by Arthur Blackwell
At just the age of 22 years, Kawhi Leonard has already established himself as the ultimate utility man.
Players that can defend, rebound, run the floor, dribble, and shoot from the perimeter are seldom seen in the NBA. With so many "specialists", players tend to focus more on their strengths rather than weaknesses. When trying to secure a role in today’s game, showcasing what you’re great at makes sense, rather than trying to sell teams on your ability to improve your shortcomings.
Then there is Kawhi Leonard.
Despite leading his high school team to a top 10 national rank, and winning the Mr. California award (state’s best senior player), Kawhi still went under the radar for the most part and wasn’t a nationally heralded prospect. He wasn’t sought after because he was deemed a "tweener", between the Small-Forward and Power-Forward positions.
Leonard didn’t begin playing organized basketball in high school until his sophomore year. Furthermore, he exhibited some qualities of a classic twiner; too small to play in the post in college yet not a consistent enough ball handler or perimeter shooter for the wing. Regardless, he did not let this discourage him.
He chose San Diego State because they were one of the first schools to recruit him. His mother spoke about how he made his mind up early;
"When he decided to go to San Diego State, me and him had a conversation because I told him he might want to wait and see who else is interested," Leonard’s mother, Kim Robertson, said. "He told me, ‘Mom, no, I don’t want to go to those other schools. They came too late.’ He didn’t care about the big schools. He just wanted somewhere that he could play."
He also spoke about San Diego State showing up first to the Leonard sweepstakes, Leonard said: "If I waited it out, I probably would have got them. But I wanted to go with who loved me first." And with that he did not disappoint. He exceeded expectations his freshman year by averaging a near double double, and leading his team to the NCAA tournament. In his sophomore year he improved on those statistics and led his team to the NCAA tournament again.
Despite the great accomplishments, including being named a consensus 2nd team All-American, he was given a late first round draft grade. However, the signs were already on the clear about how hard this man worked to maximize his potential. Legendary basketball coach Steve Fisher spoke about how Leonard used lamps for lighting just so he could get in the gym and get shots up,
"Nobody is in the gym more than Kawhi. No one’s worked harder on his shot than Kawhi. Our AD call me up a couple weeks ago when I was gone. He said, ‘Coach, we’ve got an issue with Kawhi in the arena. Event management called and the lights are not on, and Kawhi’s in the arena for two straight days at 6:30 in the morning. And he brought two lamps from home, and he put them up in the arena and shot."
This is just one example of the work ethic that has guided Leonard throughout his career.
Fast forward to present day, and everything that has been noted about Kawhi has proven to be true. His work ethic and ability to be coached has led Greg Popovich to call him "The Future of the Spurs". Just this season at the age of 22, among small forwards, Leonard is 12th in win-above-replacement rating, 6th in defensive-real-plus-minus rating and 5th in Player- efficiency-rating (PER). He was top 10 in the entire NBA in steals and 7th in field goal percentage. He was also named to the All NBA Defensive 2nd team.
His attitude and laid back approach makes Kawhi Leonard ‘boring’, because he gives you so little in the media, and isn’t a emotional player. Dwyane Wade even said after their epic series last year, that he doesn’t even know what Leonard sounds like, because he never talks.
Although it will be the Spurs Big 3′ of Ginobili, Parker and Duncan vs the Heat’s Big 3 of Lebron, Wade and Bosh, Kawhi Leonard will have a large impact on the outcome of the finals. He will draw a lot of assignments on Wade and Lebron and his defense could be the difference in yet another epic series.
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