Leonard takes over fourth quarter in Spurs win

All the details regarding the Spurs' free-agent signings over the last week have given us a glimpse of what this team will presumably look like come the new season. And that "look" will consist of almost nobody on the Summer League roster you're seeing now with the exception, obviously, of Kawhi Leonard. Even at this point, given the recent re-signing of Patty Mills and addition of Nando de Colo, along with an already crowded backcourt, it is not certain Cory Joseph and Marcus Denmon will see significant time on the big team in 2012-13.

But for now it's time for the youth of this team to get some time on the court together for future seasons, whenever those might come along.

The Spurs opened their Summer League with an 82-76 win over the Atlanta Hawks, prompting Danny Ferry to immediately regret his recent career-path change. Maybe. Leonard led the way for San Antonio with a 23-point performance, but it wasn't until the fourth quarter that we saw him settle in.

After a quiet, inconspicuous start to the game, Leonard took over the game when it was in the balance. His crossover split of the double team out of the pick and roll for the "And 1" halfway through the fourth quarter is something that should have Spurs fans salivating. It's an element he must add to his game sooner rather than later if San Antonio is to contend. Aside from some of the moves he showed that had fans at Cox Pavilion going wild (by Summer League standards, at least), it was his all-around game that was most prominently on display. His defense, rebounding and overall awareness were too much for every player on the court. But we knew what he brought to the table defensively and on the boards. Tonight it was his developing offensive game that had people wanting more.

For now, however, it's a learning process.

"It's a big difference. I was standing out there (last season) spotting up, and now I'm learning to shoot off the dribble, coming off ball-screens ... just trying to get my ball-handling better," Leonard said. "I also have to learn how to pass. I've just been working on all that during the offseason."

Getting this kind of work in is invaluable to a young guy like Kawhi. Without the normal chance to improve with his teammates and coaches during the lockout last season, he was forced to learn on the fly in the midst of a grueling NBA season. But Leonard found his niche very quickly, considering the circumstances, and became entrenched as the starting small forward in Gregg Popovich's lineup. As valuable as the summer experience is to Kawhi, it's infinitely more important for Cory Joseph, at least at a personal level.

Joseph bounced back and forth from the Austin Toros last year, finding it difficult to crack the 13-man roster as a mainstay, especially following the Mills acquisition. This Summer League experience is crucial for a kid trying to further his NBA career beyond the D-League.

"Cory's a great player. He got sent down to the D-League and got a little discouraged, but I told him to just play hard. You've got to keep grinding to stay at the top," said Eric Dawson, a teammate of Joseph's in Austin last year who registered a double-double with 12 points and 13 boards tonight. "That's what he did, and tonight it showed. He's getting reps up in the summer, which everybody needs. He stayed humble ... it's just great playing with him."

While it is only Summer League, Joseph was noticeably more aggressive than what we had the chance to see in San Antonio last season. After overcoming a bit of sloppy play early on he really looked to be in control. His speed has always been a plus to his game, but it's the jumper that needs consistency. Tonight it was falling, as the former Longhorn dropped 18 points on 7-for-11 shooting to go along with five rebounds and four assists. It was an impressive performance in front of a very important figure in the Spurs organization.

As Popovich sat high in the stands, as out of the way as someone of his reputation can be, Jacque Vaughn took the reins for his first game as an NBA head coach. And after having learned under one of the game's great coaches this is an opportunity he is relishing.

"It's been unbelievable. I got the chance to play for (Popovich), saw how good he is, and then also to be in meetings with him to see how he thinks, his approach," Vaughn said. "He's been gracious by letting me be involved in that. It's just a special situation for me."

As for the best part of this whole experience for the players and coaches, well, that was an easy answer.

"It's a chance to continue to play the game of basketball for a living. Are you kidding me?"

The Spurs are off tomorrow before a tilt with the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday.

Jacque Vaughn Audio

Kawhi Leonard Audio

James Anderson Audio

Eric Dawson Audio

Follow along on Twitter: @mtynan_PtR

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