Kawhi Leonard: The Emergence of a Superstar

NBA: Finals-Miami Heat at San Antonio Spurs(pic via hoopshabit.com)


Kawhi Leonard: The Emergence Of A Superstar


It’s 2011, and the UConn Huskies, led by the hot hand of Kemba Walker, beat the San Diego State Aztecs 74-67 in the round of 16. Kawhi Leonard, the only SDSU player projected to be taken in the first round, was held to a disappointing 12 points and 9 rebounds. It was a quick end to a great season where the Aztecs finished 34-3. Steve Fisher, the heralded Aztec coach, has publically stated that that year’s team was good enough to win it all, and was one of the most talented teams he’s ever coached, which is quite a statement, seeing as he coached the Fab Five in the early nineties. Fisher raved about Leonard all season, and rightfully so, as he averaged 15.5 ppg and 10.6 rpg en route to being named a second team All-American.




(pic via hoopsunderground.com)

Aztec fans, myself included, knew that Leonard’s draft stock was too high to realistically think he’d stay for his junior year. When he declared for the 2011 NBA draft, we were sad but understanding. He had done more than enough in those two short years to cement his legacy as an Aztec for life, and there wasn’t much more he could do to improve his status as an NBA prospect.

As the draft drew closer, the breakdowns of Leonard as a ball player became more meticulous. Leonard was considered a raw talent with a ton of upside. Scouts raved about his physical attributes, with his athleticism and hand size being the main focal points. Many scouts labeled him a gym rat, one of those “get to the gym early, leave late” kind of players. Critics also attacked his flaws, such as his shooting ability, ball handling, and even his calm demeanor. The consensus was Kawhi was destined for a solid NBA career, filling the role-player/glue guy profile.



(pic via esquire.com)


The 2011 draft was considered relatively weak, with Kyrie Irving at the top, and pretty much everyone else after. Going in, almost every mock draft had a different idea on how the picks would play out. Many had Leonard in the 8-12 range. By the time it was all said and done, Kawhi had slid to the fifteenth spot and was drafted by the Indiana Pacers. Lets throw out some names of players drafted before Leonard: Marcus Morris, Markief Morris, Jimmer Fredette, Brandon Knight, and Alec Burks. Leonard was considered a “tweener” by many, but is listed as the first small forward taken in that draft.



What happened next was possibly the best thing that could’ve happened to Kawhi that day, he was traded to the Spurs, along with Davis Bertans and Erazem Lorbek, for point guard George Hill. The trade seemed to make sense for both squads. With Paul George and Danny Granger in tow, the Pacers had little need for another wing player. George Hill was coming off a good season as the back-up point guard for the Spurs, but as keeping Hill at that point was more of a luxury than a necessity, San Antonio used this opportunity to get some young talent while moving Hill somewhere where he would have a chance to start. Kawhi fit the Poppovich mold perfectly: he played smart, played hard, and was willing to put in the time to improve.



By the end of Kawhi’s rookie year, the Spurs knew they might have landed a special player in Leonard. Early in the year, Leonard would have to wait his turn and try to impress in limited playing time, which he did. About halfway through the year, the Spurs traded starting small forward Richard Jefferson, all but opening the door for the emergence of Kawhi. He affected both ends of the floor, and provided flaring youth for a quickly aging San Antonio team. What’s the most amazing about his rookie year is how quickly he improved his shooting stroke. When you’re hovering around the 29% mark from three in college, few people expect you to become a great shooter in the pros. Kawhi dissmed that notion rather quickly, shooting 37.6% from three his rookie year. He was named to the NBA All-Rookie team, and finished fourth in rookie of the year voting, despite not being a starter until a few months into the year. Poppovich knew he had someone special, saying, ““I think he’s going to be a star. And as time goes on, he’ll be the face of the Spurs, I think. At both ends of the court, he is really a special player. And what makes me be so confident about him is that he wants it so badly. He wants to be a good player, I mean a great player. He comes early, he stays late, and he’s coachable, he’s just like a sponge.”

In his second year, Kawhi thrived in a Spurs system that allowed him to be efficient while never having to do too much. Kawhi was able to get good looks on the offensive end due to the Spurs’ great ball movement, and his effort on the defensive end never faltered. Leonard was usually defending the other team’s best perimeter player night in and night out, and did so while also hauling in a respectable amount of rebounds. The 2013 Finals was where he became known to the casual NBA fan, averaging 14.6 PPG and 11.1 RPG against the Heat. As you may remember, the Heat were able to hang on and win that series in the seventh game after a Ray Allen lifeline three in game six. Kawhi ended up with 19 points and 16 rebounds in game seven. The Spurs came up short, and many wondered if their championship window was finally closing. The Spurs didn’t think so, but knew they would have to wait until next year for a shot at the two-time defending champs.

Here we are now, the Spurs having finished exacting their revenge, by not only beating the Heat, but by throttling them for three straight wins. The Spurs were the better team, and that was pretty evident. Kawhi was able to bounce back from a ho-hum start in the series, and played fantastic in the last three games. Is Kawhi a product of the system, as many have suggested? In a sense, yes. Kawhi plays on a team where he doesn’t need to put up Kevin Durant numbers for them to win. But that doesn’t really explain the importance of Leonard for this Spurs team. Leonard injected youth into a veteran squad, doing whatever was asked of him. He made the shots he needed to make, played the type of defense he needed to play, and provided momentum changing plays in the process (I had the two-handed putback slam on replay for over ten minutes). Leonard was lights out this series, and became the youngest player to win a Finals MVP since Magic Johnson, and the first non-all star to win it since Chauncey Billups in 2004.

Let’s get this straight, this Spurs championship is just as much Duncan’s, Ginobli’s, and Parker’s as it is Leonard’s. Lebron was still the best player on either side of the ball, but The Heat stood no chance against an offense ready for the different rotations Miami threw at them. Diaw was crucial. Mills played better than anyone expected to. Dwayne Wade went missing and Mario Chalmers was demoted from the starting lineup. Regardless, Kawhi played magnificently and stamped his mark on this series, which is why he earned MVP honors. He never seemed rattled, and was poised and ready for the moment, a moment three years in the making.

There is no telling how Kawhi Leonard’s career will go from here. As the Duncan, Ginobli, Parker trio lose their effectiveness, more will be asked of Kawhi. If he continues to improve at the rate he is, the possibilities are endless. Many do have questions. Can he handle being the main focal point on offense? When will he put up the numbers that casual fans want to see? Will he ever be in the same class as Durant and Paul George? Leonard has set the bar high early in his career, so many will expect more and more out of him every year. Will he be the face of the Spurs for years to come as Coach Popp has indicated? All these questions will be answered in time, but one thing is for certain, don’t doubt the Spurs organization, and don’t doubt Final’s MVP Kawhi Leonard.

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