The Spurs' Kawhi Leonard's hustle already proving out
Published: April 11, 2012
The San Antonio Spurs capped off their Easter Sunday with a convincing 114-104 victory over the Utah Jazz. Paced by the trio of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan, San Antonio secured its 11th straight win maintaining a slight lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder for the top spot in the Western Conference. Along with their veteran core, recent additions like Stephen Jackson, Boris Diaw, and Patty Mills have propelled the Spurs to the top of the West, but for many hoops purists it is their defensive-minded rookie forward who holds the most promise for the future.
After spending two seasons at San Diego State University, Kawhi Leonard was drafted by the Indiana Pacers with the 15th pick of the 2011 NBA draft. Upon hearing his name announced, the young Aztec embraced his family, donned a Pacers cap, and took the draft stage to shake hands with Commissioner David Stern. Words like "strength" and "relentless" hung in the air, but before the night was over Leonard became a Spur, acquired by San Antonio for Head Coach Gregg Popovich's self-proclaimed favorite player George Hill.
For a franchise that recently retired Bruce Bowen's number 12 jersey to the AT&T Center rafters, Kawhi Leonard is a prototypical Spur. Despite his explosiveness on the court, he remains equally humble and calm off it, and perhaps the team's hardest worker. Following the Richard Jefferson trade, Leonard has flourished in the starting line-up making contributions on the boards and in the scoring column while often guarding the opposing team's best perimeter player. Along with Danny Green, he has injected San Antonio's first unit with youth, athleticism, and a quiet confidence that have been absent in recent campaigns.
With modest averages of 8 points and 5 rebounds per contest, Leonard is unlikely to garner many Rookie of the Year votes outside of Bexar County. Although Kyrie Irving, Isaiah Thomas, and Klay Thompson have put up more impressive numbers, they have done so for non-contending team like the Cleveland Cavaliers, Sacramento Kings, and Golden State Warriors. As the starting small-forward of one of the NBA premier squads, Leonard deserves some consideration but, as Bowen himself can likely attest, hustle is often hard to quantify.
When contemplating Kawhi, it always comes back to the hands, deemed the largest in his draft class. Prior to the Spurs recent 128-103 drubbing of the New Orleans Hornets, San Antonio's collective chemistry was on full display. During pre-game warm-ups there was DeJuan Blair, playfully chasing Green and Gary Neal around the perimeter harassing each jumper with a bump and a chuckle. In the paint, Jackson and Duncan took turns measuring their mitts against Kawhi's with exaggerated awe, while newcomer Mills sank jumpers from the corner with a smile on his face. It's been five years since the Spurs brought an NBA championship to San Antonio and, although understated, these moments do matter. Just ask Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic.