Kawhi Leonard was never meant to fill Tim Duncan’s giant shoes. But he gradually became the leader-in-waiting during Duncan’s final years. And now, the San Antonio Spurs are Leonard’s team.
There are no alpha males in the Spurs school of thought. But make no mistake about it: this is Kawhi Leonard’s team going forward.
Tim Duncan, the most selfless icon in sports history, preached the team-first philosophy that sowed the seeds for five championships over three decades and a record 17 successive seasons with at least 50 wins.
Duncan led like no leader before him.
“All Tim Duncan has to do is raise one of those arms, right or left, and he puts it on their shoulder, and it’s a warmth and a comfort they feel that allows them to become the best possible player they can be. He doesn’t wave a towel. He doesn’t give speeches. When he speaks it’s for a purpose,” Gregg Popovich said recently.
That’s the kind of leader Duncan was. He led on and off the court, created the environment that gave birth to co-leaders Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. And as Popovich so eloquently narrated, Duncan was always there for his teammates.
“(He) just came to work every day. Came early. Stayed late. Was there for every single person, from the top of the roster to the bottom of the roster because that’s who he was, in all those respects.”
Kawhi Leonard is nothing like Duncan.
He is not a vocal leader. He is not a leader of men. He’s not going to counsel younger players. Unlike Duncan, Leonard never wrote a social psychology paper in college. Leonard just loves to play basketball. And that’s all he intends to do.
Don’t judge a book by its cover. Leonard is not a nice guy.
During that play, Leonard showed that he wants to win at all costs, is ready to go that extra yard to win titles. The 25-year-old wants the ball in his hand in the clutch.
And those are all good attributes.
Duncan and Leonard have few similarities. Neither believes in extravagant celebrations. Neither is interested in magazine covers or million-dollar mansions.
But there’s one fundamental difference. Duncan, a major in psychology, is a social animal. Leonard is introverted. They’re not cut from the same cloth.
Pop reckons that Leonard needs to work on his social skills to thrive as a leader.
“We talk about the fact that he’s (Leonard) going to have to speak more – he’s going to have to. When these guys (Big 3) are gone, what’s he going to do? Is he going to play in a phone booth all by himself and not talk to anybody? It’s a big deal. He has become more social. But he’s going to have to become more social geometrically compared to what he is now.”
Or does he? Leonard won’t be the first loner to lead a team. Kobe Bryant hesitated to make friends in the locker room. Leonard comes across a little anti-social, too. Reggie Miller buys into the comparison. Pop wants Bryant to mentor the Spurs’ youngest star.
Leonard’s metamorphosis isn’t complete. Popovich summed it up the best when he said:
“Kawhi hasn’t been as exposed to the world as Timmy was (as a young player).”
Duncan, who entered the league as a No. 1 pick, was expected to dominate the sport. But Leonard’s path has been different. He has already overachieved.
In San Diego, Leonard was 25 percent 3-point shooter with a broken jumper. Five years later, he’s making 45 percent of his shots from deep as the third-best long range shooter in the league.
Only players with impeccable work ethic make such a leap.
If there’s a basketball glossary, the term “hustle” must have Leonard’s photo besides it. Leonard has grabbed more big offensive rebounds and pulled off more late game defensive plays than any other player in recent memory.
At 25, he’s already a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, one-time Finals MVP and one-time NBA champion. And the scary part is that Leonard is yet to enter his prime.
After bidding Duncan goodbye, Pop subtly questioned Leonard’s leadership gene.
“Who’s gonna step up and be that quiet leader that everybody responds to and respects and feeds off of? Not a lot of people can handle that.”
Leonard, the gym rat, is driven by his work ethic. And he realizes that it’s impossible to replicate Duncan’s leadership because he’s a completely different person.
“I’m going to do the best I can (as a leader). But it’s just hard, because guys don’t really look at me first to lead the team. They look to Tony, Tim and Manu. I’m trying to see what way I could lead…so when the opportunity comes it won’t just hit me in the face,” Leonard said back in January.
Leonard knows that he has been primed for the leadership role for several years. And that’s precisely why the added responsibility “won’t just hit him in the face” when the new era begins this October.
We must forget everything Leonard has done until this point. For the first time, he will start a new season without the team’s defensive anchor and spiritual leader.
And now, we’ll know what Kawhi Leonard is truly made up of.