the Spurs’ brain trust – saw in Leonard many of the crucial attributes they value in young players. When Kawhi entered the 2011 draft out of San Diego State, the Spurs’ front office viewed him as a potentially perfect piece of their future puzzle. San Antonio had to give up a valued player (George Hill) in order to obtain the draft rights to Leonard, but the Spurs felt Kawhi’s upside was worth it. The decision looks great in retrospect, as Leonard is blossoming into a star in San Antonio.
Coming into the league, it was Leonard’s defensive skills that generated the most buzz. Leonard projected as an elite wing defender. (Some in San Antonio referred to him as Bruce Bowen Version 2.0) And Kawhi has been terrific defensively, typically guarding the opponent’s best perimeter player. This season, the Spurs are giving up 105.4 points per 100 possessions with Leonard off the floor; but just 102.4 points per 100 possessions when Kawhi is on the court.
However, to earn playing time and the trust of Coach Popovich, players have to be well-rounded. And Leonard is just that. In fact, he’s been one of the most efficient and effective shooters in the entire league this season.
Consider this: Leonard is one of just three NBA players currently shooting above 49 percent from the floor, 40 percent from three-point land and 83 percent from the free-throw stripe. The other two members of this elite club are Kevin Durant and Steve Nash. Pretty good company for a guy who is best known for his defense.
HOOPSWORLD caught up with Leonard in Houston, as he prepared for the Rising Stars game on Friday night. True to his reputation, Leonard downplayed his individual accomplishments thus far this season. When asked how he’s earned consistent minutes in the Spurs’ rotation, Leonard responded: “Just really buying into my role: playing defense, knocking down open shots when I get a chance, and just being a good teammate. That’s about it.”
Leonard was also asked about the reasons for his improved play during his second season, as compared to his rookie campaign.
“Just having that training camp under my belt,” Leonard said. “The guys are trusting me more, knowing what I did the first year; Coach Pop trusts me more just knowing where I’m going to be at and being responsible on the court. When I came in last year, I didn’t know the offense that well, so I got that year under my belt and now I know the offense in and out.”
And despite earning league-wide praise and accolades (such as being invited to All-Star weekend to participate in the ‘Rising Stars’ Challenge, Leonard is quick to confirm that Popovich makes sure he and his teammates keep a level head.
“Oh yeah, Coach Pop, that’s the type of coach he is,” Leonard said. “He’s very humble; he’s not high on himself. So, day in and day out we’re just trying to get better.”
Even when things are going well, Popovich harps on areas that could be improved.
“The little mistakes, even in games that we win, we still focus on those parts of the games so it doesn’t hurt us in the playoffs,” Leonard explained.
When asked what he feels will be the biggest keys to San Antonio’s continued success in the second half of the season, Leonard responded with an answer that would make his head coach proud.
“Just really staying focused, team chemistry,” Leonard said. “Just buying into the plan like we’ve been doing in the first half of the season, and [having] great teamwork and defense.”
Fans in San Antonio are hoping the best is yet to come for both Kawhi Leonard individually and the Spurs as a whole.