Kawhi Leonard: Reluctant Superstar

Chris Covatta

His metamorphosis from solid contributor to superstar has been agonizingly slow and frustrating for many. And while not completely there yet, there are those moments when he decides to dominate. Those are the moments that make it all worthwhile.

It's a common trope in literature and film. The villain forces the hero to watch as he destroys (or attempts to destroy) what the hero loves most. There are countless examples through the ages but one of my favorites is from an episode of The Simpsons. After Mr. Burns accidentally walks into a tree, he orders its acorns killed while the tree watches.

The education of Kawhi Leonard

On April 3rd against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Gregg Popovich used this form of torturous motivation in hopes of speeding Kawhi's progress as the playoffs approached. In a game that was anything but lost, Kawhi sat on the bench near Popovich for much of the second quarter and most of the third, forced to watch the destruction his absence on the floor causes for the Spurs. Speculation at the time centered around Leonard's early foul trouble and Popovich's desire to experiment with different lineups to see who could be most effective at slowing Kevin Durant. But as their 19-game winning streak slipped away, and the potential psychological lift from beating the Thunder on their home court faded, Leonard sat helplessly on the bench and watched.

Popovich later admitted to the "teaching moment," saying that he wanted Leonard to see how his team struggles when he's not there to contribute.

The metamorphosis continues

From the opening tip on Wednesday night in the Spurs close-out blow-out of the Trail Blazers, the aggressive Leonard was on display. He forced the issue early, calling for clear outs and pushing the ball up the court. In the 2nd quarter he led all scorers with nine points, going three for three beyond the arc. His penetrating drives in the 1st forced the Blazers to leave him open from long range in the 2nd, and he made them pay.

In the third he had a couple of steals that led to points, including a rather Jordan-esque slam that brought down the house.

Kawhi_dunk

Kawhi Leonard is the perfect Spur because for him it's all about the system. "He's a young kid, he wants to please," is how Gregg Popovich puts it. It's that devotion to the sytem that will likely prevent him from annually having his locker reserved at the All-Star game, but that doesn't bother him and certainly doesn't worry Popovich.

Leonard is never going to average 30 points a night. In fact, for all the talk he's received about his performance on Wednesday, his point total was matched by Danny Green. But with Kawhi, it's not the points that matters: it's how (and when) he scores.

Popovich spoke about Leonard's growth after the Spurs win on Wednesday. "He'll have some games like the last game (Game 4) where he'll be tentative for whatever reason. He falls back into deferring now and then to the older guys," he said. "But when he just plays freely and takes what comes... catch it and shoot it. Catch it and drive it. Don't think about it, don't try to make a great play, just play the game -- then we get a game out of him like this."

The challenge for the rest of the Spurs has been in trying to determine which version of Leonard they'll be playing alongside on any given night. Over the weekend, Tim Duncan spoke of the challenges in deciphering Leonard's game plan. "He knows what he wants to attack and how he wants to attack. We at times don't know when that is, but we're figuring it out."

However frustrating it has been for Spurs fans to watch Leonard's methodical march toward dominance, it must be double that for Tim Duncan. Tim seems ready to pass the baton to Leonard in the same manner David Robinson passed it to him fifteen years ago, but the youngster remains reluctant to take it. Duncan's only solace, I imagine, is that he's been through these confusing times before. In dealing with Leonard he can draw from his experience in trying to figure out what a wiry young Argentinian was thinking back in 2002 and 2003.

And as the games get bigger, the Spurs will continue to rely heavily on the aggressive Kawhi Leonard that was on display against Portland on Wednesday night. Aspirations for a fifth championship ring depend on a Leonard that doesn't defer. Will that happen? Who knows. But Popovich's final thoughts on Leonard should be music to Spurs fans ears. "It's becoming more and more this kind of game than a deferred kind of game," he said of Leonard.

Searching for signs in pre-game routines

I've written before that one of my favorite times at the AT&T Center is just after the National Anthem concludes and the players line up for introductions. Tim Duncan stands across from Kawhi Leonard and tries to get in his head. He shadow boxes and hops around from foot to foot while telling Leonard about the bad things he's gonna do to him. Leonard keeps his head down and stares silently at the court, not wanting to make eye contact. He's trying to concentrate on the game while Duncan is promising to throttle him if he'd just look up. There is so much symbolism in that brief exchange and the cameras never pick it up, which makes it even more important in my eyes.

On Wednesday night after the National Anthem, Duncan took his spot near the bench as per usual.  But this time Leonard wasn't there. For a brief instance it was almost sad to watch. Tim Duncan, greatest power forward of all time, alone, his pre-game routine in tatters. He looked around like a kid not knowing what to do.

But just before the lights went down, as Duncan was ready to race off to hang on the rim, Leonard emerged from the locker room and took his place in front of a broadly-smiling Duncan.

Perhaps it was Leonard's passive aggressive way of taking the baton. Perhaps it was a symbol of the little brother finally standing up to the big brother and proclaiming that this was his time, and he'd be making the rules from here on.

Or maybe it was Leonard psychologically telling Duncan, "I'm the man now, Timmy. Get on my back and let's ride," and standing behind those words by dominating the Blazers on both ends of the court.

It's even conceivable that Leonard was living out his own movie trope, playing the part of Nuke Laloosh to Duncan's Crash and announcing his presence with authority simply by not being present.

But knowing Kawhi, he probably just had to go to the bathroom.

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