NBA PM: Spurs Entering Kawhi Leonard Era?
Senior NBA & College Basketball Editor
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As the San Antonio Spurs prepare for the start of the 2013-14 season, their loss in the NBA Finals to the Miami HEAT still weighs heavily on their hearts and minds. The Spurs were a defensive rebound away from eliminating the HEAT in Game 6, but ultimately the HEAT showed off their championship perseverance and won their second-straight title.
Getting over a defeat like that is never easy, but the one big consolation that the Spurs were able to take away was that second-year forward Kawhi Leonard, who just turned 22 years old this offseason, went head-to-head with the best player in the world in LeBron James and shined in the match-up. Leonard defended James as well as anyone could defend him while averaging 14 points, 11 rebounds and two steals a contest in the Finals.
“I think Kawhi is the new [Tony] Parker, [Manu] Ginobilli, [Tim] Duncan kind of guy,” Gregg Popovich said to HOOPSWORLD at Spurs media day. “He’s going to take over as the star of the show as time goes on. Timmy and Manu have obviously figured out a way to continue to play very well and be at the top of their games at their age. Tony is still young enough to be the star that he is, but he’ll get older too and that’s where Kawhi comes in. He’s been phenomenal. He’s improved more quickly than any player we’ve ever had because his mindset is such that he wants to be great and he has all the reasons to be so we have to put him in the position where he can be a great player.”
A big reason for Leonard’s success is the incredible amount of poise that he has for someone of his age and experience level. He’s taken on a big role with the Spurs since day one, consistently meeting the challenge and exceeding expectations. Nothing fazes him, you’ll never see him too high from his conquests or too low from his failures. When Popovich’s high praise was relayed to him, Leonard responded in a way that would make Duncan, who has always been short with his words and not one to make much of his own press clippings as well, proud.
“I guess I’m just happy that he sees my hard work paid off,” Leonard said. “I mean I don’t make nothing of it, it’s just the game of basketball, it’s not going to change the way I am playing on the floor. I’m just going to try to do a better job of what I’m doing, playing harder and smarter on each possession.”
Ironically, Leonard’s mild manner turned some teams off during the 2011 NBA pre-draft process. They mistook his quiet demeanor as a weakness, whereas it’s turned out to be one of his biggest strengths.
Without the luxury of hindsight, though, Leonard slipped out of the lottery as the likes of Jan Vesely, Bismack Biyombo, Brandon Knight, Jimmer Fredette, Alec Burks, Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris – all of whom have yet to establish themselves in the NBA to this day – were taken ahead of him.
That created the opportunity for the Spurs to pull the trigger on a move that terrified them, but has turned into one of the best trades in the league’s history.
“We made that trade, we were all scared to death to be honest with you,” Popovich said. “George [Hill] was one of my favorite guys individually, a hell of a player, did a great job for the Pacers. It might be one of the best trades I’ve ever seen because both players have become so important for their respective teams. Indiana was helped tremendously by getting George; we were helped tremendously by Kawhi. That doesn’t happen that often, usually they’re one sided or someone doesn’t come through, that kind of thing.”
Leonard took a couple weeks off this summer to let his ailing knees recover from a case of tendinitis, which is now 100 percent healed. While it looks like his role could expand based off of his strong play last season, Leonard said his preparation didn’t change.
“I go into each offseason trying to prepare myself to be mentally better and focused for the upcoming season so I can be a better player than I was,” Leonard said. “That’s just what my expectations are for myself, just to get better, do a better job than I did last year in every aspect that I can.
“I’ve been working on everything … Just going out on the floor and having a better mindset, really competing, just being a better player like I said. Just about my mindset and how hard I work.”
The Spurs only made one major change this offseason, replacing Gary Neal with Marco Belinelli. They feel like their chemistry and potential for internal development was great enough to pass on making any serious shake ups, and the presence of Leonard is a big reason why. They’re comfortable stretching out their remaining time with the big three of Parker, Ginobili and Duncan because they already have their next star in Leonard.
Injury Updates: Tuesday was a busy day on the injury news wire with several updates coming through on notable players across the league. Here’s a recap of everything that was announced:
- The Cleveland Cavaliers are still waiting on Andrew Bynum and are unsure when he’ll be ready to play for them, but they did get some good news in the form of Anthony Bennett and Anderson Varejao’s clearance to participate in basketball activities fully. Varejao’s status was vital as he can hold down the center position in Bynum’s absence. Bynum has resumed some basketball activities, but has yet to be cleared to actually practice.
- Minnesota Timberwolves forward Chase Budinger underwent successful arthroscopic left knee surgery on his torn meniscus. No timetable has been set for Budinger’s return, leaving the Timberwolves likely to rely on Corey Brewer, Shabazz Muhammad and Derrick Williams to play across Kevin Martin on the wing.
- Lou Williams of the Atlanta Hawks is recovering from a torn ACL last offseason and, as of Tuesday, still had no set date for his return.
- Greivis Vasquez, suffering from a troublesome ankle, claimed to be 85-90 percent ready as he preps for his debut as a Sacramento King in a contract year.
- New Orleans Pelicans shooting guard Eric Gordon stated that he feels as good as he has in two years. He’s played just 51 games during that span, but 42 of those did come last season.
- As planned, Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose sat out Monday’s scrimmage but did participate in the warm-up phase of practice.
- In the most shocking news of the day, Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook had to undergo another arthroscopic surgery on his right knee that he injured during the first round of last year’s Western Conference playoffs. Click here for a full look at what his absence means to the team. Westbrook is projected to miss the first four-to-six weeks of the regular season and eight-to-10 weeks total.