NBA@2: The San Antonio Spurs’ X-Factor
One year ago, Kawhi Leonard was training for the 2011 NBA Draft at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas. Despite his best efforts to deflect attention away from himself and avoid the spotlight, all eyes were on Leonard. He was the best player in the gym, shining during drills and dominating during five-on-five. He would arrive early for workouts and stay in the gym once he was free to leave.
Leonard turned heads with his ferocious defense. He consistently locked down his opposition in pick-up games and forced turnovers. During one game, he intercepted an across-court pass with one hand, grabbing the ball out of midair like a shortstop snagging a line drive. Leonard’s hands were larger than anyone in his draft class, measuring in at 9.8 inches long and 11.3 inches wide.
The small forward also displayed an impressive jumper, which wasn’t something he was known for at San Diego State. Teams doubted his perimeter game coming out of college, but he worked every day to improve his range. By the time workouts arrived, Leonard was knocking down threes with ease.
As the draft approached, Leonard drew interest from a number of teams, including the Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards. There was a considerable amount of hype around Leonard since he was someone who could contribute on both ends and he had plenty of potential.
Despite receiving interest from nearly every team in the lottery, Leonard slipped on draft night. He would be selected 15th overall by the Indiana Pacers. Shortly after being picked, Leonard made his way to the podium and addressed the media. After answering several questions about the Pacers and donning a blue and gold hat, it was announced that Leonard had been traded to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for George Hill. When Leonard was told the news, his eyes lit up.
The Spurs were a perfect fit for Leonard.
San Antonio values defense, only cares about winning and prefers to be out of the spotlight. Leonard is a man of few words, just like Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan. From day one, the small forward stepped in and knew his role, earning minutes by playing excellent defense and knocking down open looks. After ten games, Popovich inserted Leonard into the starting lineup, where he has remained for much of the season.
Now, it’s easy to forget that Leonard is a rookie who just went through the draft process. He seems like a seasoned veteran, emerging as a key contributor for the Spurs. Throughout the final months of the regular season and during the playoffs, he has been San Antonio’s X-Factor.
In March, he averaged 11.1 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.7 steals while shooting 55.5 percent from the field. In the postseason, he has averaged 9.3 points, and he erupted for 18 points and 10 rebounds against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.
“Kawhi has been playing great all season long for us,” Spurs guard Tony Parker said. “Every round, he has been playing great and guarding the best guy on the other team. I’m not very surprised. He’s been performing at a high level all season.”
As Parker mentioned, Leonard’s biggest contributions have come on the defensive end, locking down the opposition’s best scorer throughout the course of the postseason. During the Western Conference Finals, that means matching up against three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant. The rookie has done an outstanding job, taking Durant out of the game for stretches and forcing him to take difficult shots.
“Kawhi Leonard is a really quick learner, he has a work ethic that’s really impressive and he has no fear,” Popovich said. “He enjoys guarding the guys that he’s had to guard all year long. One year out of college and having to guard the players that he has had to guard, it’s been a great experience for him. I learned as the year went on to believe in him more and more.”
Leonard never seems rattled, even when playing in the Western Conference Finals. Like Duncan, his face is often expressionless and he acts like he has been here before. Watching him, you’d think this was his tenth playoff appearance, not his first.
“It’s just a basketball game out there,” Leonard said with a smile. “It’s just another game and I’ve been playing games my whole life. I just go out there and play my hardest.”
In the last few weeks, Leonard has been recognized for his excellent season. He was named to the NBA’s All-Rookie First Team and chosen for USA’s 2012 Men’s Select Team. However, none of that matters in his mind. He wants to win a championship.
“I want to win,” Leonard said. “I’m happy we’re in the playoffs, in the Conference Finals. There’s nothing better, just a championship.”
Once again, Leonard is turning heads with his defense and ability to knock down shots. However, instead of auditioning for teams, he’s making them regret passing on him. But don’t expect him to talk trash or draw attention to himself, he’ll just win and let his game do the talking. After all, that’s the Spurs’ way.
Magic, Blazers Wrapping Up GM Search: The Orlando Magic and Portland Trail Blazers are both on the verge of hiring new general managers, according to sources close to the situation.
Both teams have narrowed down their list of candidates and are nearing a hire. Don’t be surprised if both teams hire a new general manager within the next week.
The Magic have been linked to a number of candidates including Kevin Pritchard, David Morway, Jeff Bower, Dennis Lindsey, Rob Hennigan and Mitch Kupchak. Many executives have expressed interest in the job and CEO Alex Martins has had his hands full throughout the process. The drama surrounding Dwight Howard hasn’t scared away candidates. In fact, Orlando has turned some interested executives away. Even if Howard demands a trade this summer, the job is still attractive because the superstar center will return attractive assets and the Magic already have plenty of pieces in place.
The Blazers have been linked to many of the same executives, but Portland has narrowed their list down to Morway, Bower and Neil Olshey. Portland is an attractive job for obvious reasons. Not only does the team have young talent such as LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Wes Matthews, the Blazers could also have as much as $24 million in cap room this summer as well as two lottery picks if the ping-pong balls bounce their way tonight (they’ll receive the Brooklyn Nets’ pick in addition to their own if it’s outside the top three).
Once these teams find their general manager, they’ll turn their attention to finding their next head coach. Orlando fired Stan Van Gundy last week and Portland fired Nate McMillan during the season.
Game 2 News and Notes: Here are some news and notes from last night’s Thunder-Spurs game.
• The San Antonio Spurs have now won 20 straight games, including 10 in the postseason. San Antonio is the only third team to start the postseason 10-0, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The Los Angeles Lakers have started the playoffs with 11 wins twice in franchise history. They made the NBA Finals both times, winning the title in 2001 and losing in 1989.
• After blocking four shots in Game 2, Tim Duncan passed Hakeem Olajuwon to move into second place all-time in postseason blocks. In his career, Duncan has 473 playoff blocks, trailing only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Duncan will likely pass Abdul-Jabbar during this series to become the all-time leader in postseason blocks, since he only trails the legendary center by three blocks.
• Kevin Durant (31 points), James Harden (30), and Russell Westbrook (27) became the first set of three teammates all to score more than 25 points in a 48-minute playoff game since 1995, according to Elias. The last players to do so were Kenny Smith (32), Clyde Drexler (30), and Hakeem Olajuwon (27) of the Rockets in a 140-126 first-round win over the Jazz.