In this era of self-promotion, Kawhi Leonard is the rare superstar that has no desire to steal the spotlight. He lets other athletes make headlines through their media conversations, tweets, and flashy outfits, while he simply steps onto the court each night and produces. This fascination with the glamorous is the reason the whole basketball world is talking about the Warriors, and yet the Spurs are on the verge of winning 68 games, a franchise record.
When it comes to basketball, Leonard does whatever he can to improve, and ignores everything else. When he was in high school, he focused on sneaking into the gym at night rather than college scholarships. When he got into the gym, he didn’t just get shots up for fun. He trained. He worked. Instead of paying attention to others, Leonard set his sights on beating himself every day.
Leonard continued to develop throughout his high school career in the Los Angeles area. By the time his senior season came around, Division I programs across California began to take notice. Rather than playing in the spotlight at a power conference school, Leonard chose to attend San Diego State, where he knew he could thrive.
He continued his old ways as an Aztec, beginning his workouts at 6:30 a.m. despite the gym being closed. As expected, he found his way in. As a sophomore, Kawhi led San Diego State to a 34-3 record and a Sweet 16 appearance.
“I’ve never had anyone, ever, who was consumed with being the best they could possibly be like Kawhi,” San Diego State head coach Steve Fisher said. “You have a lot [of players] that will talk a good game. But he doesn’t want to talk about what he’s doing. He just wants to do it.”
Leonard has earned the praise of Gregg Popovich, which is noteworthy because Pop almost never shows his satisfaction. After Kawhi’s huge performance in a win against Golden State last April, Pop was complimentary.
“He stole it from Curry the other night, just took it from him and went down and dunked it, and his expression did not change. He didn’t raise his fist or look cool to the crowd or do any of this stupid-ass stuff. He didn’t do a thing. He just goes in the other direction, like he’s bored to death. I love that about him.”
Without Leonard, the Spurs might be panting their way to the fourth seed in the West. On a roster of 15, he is one of six players below 30 years of age. Over half of San Antonio’s team is at least 33, and two of the top rotation players (Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili) are at least 38.
Kyle Anderson, 22, is the Spurs’ youngest player. But he plays like another old guy, earning the nickname “Slow Mo.” In November, 39-year-old Duncan even said that he can beat Anderson in a foot race. The roster is skilled and has a high basketball IQ, but athleticism is at a premium.
This is why Leonard, one of the most freakish athletes in the league, is so critical for San Antonio. He is 24, standing 6’7” with a 7’3” wingspan. He possesses lateral quickness, jumping ability, and a high top speed. Kawhi provides balance to the Spurs. After sprinkling in energetic role players like Danny Green and Patty Mills, the result is a 61-12 record.
San Antonio’s team success has brought individual recognition for Kawhi; he may repeat as Defensive Player of the Year, and he is an MVP candidate. He is averaging 21 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.5 assists in his fifth season, which do not seem like MVP numbers upon first glance. His efficiency is what brings him to the elite rankings. He is shooting 51% from the field, 46% from three-point range, and 88% from the free-throw line.
Leonard is careful with the ball, averaging only 1.5 turnovers per game. He takes the ball away from other teams much more frequently, with 1.8 steals and 1 block per game. Kawhi’s efficiency and lack of mistakes derive from a strong sense of discipline and a keen attention to detail.
Kawhi is a defender that causes opposing offenses to alter their game plans for him. He hounds the best scorer on the other team. If he hears trash talk, he ignores it. He plays the game and deems all distractions irrelevant.
Despite his new spotlight and lucrative contract (5-years, $95 million), Leonard has refused to change his humble ways. He still drives a 1997 Chevy Tahoe, which he began driving in high school. During his first few years in the league, he shared a home with his mother. When he walks into the AT&T Center on game nights, he usually wears jeans and a sweatshirt. He sports Jordan apparel because he is an endorsed athlete with the brand.
When he was 16, Leonard’s father was shot and killed at his car wash in Compton, CA. Mark Leonard was a big influence on his son and “just wanted me to enjoy the game and have fun,” said Kawhi. It may not appear that Kawhi is having a blast on the court because of his calm demeanor, but he loves the game more than anything. And it’s a good thing, because he will be a commanding presence in the NBA for many years.
Leonard will continue to think of himself as just a kid from Moreno Valley, and he will continue to improve. Perhaps the world will even see him smile again if his team dethrones the Warriors and brings San Antonio another championship.
photo via llananba