The San Antonio Spurs are now up 3-1 in the 2014 NBA Finals and have an opportunity to close out the series on Sunday. After a slow start and early foul trouble, Kawhi Leonard has dominated in the series. He scored a career high 29 points on 10-of-13 shooting in Game 3 and in Game 4 he played even better, finishing with 20 points, 14 rebounds, three assists, three blocks and three steals. Both the offense and defense were pristine; Leonard gave LeBron James all he could handle, rotated and helped well, got in passing lanes, protected the rim and took the ball to the paint ferociously.
The point is that he was by far the Spurs’ best player.
At practice before Game 4 he had this to say about what it feels like to have a career night in the NBA Finals:
Gotta move forward to Game 4 and try to get the win.
It was a simplistically beautiful quote that pretty much sums up the Spurs mindset. There’s not actually much of a point to this other than that, I just wanted to find a Kawhi Leonard quote to prove that he actually does talk sometimes.
It’s been a long road to stardom and the NBA for Leonard, who went through tragedy early in life when his father was murdered at his own car wash on Jan. 18, 2008. Kawhi was still in high school at the time, playing at Martin Luther King High School in Riverside, California.
Coming into college Leonard was a good but not great prospect. He was ranked as 48th best incoming high school player on Rivals.com and averaged 12.7 points and 9.9 rebounds per game in his freshman year at San Diego State. During his sophomore season he increased those numbers to 15.5 points and 10.6 rebounds per game and helped SDSU make it to the Sweet 16.
In college, Leonard was already a great and versatile defender, a smart playmaker and a solid post player. His perimeter game, on the other hand, was lagging behind. Leonard shot well below 30 percent from three-point range at San Diego State and he struggled with his ball handling. His release was slow and mechanical, and despite his athletic ability, he struggled finishing at the rim. Among the 17 wing prospects evaluated for the 2011 NBA Draft, he was the second worst shooter and ranked 15th in offensive efficiency, shooting only 32 percent in catch-and-shoot and 28 percent on pull-ups.
Here is an excerpt from his DraftExpress scouting profile in 2010:
Despite his raw offensive game, Leonard has an excellent foundation to build on. His few bad habits are correctable and his extreme youth (he won’t turn 20 until late June) and work ethic should allow him to develop his skill set and provide direction to his value in the NBA while his rebounding and hustle help him see the floor early on in some capacity. Whatever team drafts him will need to manage their expectations of what he can offer early on offensively, but Leonard’s gym-rat nature and late-blooming status could accelerate his development if he lands in the right environment.
It’s safe to say that Kawhi has already exceeded those expectations.
In the 2011 NBA Draft Leonard was picked 15th overall by the Indiana Pacers and traded immediately for George Hill to the Spurs, in what has turned out to be a draft night coup. Hill is a good player, but Leonard is already just special and has the potential to be an absolute superstar. What a Spurs-y trade. Leonard was actually projected to go in the top 10 but fell a few slots during draft night. Imagine how different the world would be if that hadn’t happened.
The Spurs develop players unlike any other team in the NBA, or at least that’s what it feels like. How the Spurs knew they could turn Leonard into a good jump shooter immediately is beyond me, but with the help of the coaching staff, and especially their shooting coach Chip Engelland, Leonard improved his three-point percentage by 50.4 percent from his days at SDSU. That’s the best mark since 1999 for a rookie per Bill Barnwell of Grantland.com.
It’s not just shooting. In these Finals we’ve seen Kawhi put the ball on the floor more than ever, driving into the lane and making the right plays whether it be to finish at the rim or kick it out to the next guy. He’s a wonderful passer and playmaker and what you would come up with in a lab if you wanted to create a LeBron James stopper. Leonard has been going at LeBron on the offensive and defensive ends in a way unlike anyone ever before, and it’s been a thrill to watch them battle.
Kawhi Leonard is already a defensive star, and he’s improving rapidly on the other end. He can be a bit mechanical with his off the dribble game, ending up with tough contested midrange shots when he pulls up, but it’s clear Leonard will continue to get better.
You’ll never read a bad thing about Leonard. He’s a hard worker and a gym rat. A great character guy that would succeed on any team, but perhaps is the most fit to be a Spur. The Spurs’ organization values character, intelligence and humility unlike any other in the NBA , and Leonard certainly can tick all of those boxes. He’s amazing and the Gregg Popovich has already called him the future of the franchise.
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.
During Leonard’s time with the Spurs have made the finals twice and appeared in the conference finals every year. This year they were 54-12 with him in the lineup and 8-8 without him. Without Popovich resting players and Leonard breaking his hand, the Spurs might have been on pace to win 70 games, and Leonard is what makes it all work.
Kawhi has a legitimate shot to win Finals MVP right now and it would be crazy if he won it on Sunday, Jun. 15, for Father’s Day.
Whatever happens in the present, the future of the Spurs is in great hands. Weirdly huge alien hands, but great nonetheless.