On June 23, 2011, the Indiana Pacers selected a 19-year-old college sophomore, who had put up solid, but unspectacular numbers while in college. Several NBA draft pundits questioned the move, wondering if Indiana reached for a player with huge upside, but little else.
Later that night, the San Antonio Spurs traded for Kawhi Leonard and the questions surrounding the former San Diego State star instantly evaporated. Since coming into the league under the watch of Gregg Popovich and the golden touch of the Spurs, Leonard has blossomed into one of the most promising young players in the Association and — oh, by the way — he already has an NBA championship ring and a Finals MVP Trophy. At the age of 23.
In many ways, Kawhi Leonard fits the archetypal mold of a player in the Spurs organization. His ubiquitous, Eeyore-like demeanor even makes Tim Duncan look like a drama queen. On top of that, he has already established himself as one of the league’s elite defenders and his offensive game continues to emerge.
How promising does Leonard look? Enough for Popovich — a man who plays things about as close to the chest as you can — to speak up and say: “I think he’s going to be a star. And, as time goes on, he’ll be the face of the Spurs, I think.” And that was before Leonard had even stepped onto the court for an NBA game.
Now, we’re seeing Leonard’s potential come to fruition as an infusion of youth to complement San Antonio’s aging trio of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. And right along with Leonard’s rise up the NBA ranks, the Spurs have also undergone a transformation of their own, one that’s talked about a lot less.
In Game 7 of the 2005 NBA Finals against the Detroit Pistons, we saw the epitome of the old Spurs basketball — and it worked to perfection. Behind a stellar defensive performance, a solid performance from Duncan and some Ginobili magic in the fourth quarter, San Antonio out-uglied Detroit en route to an 81-74 victory.
That was the Spurs’ brand of basketball: Slow down the pace of the game, dump the ball to Tim Duncan or (pre-2004) David Robinson in the post and grind out the win. A routine the Spurs rinsed and repeated to winning four NBA titles from 1999-2007.
Many people call the Spurs “boring,” and their old style, while successful, was indeed pretty unexciting; however, there is no way that you can call the new Spurs’ offensive boring — it’s an absolute thing of beauty. Gone are those slow, clock-killing possessions: Instead, we see an offense driven by impeccable, lightning-fast ball movement complete that stretches a defense to its limits before completely snapping it half.
Throw in creative playmakers like Ginobili, Parker and Leonard along with the steady presence of Duncan and you have a popcorn-worthy offensive juggernaut. The one constant from the earlier days has been the abundance of snipers lurking behind the arc. Oh, those corner threes!
By their standards, San Antonio has gotten off to a rough start in 2014, beginning 3-3 while Leonard has battled an eye infection that has significantly limited his vision. Nevertheless, the heir to the franchise put on a show in San Antonio’s win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday, tying his career high with 26 points and snatching the ball from Chris Paul in crunch time. With one eye. It was a performance that, to me, signaled why the Spurs have been so high on Leonard as a competitor and as an elite player on both ends of the floor.
As Leonard has improved over the course of his career, so have the Spurs — adapting their extremely successful offense to keep up with the likes of Thunder, Mavericks and Warriors out west. And Leonard’s youth and athleticism forms the perfect centerpiece of the puzzle — adding a unique playmaking dimension and a glimpse of the organization’s future.
As the NBA season goes forward, take a moment to watch some Spurs basketball and Kawhi Leonard in action. They represent quality basketball at its finest and the power of forward-thinking innovative thinking in sports.
To ask Vihan Lakshman if he is actually a PR agent for Kawhi Leonard and simply posing as a Stanford student to get his client’s name out amongst all of the Warriors fans on campus, send him an email at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.