It’s time for the Kawhi Leonard-Bruce Bowen comparisons to stop. In his NBA career, Bowen took almost 44% of his field goals from three and had a mere 5.5 field goals attempted per game. Those numbers don’t scream offensive talent by any means, compared to Kawhi who has a career 30% of his field goals from three and 10 field goals attempted per game. Popovich would never have talked about Bowen being the face of the Spurs’ franchise. On the defensive end, Bowen knew how to get in your head (or on it). Kawhi just makes the opposing ball handler sad. So who matches Kawhi’s game better? The answer: Reggie Lewis.
Reggie Lewis was surrounded by basketball talent throughout his childhood in Baltimore. In high school, he played with other future NBA players in Muggsy Bogues, David Wingate, and Reggie Williams. He proved himself as a talented player throughout his high school and collegiate careers, but as he was drafted 22nd by the Boston Celtics in the 1987-88 NBA season, and didn't earn much playing time. Over the years, Lewis slowly became a star for the Celtics. Just as Lewis was really starting to blossom in the NBA, he passed away from sudden cardiac arrest in the 1993 offseason.
If you want to see more on Lewis’ life, you should check out Jackie MacMullan’s article posted a few months ago. In this commentary, MacMullan talked about Lewis’ defense and demeanor on the court:
Most players weren't athletic enough to literally "hang" with Jordan. Lewis was one of the exceptions.
"He was a tough matchup," Jordan said. "He had those long arms that really bothered me.
"I was trying to be aggressive with him. I was trying to take advantage of his passive demeanor, but he didn't back down. He never relinquished his own aggressiveness.
"He shocked me a little bit."
As he so often did with young players, Jordan tried to verbally engage Lewis, yet Reggie wouldn't participate. He merely smiled and made a move to the basket.
"I saw it happen all the time," Shaw said. "Players tried to intimidate him, make it personal. But Reggie never said a word.
"He was a silent assassin."
MJ dismissed Reggie's initial block as an anomaly. When it happened again, this time on a pull-up jumper, Jordan became irked. The next time, he became concerned. And by the fourth time, on a lefty drive to the hoop, Jordan was irritated -- and somewhat spooked.
"His length confused me," Jordan conceded. "Every time I thought I had him beat, he'd recover and get up on me. When you have the skills to break someone down on defense and you can't, it makes you tentative offensively."
This isn't a case of a player being one way in public and another in private, either. He's quiet and no-nonsense in almost any setting, intensely dedicated to the game and disinterested in almost anything that doesn't involve the game.
After Leonard played a huge part in James' 7-for-21 shooting night in the Spurs' Game 3 win Tuesday, made four steals and grabbed 12 rebounds, his highlights played on a television inside his San Antonio home where he lives with his mother, Kim Robertson. As she sat there with Leonard's agent, Brian Elfus, reliving his big night by way of the recap, Leonard simply kept eating his dinner.
"Everybody else was watching the highlights, and he didn't lift up his head," Elfus said.
Dennis Robertson, Leonard's uncle, is the closest thing he has to a father figure since Kawhi's father, Mark, was killed at age 43 at a Compton, Calif., car wash in 2008. "To be quite honest with you, (the quiet nature) is a Kawhi thing," Robertson said. "His father was kind of low-key, but I don't think anyone is as low-key as Kawhi in our family."
Both Lewis and Leonard are business-like in their approach to the game. They are humble and confident at the same time. In two of their most memorable games, Lewis and Leonard brought their A-games to Michael Jordan and LeBron James respectively in their primes. Compare these two highlights:
Notice how Lewis is able to easily contest Jordan’s jumper, a shot that was infamous for being nearly impossible to block. Aside from his four blocks, Lewis held Jordan to 12-36 shooting and also finished with with 25 points, including a key three pointer to send the game into overtime.
Game 3 of the 2013 NBA Finals was one of the greatest defensive performances on LeBron that I have ever seen by an individual player. James was held to a mediocre 7-21 shooting in the game, and Leonard was able to contribute in all parts of the game, with 14 points, 12 rebounds, and four steals. My favorite part of the highlights is at 3:35, where LeBron cuts to the rim and should have an easy layup. Instead Leonard quickly recovers from staring at the ball and Splitter gives some great help defense, which forces James into a tough look. James probably creates an easy shot 99 out of 100 tries based off of a good cut like that, but the work Leonard, in particular, puts in there is something few players in the NBA can do.
In their first few years in the NBA, Lewis couldn't get too many minutes until Larry Bird was injured for the Celtics, and Kawhi didn't start until Gregg Popovich finally gave up on Richard Jefferson. Considered to be the new franchise player for his team, Lewis had to become the primary offensive option as the Celtics’ primary options started to fade-away into retirement. Similarly, Kawhi will have to fill in for as the Spurs’ main offensive piece as the Big Three retire over the next few years. Lewis was on the verge of becoming a star in the same way that Kawhi is right now.
On the defensive end, both Lewis and Leonard used their abnormally large wingspans and freakish athleticism to their advantage. They are both 6’7" and are quick enough to get by most big men, and strong enough to post up on shorter guards. Lewis used his 6’11" wingspan to swat shots away and make life difficult for the opposing players looking for an easy bucket at the rim. Kawhi uses his immense, 7’3" Plastic Man arms to make life as the opposing ball handler absolutely miserable.
Lewis' premature death kept him from growing into a truly dominant NBA player. Being overshadowed by the great 90s players like Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas, and even on his own team with Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale didn't seem to bother Lewis. Despite remaining relatively unknown by the common 90s person, Lewis was admired by the league's greatest, including Michael Jordan who said, "Reggie was on his way to being something really special..."
If it weren’t for his work in the playoffs a few months ago, Kawhi would still be one of the most hidden gems in the NBA. While he is still relatively unknown, Kawhi is finally starting to gain some notoriety from other players, bloggers, and even rappers, just as Lewis did after his huge performance against Michael Jordan.
The final game of Reggie Lewis’ career represents all that Kawhi Leonard can become in the near future. Lewis scored 10 points in the first three minutes of the game before collapsing to the floor, likely due to dizziness. Returning for a few minutes in the second half, Lewis dazzled the crowd for one last time on the offensive and defensive ends to finish with 17 points, two rebounds, one assist, and a block in a mere 10 minutes of action. Much like Kawhi, Lewis used his athleticism and length to bug the opposing offense not only in this game, but also consistently near the end of his short six-year career. He also had a notoriously quick first-step that he used to blow by defenders, which is where Kawhi should focus his efforts if he wishes to be considered a serious offensive threat.
In a recent interview with Grantland, Joe Dumars acknowledged Reggie Lewis’ prowess on the basketball court. Asked about the toughest player to guard other than Michael Jordan in his career, Dumars said:
He [Lewis] was long, athletic, smooth, he could raise up over you and shoot. He was a really good defender, too. He was a tough, tough cover. Man, he was a tough guy to guard. He was definitely the one, other than MJ, who was the toughest for me to figure out. He was so long, and you couldn’t really get physical with him, because he was so slim, and it always seemed like I was getting called for fouls. He was a great, great player.
Reggie Lewis represents the talent that Kawhi has, and he flourished under extended playing time. Lewis never got to showcase his full basketball potential. He definitely had the tools to do it all, tools that Kawhi also has and hopes to expand on during in his NBA career.